Mr. President, who's really in charge of our defense?

Mr. President, who's really in charge of our defense?
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Throughout the 1930s, the nation’s senior military leaders recoiled at the thought of fighting another costly war in Europe. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies toward Germany and Japan worried them. Senior military leaders, Army generals in particular, privately argued for hemispheric defense; the defense of America’s land borders and its coastal waters.

Today, President TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE confronts FDR’s strategic dilemma in reverse. Suppressing Arab and Afghan insurgents — opponents without armies, air forces, air defenses or navies — for 17 years has led the nation’s senior military leaders to order air strikes, patrols, raids and special action missions from the secure comfort of plush headquarters.

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Virtually, no one in the senior ranks has the experience to prepare him or her for war with the Russian or Chinese armed forces, let alone defending Southern border with Mexico from the lawlessness and violence sweeping into America. Moreover, both tasks involve significant change. Change in any form is something senior military leader always dislike.

Retired Gen. Colin Powell — the former secretary of State who knew there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, but told the U.N. the WMD was there anyway — said, "I see no threat requiring this kind of deployment." And one of Powell’s successors, Retired Gen. Martin Dempsey — an architect of the Iraqi Army that melted away in front of ISIS — said the border security mission was a "wasteful deployment of over-stretched Soldiers and Marines."

Make no mistake, when retired Army four stars attack the president in the Washington Post, it’s no accident. They are speaking on behalf of their disgruntled four-star colleagues in the Pentagon.

Yet, where were these generals when the Bush administration’s deeply flawed and morally bankrupt policies produced strategic disaster in Afghanistan and Iraq? Clearly, the willingness of these and other senior military leaders to stand up to their political masters when fundamentally wrong courses of action were ordered was noticeably lacking. Whether one agreed with the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or not, the truth is that that the blame for the subsequent cruelty, corruption and incompetence during the occupation of Iraq lies as much with the generals as it does with the policymakers in the Bush and Obama administrations.

Policies determine focus, but execution — effective implementation of policy — is what creates success or failure in action. Execution is the responsibility of senior military leaders.

In his landmark book, “A Bright Shining Lie” Neil Sheehan wrote, “20 years after the end of WW II, the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the American Armed Forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination and moral and intellectual insensitivity.” According to Sheehan, were the personality traits that more than any other single factor, led otherwise intelligent officers to behave stupidly in Vietnam.

How chief executives deal with the aforementioned traits in uniform is instructive. Many end up like big-league baseball teams trying to find the right manager. Some, like LBJ and “Dubya” just work with the generals they have. Others like Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt demanded better generals and found them. 

In 1899, after Spain surrendered the Philippines, President McKinley decided Americans had a Christian duty to occupy the Philippines. By 1902, McKinley was dead and Philippine resistance to American occupation had resulted in the death of at least 200,000 Filipinos and 6,000 American Soldiers. Teddy Roosevelt, the new president, was desperate to end the war. 

When secret information concerning the mistreatment of the Philippine civilian population appeared in the Washington Post and in the hands of senior Senators in the Democratic Party, Teddy Roosevelt was sure that Lt. Gen. Nelson Miles, Commander of the U.S. Army was the source. Miles was violently opposed to Teddy Roosevelt’s reform plans for the U.S. Army. When he testified on the Hill against his reform plans, Miles said he would rather resign than submit to the “despotism from the White House.” 

Teddy Roosevelt also knew that Miles harbored presidential ambitions, but he was less concerned with Miles’ political aspirations than with Miles’ unprofessional conduct. In a public showdown that surprised everyone in Washington, Teddy Roosevelt told Miles, “I will have no criticism of my Administration from you, or any other officer in the Army. Your conduct is worthy of censure, sir.”

Miles retired and sought the Democratic nomination for president — he lost. Congress enacted Teddy Roosevelt’s Army reforms and in 1906, he appointed a brigadier general named James Franklin Bell as the U.S. Army’s first chief of staff. The Army changed. Bell was the first officer in 45 years to lead the Army who had not fought in the Civil War. 

Mr. President, the lesson of history is clear. If the senior military leaders don’t believe in the assigned border mission, don’t force them to do it. Do what Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt did: replace them with new officers who will do the job. Like Gen. Miles, the departing senior military leaders can always run for office, or look for jobs with the next Democratic administration. 

Retired U.S. Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor, Ph.D., was a combat veteran and the author of five books. His latest is Margin of Victory.