Joint Chiefs Chair Caught in the Middle

In the Trump era, it's all politics.

Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. NBC News. February 12, 2024.
U.S. Air Force/Eric Dietrich

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.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Not the IT Dept. says:

    It’s worth remembering that in its 75-year history, Article 5 of the NATO charter has been invoked only once: on September 12, 2001, to come to the aid of America after 9/11. Thirty-six NATO countries – our allies – fought in Afghanistan.

    Which makes Donald Trump’s comments this week all the more disgusting.

    See: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_110496.htm

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  2. Matt Bernius says:

    Patrick Chovanec, an “in the wilderness” anti-Trump Republican, wrote a very thoughtful thread on twitter about the issue with Trump’s transaction view of NATO. The entire thread can be found here: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1756433198911746402.html

    I’ll excerpt some key parts below:

    Military spending targets are important, but the contribution of each member to NATO – or any alliance – cannot be measured purely in terms of military spending or capability. Different countries bring different strategic assets to the equation.

    For instance, Turkey is a giant headache. But Turkey controls the straits between the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea. Even if they spent no money on their military, this would be an important component of collective security.

    Sweden spends 1.3% of GDP on its military. But it has a highly advanced arms industry, and it offers strategic depth in a critical theater (the Baltic). Whether it spends 2% or not is secondary to its importance as a valuable partner.

    Germany spends 1.5%, and I’m surprised it’s even that, considering that its military capacity is not well regarded in NATO. But in fact, one of the whole points of NATO is to allow Germany to remain militarily weak without feeling insecure.

    Europe actually doesn’t WANT a Germany that packs a military punch commensurate with its economic dominance. That would be destabilizing. NATO avoids the need for this, so we shouldn’t really complain when this is the result.

    Anyway, these are just examples of how NATO should be seen strategically, rather than an unprofitable protection racket. I’m not even going to discuss the moral implications of Trump viewing it as the latter, except to say we’re not the Warsaw Pact and shouldn’t want to be.

    And all this aside, MAGA folks tend to frequently exaggerate, or just outright lie, about the contribution our NATO allies do make, on a regular basis. The recent “figures” put out by Heritage Fdn on Ukraine aid are an example of this.

    Unfortunately, such nuanced views are not reflective of the Republican base–and that may have a significant impact on global stability moving forward.

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  3. steve says:

    Congress recently passed a bill that says POTUS cant pull us out of NATO without their approval. Setting aside the question of whether or not Congress will rubber stamp anything Trump wants if he gets back in office, how much could Trump do independent of Congress if he wants to at least sabotage NATO if he cant leave?

    Steve

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  4. JKB says:

    How is “US credibility at stake”? Trump said that at a NATO meeting to one or more deadbeat NATO nation leaders. It was the simple fact, that if you want US protection then you have to meet your NATO funding payments. And guess what, those deadbeat EU members paid up their NATO obligations. America’s sons should not die to protect Europeans who won’t meet their self defense obligations.

    Well, so far, this Chairman of the JCS hasn’t publicly declared that he would betray soldiers, sailors and Marines being sent into harms way by call up his Chinese “counterpart” to warn of orders from the president.

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  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    Why am I not surprised to learn that you see NATO as an American protection racket?

    Not that it will matter to you, but NATO is what it is because we – the USA – wanted it that way. We created the world system after WW2. The deal was, look, you bombed out, shattered countries, we’re the new superpower and we will protect you and your trade, and what we want in exchange is you resist the commies. . This was a brilliant deal for the US. We stymied the Communists and we gained a world of free(ish) trade that has made us infinitely richer and more powerful.

    And now all your idiot cult leader can see is an opportunity to be a bully, to threaten and betray.

    Let me explain something basic to you. In addition to their military contribution, the Europeans provide one other big thing: the fucking battlefields. Because if Trump’s master Putin invades, guess where the fight takes place. Cleveland? No, it’s Europe’s cities and civilians who are in harm’s way. Just as it was in WW1 when poorly educated Americans think we saved the world, and again in WW2 when we arrived very late to the party and profited magnificently from the rebuilding of countries whose people had actually been in the war, not just parachuting in.

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  6. Mikey says:

    @JKB:

    It was the simple fact, that if you want US protection then you have to meet your NATO funding payments.

    Tell me you have no fucking idea how NATO works without telling me you have no fucking idea how NATO works.

    US credibility is at stake because one of the two candidates for President, who incomprehensibly stands a real chance of winning, has openly and plainly declared he will not honor the terms of Article 5, based on some arbitrary standard he alone has set, and will in fact actually encourage an invading enemy to destroy a NATO member. He has made it clear that under his “leadership” the US could not be depended upon to do its part to protect our allies. That’s a real strike against credibility, don’t you think?

