When Hell Freezes Over—Will Generals (and Admirals) Stop Global Warming and Bring Peace and Human Rights to the Trump White House?

12 December 2016, 0828 EST

It now looks like the candidate who boasted that he knew more than the generals will be a President who appoints them and asks their advice. There has been considerable criticism of this from those concerned about a concentration of civilian power in the hands of former military brass. This is well-reasoned, because a pipeline from the Pentagon to the White House potentially gives too much civilian authority to the military and narrows the lens through which policy is made. We ought to look critically at the institutional consequences of appointing flag officers to cabinet office or key White House staff. While we are at it, we ought to be just as thoughtful when we consider the impact of appointing so many bankers, lawyers, wealthy, whites, men, and campaign donors.  Whenever you limit the hands into which power is given, the expression of that power will reflect the perspective of those within those limits.

At the same time, we ought to consider the strengths that appointees bring, both strengths that they possess as individuals and that they may have learned from the institutions they have served. Without commenting on the merits of President-elect Trump’s appointees, I will offer three issues on which former military officers (as well as active officers in military service) may well bring a humanitarian perspective to the Trump administration that it would otherwise lack.

  1. The Military Believes in Climate Change—and in Fighting It.

Unlike much of our polity, the military is not post-factual. Military leaders are empiricists. They plan based on facts and probability, and they conduct after-action analyses of major operations based on investigation of what happened. None of this is done perfectly or without bias, but the military starts with facts and bases plans, analyses, and action on those facts.

And our fact-based military has decided that climate change is a real, dangerous threat that demands comprehensive, strategically planned response.  One response the military is planning is climate war–war precipitated by climate change, rising water, weather crises, and resource scarcity. The Pentagon has decided that climate change is real enough that the turmoil it will cause will start wars that the U.S. will be drawn into fighting.

The military is also concerned that climate change will damage or destroy bases vulnerable to these climate-induced threats. For those reasons, not only does the military have plans to fight in climate change-caused wars. The military itself is going to war against climate change by going green, dramatically changing how it uses energy to reduce climate impact and its energy footprint.

So those of us concerned about the President-elect’s views on the environment and his appointments to positions with climate policy responsibility should feel reassured that military officers are likely to tell the President that climate change is so real a threat that the Pentagon is fighting a figurative war against global warming–and planning to fight shooting wars caused by global warming.

  1. The Military will likely Restrain Reckless War and Provocative Threats.

There are no pacifists in the Pentagon to be sure. But the military has suffered grievously at the hands of reckless war-making decisions by political officials over the last 16 years. The military was thrust into large scale invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and more limited strikes in Libya, that were poorly thought out by civilian leadership.  This forced the military to try to deliver on some rather grandiloquent policy pronouncements, and clean up geopolitical chaos, caused by those decisions. Remember “the axis of evil”, “bring it on”, “wanted dead or alive”, the Iraq War supported by “slam dunk” evidence and in which victory would be “a cakewalk”, “bringing democracy and stability to the Middle East,” and “we came, we saw, he died (about Gaddafi in Libya)?” The politicos who thought these things up are comfortably retired or enjoying their perches as pundits and professors (where they often promote still more military intervention). But the military is still fighting wars throughout the Middle East because of the decisions and policies which lay beneath these sound bites.

There were enormous errors in judgment and foresight in all the decisions to go to war in the greater Middle East and South Asia. Because of this, the military was burdened with responsibility for tasks that were doomed from the start, such as long term occupation, policing sectarian strife, replacing national government, and detention—all of which hardened resentment of U.S. intervention and turned Iraq and Afghanistan into incubators for terrorism and insurgency. Servicemen and women, and their families, paid a terrible price for these tragic mistakes.

To be sure, many highly ranked officers, including some appointed by the President-elect, hold very provocative views about conflict in the Middle East. But overall, President Trump is likely to be working with an officer corps who will bring hard earned skepticism and critical analysis to policies, plans, statements, (and tweets) that thrust the military into wars of quagmire, long term nation building responsibilities, multiple deployments, physical or mental casualties, and loss of life. The strongest voice for restraint in war (and in war-provoking language) will likely be from a military forced to fight too many wars by political decision-makers who did not think hard enough about what would happen after these wars started.

  1. Military Officers are Likely to be the Leading Human Rights Proponents in the Trump Administration.

Candidate Trump’s campaign promises included war crimes under U.S. and international law—torture, killing civilian relatives of terror suspects, and confiscation of oil and natural resources from other countries. His threats to impose a ban on Muslim immigrants and force Muslim citizens to register would violate the Constitution’s clauses protecting religious freedom and equal protection under the law.  Many retired military officers have already spoken out sharply against these threatened acts, properly observing that they are not just illegal, but inhumane violations of U.S. national values and conscience that would cause suffering to innocent people and hinder our conflict against our enemies by fueling propaganda campaigns portraying the U.S. as hypocritical in its promotion of human rights.

Respect for the law of war and the Constitution runs deep in the military culture, and military lawyers are among the most expert in these fields. There is pragmatism as well as principle involved, as the military was badly hurt by the fallout of the torture revelations during the Bush administration. Many high ranking military officials, civilian and uniformed, resisted torture, and the counterinsurgency guidance authored by Gen. David Petraeus emphasized the tactical wisdom of complying with law of war principles and fighting in as humane a way as war can be fought. Given what happened during the Bush administration, when torture and inhumane detention damaged the military’s reputation and recruited tens of thousands of enemies, it is hard to imagine that military officers serving a Trump administration would not act to stop the even more widespread human rights violations that Trump promised during his campaign. I don’t mean to suggest the military views human rights as a utilitarian tool, because protecting the innocent is part of the code and culture of military service and for many is a point of patriotism and honor.

No one is perfect, including military officers, some of whom have been tragically mistaken about these very issues. But it may well be that the generals and admirals will be the most influential protectors against global warming, reckless war, and human rights violations in the Trump administration.