Joint Chiefs Chair Caught in the Middle
In the Trump era, it's all politics.
NBC News (“Joint chiefs head says U.S. ‘credibility is at stake’ following Trump’s NATO remarks“):
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., said Monday that U.S. “credibility is at stake” with each of its alliances, including NATO, which former President Donald Trump disparaged in recent remarks.
In an interview with NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt at the Pentagon, Brown was asked what he thinks about Trump‘s suggesting that he would allow Russia to have its way with NATO members if they don’t contribute enough to the alliance.
“This year is the 75th anniversary of NATO,” Brown said in the interview airing Monday night. “And I think we have a responsibility to uphold those alliances. U.S. credibility is at stake with each of our alliances, and U.S. leadership is still needed, wanted and watched.”
He said that’s the message he communicates to NATO countries, “realizing that each one of us has political leadership that we have to work with, and that they set the agenda.”
In a Truth Social post Monday afternoon, Trump appeared to double down on his earlier comments indicating he would let Russia do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO countries that don’t pay a specific amount of their gross domestic product toward defense spending.
He said in all caps that NATO “has to equalize,” adding, “They will do that if properly asked. If not, America first!”
Asked whether Trump’s comments alarmed him, Brown said: “What I do is I focus on continuing to build and strengthen our relationship with NATO. And I realize there’ll be various dialogue in discussions at the political level. My job is to make sure that we are doing everything we can with our NATO allies on the military aspect, and I’ll continue to do that throughout.”
Separately, Brown defended Biden’s mental acuity after the special counsel overseeing Biden’s mishandling of classified documents suggested he had a “poor memory” at times.
“He’s pretty sharp,” Brown said. “You know, he’s got a very good grasp of the issues. … I even got mentored as I came in and sat down with different folks that have worked very closely with the president ’cause I want to make sure I get it right. And I’ve seen him in the Oval [Office] call folks out if he’s not getting the information he needs. … He’s sharp.”
From a civil-military relations standpoint, this entire situation is fraught. Military officers, let alone the Chairman, ought not be engaged in partisan political squabbles. And yet it’s not obvious what choice Brown has.
While not technically in the chain of command,* Brown is the voice of the uniformed military. He can’t very well refuse to answer questions about whether the United States would uphold its treaty commitments to its NATO Allies.
Holt should not have asked him about Biden’s mental acuity. The President is the Commander-in-Chief and Brown should really have no public opinion about his fitness for office. Once asked, though, there’s no artful way for Brown to dodge.
That distinction was made clear by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which elevated the combatant commanders to directly report to the Secretary of Defense. Yet, as a matter of practice, SECDEF issues orders to those commanders through the Chairman. Further, Congress granted the Chairman coordination authorities in 2016 that made that distinction even fuzzier.