    Now, you could read the comment @Matt Bernius posted, which really lays out how NATO functions and why things are the way they are, or you could just continue being an ignorant Trump-humping fool. I’m pretty sure we all know what you’ll choose, but I thought I should put it out there in case there’s still some shred of intelligence buried somewhere under the Fox News effluents.

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  7. Barry says:

    @JKB: “How is “US credibility at stake”? Trump said that at a NATO meeting to one or more deadbeat NATO nation leaders. It was the simple fact,”

    You misspelled ‘lie’.

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  8. Scott says:

    @Matt Bernius: One thing that always seems to be forgotten is that the US defense budget is one that covers the entire world, not just NATO. The Philippines is not part of NATO. ANZAC is not part of NATO. Israel is not part of NATO. Japan/Korea is not part of NATO. Can’t easily compare the budgets.

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  9. Scott says:

    The gall of Trump calling people deadbeats! And idiots like JKB just lap it up.

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  10. steve says:

    It’s part of the Trump mythology on the right that he forced those deadbeats to pay up. It’s not true. At the end of his presidency only 7 countries met the goal. There was an increase after the Russian attack of Georgia in 2014 but you can look at the charts at link and see that there was no large increase concurrent with Trump’s demands. Spending has increased with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Also, let’s not forget that presidents before Trump had insisted upon increased NATO spending.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2024/02/12/nato-countries-defense-spending-gdp-trump/

    Steve

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  11. becca says:

    @JKB: Setting aside your weird comment about NATO, (day drinking?), do you realize you are defending the most reported deadbeat in the world right now? Or do you think those reports about Trump not paying his bills are “fake news”?

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  12. Andy says:

    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.

    He just should not have commented at all.

    “I don’t have any comment on hypotheticals coming from the context of a domestic political campaign” is all he needs to say.

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy:

    “I don’t have any comment on hypotheticals coming from the context of a domestic political campaign” is all he needs to say.

    In a perfect world? Or even a marginally normal world? Sure. When a man who might well be president again opens his mouth to egg on our enemies while threatening to abandon our friends? No. Then it is his duty and moral responsibility to defend this country from enemies foreign and domestic.

    Trump hates the military. He hates the military because they are not corrupt and purely transactional, as he is. Trump also hates the military because he is a coward, and soldiers are not. And Trump hates the military because Putin has owned him from Day One, and Putin certainly hates the US military.

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  14. steve says:

    Andy- Your suggestion implies that Trump is just saying this stuff to get elected. While probably true it also essentially enters the political fray. I think what he said was actually pretty OK and the only thing he could have done maybe better was to not answer at all. The onus here is on Trump. When have we ever had a POTUS candidate suggesting that Russia should attack one of our treaty allies?

    Steve

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  15. DK says:

    Military officers, let alone the Chairman, ought not be engaged in partisan political squabbles.

    True. Thankfully, he’s not practicing partisanship here. Rather, he’s pushing back (gently, I might add) against a domestic enemy of the United States of America.

    Trump used his sore loser election lies to conspire against the Americsn people, then incite the first ever presidential terror attack on our seat of government — goading his brainwashed cult to attempt assassinations, in order to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.

    Now, Trump, a fraudster and rapist who smeared fallen soldiers and repeatedly made disgusting comments wanting to bed his own daughter, is encouraging Putin to attack our European allies.

    Trump is a criminal, traitor, pervert, and threat to the Republic. The Joint Chiefs patriotically responded to Trump’s latest threats with appropriate restraint; that most Republicans are now cowards and sellouts does not automatically make partisans of all who stand up to Trump’s depravity.

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  16. Matt says:

    @JKB:

    And guess what, those deadbeat EU members paid up their NATO obligations.

    So who are the “deadbeat EU members” that paid up their NATO obligations? How much did they pay up and who are they even paying it to?

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  17. Mikey says:

    @Matt: I was thinking the same thing the other day when I saw an old military buddy on Facebook say “When Trump was in office and said this the money came pouring in!”

    Putting aside that this is completely false (see @steve’s comment here), I was wondering where the money would have poured into.

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  18. Matt says:

    @Mikey: I have been unable to get an answer from any of the prior individuals who made such claims. I was hoping JKB might be on top of the talking point answer.

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  19. Kathy says:

    @Matt:
    @Mikey:

    I must have said this a number of times during the Dark Age between November 2016 and November 2020:

    At best, if all NATO allies met the percentage of GDP spending, the US might be able to reduce military spending very slightly. Meantime, Lardass tried to increase the DOD budget, rendering the whole question moot from the transactional aspect.

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