AMAC Exclusive – By Tom Doniphon
After numerous foreign policy debacles throughout the first two years of the Biden presidency, including the collapse of Afghanistan, a botched submarine deal, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Republicans will finally have a chance to force Biden officials to answer tough questions when they retake power in January. But as the GOP works to hold the administration accountable for their failures, members of Congress will also have an opportunity to expose the insubordination and dangerous abuses of power taking place within the foreign policy establishment – a problem not limited to just the Biden presidency.
Several times since he took office, Biden has made clear statements about U.S. foreign policy, only to have a spokesperson directly contradict him days or even hours later. In September, for example, Biden made waves in the foreign policy world when he guaranteed U.S. forces would defend the island of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. “Yes,” the President told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley, the United States would militarily defend the island “if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”
Initially, his statements came as a shock: since 1979, U.S. policy has been to recognize Taiwan as part of China. This statement from the U.S. President appeared to shrug off decades of long-standing policy on one of the world’s most contentious geopolitical issues.
Yet almost immediately, a clarification came forward. According to the White House, official policy had not changed, and the U.S. would continue to maintain strategic ambiguity on the question of coming to the defense of Taiwan.
Unfortunately, this was far from the first time a major presidential flub and rapid “correction” from the president’s staff has occurred during the Biden administration. Following the chaotic evacuation of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Biden said that no one had advised him to keep a few thousand troops in the country – only to have top military officials say days later that they had indeed advised the president to pursue just such a policy. In March, Biden said very clearly in a speech that Russian President Vladimir Putin should “not be allowed to remain in office.” Hours later, White House communications staff contradicted Biden, saying that Biden was “not discussing regime change.” In this case, Biden doubled down by saying that he was “not walking anything back” with regard to the comment, making clear that top U.S. officials are willing to knowingly and directly contradict the President of the United States with absolutely no consequences.
Article II Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution vests the president with the powers of Commander in Chief of the Army and the Navy and makes him the nation’s Chief Diplomat, with the power to negotiate with foreign governments. When public officials immediately correct the President after he makes statements of policy, it begs the question: who exactly is in charge U.S. foreign policy?
During the Trump administration, the subversion and corruption within the foreign policy establishment was even more egregious. Take, for example, President Trump’s attempts to extricate the United States from military involvement in Syria. In response to this strategic objective, Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis refused to carry out his boss’s orders and eventually resigned his position at the Pentagon with a public letter airing out his disagreements. His successors and a host of other hidden hands at the Pentagon likewise appear to have resisted Trump’s efforts to get the United States out of Syria.
Mattis wasn’t the only general to clash with President Trump. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, resisted President Trump’s direction to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to restore order to America’s streets during the riots that gripped the nation during the summer of 2020—an action fully within Trump’s authority as president. Milley also reportedly considered resignation after marching through Lafayette Square with President Trump after it had been cleared of rioters. But Milley didn’t end up submitting his resignation letter. “F*** that s***, I’ll just fight him,” he reportedly told his staff, as he stayed in his position to deliberately sabotage the elected president’s objectives from within.
While the feuds with various generals serving in the Trump administration were public, shocking, and vindictive, the executive branch’s loss of control over the military didn’t begin under President Trump.
A major theme of Barack Obama’s political campaigns was a pledge to bring home U.S. soldiers from the conflicts in the Middle East. As we know, he was unable to do so.
The merits of the policies in these examples aside, it is fundamental to our republican system of self-government that elected officials have the ultimate say over America’s foreign policy decisions. The Constitution vests the president and Congress with diplomacy and decision making—not unelected generals and obscure “officials” in the Pentagon. When the foreign policy establishment operates outside of political control, they become in effect another branch of government that is not accountable to voters.
Indeed, a military “independent of and superior to Civil power” was one of the very grievances America’s Founders cited against the British in the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution went to great lengths to subject the military to political control—even going so far as to forbid a permanent standing army and requiring Congress to vote frequently on military expenditures, limiting appropriations to a maximum of two years ahead. In the Founders’ view, elections—or the people’s ability to remove officials from office through the ballot box—introduced both accountability and oversight to our political system. Representative government maintained by regular elections was therefore the mechanism for American citizens to express the “consent of the governed.”
The new Republican House of Representatives should make every effort to reassert political control over the Department of Defense through both their investigative powers and control over the purse strings. When the American people vote and nothing changes, it represents a breakdown of our constitutional system.
The House Republican majority should begin by investigating acts of insubordination conducted by various generals and Pentagon officials during the Trump administration, beginning with General Milley. As Senate Republicans also have the power to block confirmation of top officials to the Department of Defense, they must make certain that each nominee they confirm will commit to following the instructions of the president. Congress also must reclaim its sole power to declare war, as set forth in the Constitution—a power which has not been invoked since 1942, even as the United States remains engaged in military conflicts across the globe.
All of these are just small steps to reign in the independent bureaucracy at the Pentagon, which will ultimately be vital to restoring the American system of republican self-government.
Tom Doniphon is the pen name of a former official in the Trump Administration.
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