Military officers are familiar with the acronym DIME, a way to talk about the four instruments of national power: diplomatic, informational, military and economic power.
The military is trained in the application of force, but it is seldom, if ever, the first tool that a nation should resort to using. President Donald Trump seems unaware of this and seems to think that military might is the main instrument at his disposal.
He is wrong, and this error is far more than a philosophical difference with his detractors; it is an error that can get people killed.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is busy dismantling the State Department under the guise of reform. Diplomatic positions have gone unfilled, and interest in taking the foreign service examination is down, but the president says this doesn’t matter. As he told Laura Ingraham in November, “I’m the only one that matters.”
Meanwhile, we do not even have a full-time ambassador in South Korea, while the president seems to threaten war against North Korea.
The president is dismantling the First Amendment by calling legitimate news organizations “fake news” on a near-daily basis. The old “Voice of America” was, at least in part, successful during the Cold War by simply broadcasting normal American news behind the Iron Curtain. Our freedom of the press is the envy of the world, and the president talks like a man on his way to a book-burning ceremony.
As he announced he would do, Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which had been negotiated in good faith over several years, thus abandoning our economic leadership in the Asia-Pacific region. Other nations will surely fill the vacuum.
He is trying to take down the North American Free Trade Agreement. Whatever NAFTA’s flaws, the fact is that free trade is important to agricultural states like Nebraska. Why our governor and our senior U.S. senator willingly supported a candidate with a protectionist bent is a question they should be called upon to answer.
The president falsely claims that the military was broken and that he is fixing it. Should our military be stronger? That is a matter of legitimate debate that people of goodwill can engage in. But our military is not broken, by any stretch of the imagination. By almost any quantitative or qualitative measure, our military is stronger, better-trained and better-equipped than any peer competitor.
If he had his way, the president would have withdrawn us from NATO, but adults in the administration dissuaded him from this foolishness. The world is dangerous and imperfect. There will always be conflict. But we are far past the time when we can unilaterally effect any positive change with the military instrument. We need to act in concert with tried and true allies, not in some go-it-alone way.
At the same time, the president often issues meaningless threats, such as announcing he will “utterly destroy” North Korea. That kind of bluster might make the president feel powerful, but in actuality, threats like this limit military options and indicate a lack of real strategy.
The president constantly fawns over military generals. For example, he continues to call the secretary of defense “General Mattis,” flying in the face of traditional American civilian-military relations.
Decades ago, Congress wisely concluded that general officers must not immediately move into high-ranking civilian positions in government. The Constitution clearly separates civilian and military authority. The secretary of defense is not a kind of “super general.” The president should try reading the National Security Act of 1947 for some understanding. When a general takes on a civilian role in government, he is acting as a civilian.
Carl von Clausewitz said “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” The truth is that war is a failure of politics — of diplomacy, of information, of economics. The president seems intent on leading us in the direction of this kind of failure.