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Our Modern Chieftain King

The biblical King David was a poet, musician, and conqueror, but we remember him primarily as a warrior. Indeed, all of David’s most notable exploits were martial: his duel with Goliath, his conquest of Jerusalem, his enlargement of the Kingdom of Israel — he even enabled his affair with Bathsheba by sending her husband, Uriah, to die at the front lines of his army.

David was a model chieftain-king, relying almost exclusively on military might to further his policies.

Today, we are witnessing the “chieftainization” of the American presidency.

President Donald Trump has touted a number of civilian policy initiatives, most notably his travel ban and healthcare reform proposals. But more often, we see Trump associating himself with military-related endeavors. The U.S. missile strike in Syria and MOAB bombing of an ISIS base in Afghanistan are both results of Trump granting more operational autonomy to American generals. In Yemen and Somalia, Trump has allowed increased military activity. He has also authorized defense secretary and retired general James Mattis to set troop numbers in Afghanistan. Trump has presented his plan for a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia as a means of invigorating the defense industry. These maneuvers, along with the deployment of an additional aircraft carrier near North Korea and an arms deal with Taiwan, indicate a military threat implicit in his recent statement that American patience with the North Korean regime “is over.”

Trump has reserved his highest praise most often for military leaders, more than once extolling General Douglas MacArthur (who, in the Korean War, supported nuclear strikes against North Korea and an invasion of China).

Trump seems to have embraced his mandate as commander-in-chief at the expense of his other two constitutional roles: chief executive and chief diplomat.

At the former, Trump is all but impotent. Administration officials have given contradicting statements regarding Trump’s policies: with respect to moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley expressed support, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump would take a “deliberative” approach based on the wishes of Middle Eastern countries, and Vice President Mike Pence asserted Trump was “seriously considering” it. As of yet, nothing has changed.

Another indication of Trump’s disconnect with his administration is his constant conflict with it. He has twice been at odds with Attorney General Jeff Sessions; once for recusing himself from an ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia and another for Sessions’ implementation of Trump’s travel ban. In the meantime, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has appointed a special investigator (Robert Mueller, for whom Trump has expressed distrust) to handle the aforementioned investigation. Trump has already fired two top federal appointees -– National Security Advisor Mike Flynn and FBI Director James Comey (for whom he had particularly strong criticism). Blaming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer for his bad press, Trump excluded Spicer (a religious Catholic) from his entourage to the Vatican.

As for his role as chief diplomat, Trump has delegated much of his power to top officials like Pence and Tillerson. The formula has usually been that these officials carry out the substantive side of diplomacy — traveling abroad, representing the U.S. in negotiations, etc. — while Trump periodically gives public statements that contradict them. Tillerson has been trying to ease disagreements between America’s Arab partners, particularly now with the Qatar crisis, which he seeks to “de-escalate.” Yet Trump called out Qatar for financing terrorism during his visit to Riyadh, a move that will be likely to strain tensions.

Although Trump will not become David, he is chieftainizing the presidency by basing his agenda-setting capacity on his role as supreme commander of the armed forces. So far, this has paralyzed administration officials on civilian and diplomatic matters. But if things do not change, this situation may engender executive fragmentation, with each official pursuing his or her own policies. Another consequence of this approach will likely be an injection of military thinking into the largely civilian-oriented U.S. public policy.

All this has consequences for American politics. Lower transparency and accountability are two of them; as executive power becomes more fragmented, lower-profile officials will carry out traditionally presidential duties and it will be harder to hold any one official in account. The 18th century Swiss political theorist Jean-Louis de Lolme has warned us of this prospect: “the executive power is more easily confined when it is one.”

A perhaps even more concerning outcome is a coup d’esprit by American generals, who will shed their historic apolitical role and take on increasing policymaking capacities.

I am willing to admit that this chieftainization may be good for America. Nonetheless, I am more worried that it threatens the civilian competence, military professionalism, and unified executive that have brought America so far.

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