Saturday, January 18, 2020

Musings on Military Legitimacy, and Why Military Might Must Be Right

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Military legitimacy is about might being right, and the President and Congress share responsibility for U.S. military operations meeting that criteria.  The President deploys U.S. military forces, and Congress provides oversight and funding for continuing military operations. Restraint in the use of lethal force is a primary consideration in determining military legitimacy.   

Trump has asserted that winning is the measure of success in everything, including military operations.  But that’s only in total war. In peacetime military operations that are conducted to achieve U.S. strategic political objectives, public support in both the U.S. and the area of operations is more important to mission success than military victory.

Public support depends upon compliance with standards of legitimacy that vary among different cultures.  Religion is a primary source of the standards of legitimacy, and Islamic standards in the Middle East vary significantly from Christian standards in the West.  When U.S. forces ignore conflicting standards of legitimacy, a military victory can become a political defeat.

President Trump doesn’t seem to recognize these nuances in military legitimacy.  Like many of his predecessors, Trump has emphasized the shock and awe of overwhelming force to achieve military victory.  He has ignored the painful lessons in legitimacy learned from political defeats in Vietnam and Iraq, in spite of America’s vast military superiority in those wars.

Last week President Trump ordered the assassination of Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani.  As expected, Iran retaliated with a missile attack on a U.S. air base in Iraq, and miraculously there were no U.S. casualties.  There would likely have been further Iranian escalation if not for a mistaken Iranian missile strike on a Ukranian airliner that killed all aboard.

Trump’s assassination of Soleimani was based on fabricated intelligence that Soleimani was an imminent threat to attack four U.S. embassies.  It was intended to showcase Trump as a strong military leader and distract public attention from his impending impeachment; but it backfired when Trump could not provide evidence that Soleimani was an imminent threat. 

Any president who uses U.S. military force to promote his personal interests is a threat to America.  Trump brought America perilously close to war with the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani; and he’s not the first president to do that.  In 1964 LBJ misled Congress on threats in the Tonkin Gulf to justify deployment of U.S. combat forces to Vietnam, and George Bush used fabricated threats of WMD to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Trump’s arrogance and impulsiveness make him the most dangerous President in America’s history.  At a meeting at the Pentagon in July 2017, Trump, a draft dodger, told then Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior officials, “You’re all losers.  You don’t know how to win anymore. ...I want to win,” he said.
Speaking of South Korea, Trump said, “We should make them pay for our soldiers.  We should make money off of everything.” He went on to tell the assembled brass, “I wouldn’t go to war with you people.  You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.” Tillerson refuted Trump, telling him that Americans in uniform are not soldiers of fortune, but risk their lives to protect our freedom.    

The Constitution provides checks and balances on the use of military force, but a Congress polarized by partisan politics cannot provide the checks needed to restrain an arrogant and impulsive President from initiating a war.  In such a dysfunctional context, it’s ultimately up to voters to provide for national security and military legitimacy at the ballot box.


This commentary is taken from an interview of Rudy Barnes by Dan Shaefer on the Alliance Party website at

Annie Karni of The New York Times described Trump’s attempt to justify the killing of General Suleimani as a collapsed narrative.  “The Trump administration has been struggling to draft an after-the-fact narrative to justify it [the killing]. On Monday, President Trump put an end to that hash of explanations. “It doesn’t really matter,” he tweeted, “because of his horrible past.”  Until that message on Twitter, the administration had insisted in various ways that General Suleimani, Iran’s most important military official, was planning myriad “imminent” attacks. The unraveling of the explanations accelerated over the weekend after Mr. Trump said four embassies were under immediate threat, a charge that his own administration could not back.  With the president’s latest utterance, he bolstered critics of a strike that had raised fears of an all-out war with Iran and had led Iraq to call on the United States to leave the country. And, the critics wondered, was it reckless and irresponsible for the United States to kill Iran’s second most important leader if the reason did not “really matter”? ...Mark T. Esper appeared to contradict the president’s claim that he believed there was an imminent threat on four American embassies in the Middle East. But Mr. Trump said he did not see any inconsistencies at all. ...“It’s been totally consistent,” “We killed Suleimani, the No. 1 terrorist in the world by every account. Bad person, killed a lot of Americans, killed a lot of people. We killed him.  
...The Trump campaign is hoping that the killing boosts his popularity. But a recent USA Today/Ipsos Poll found that a majority of respondents, 52 percent to 34 percent, viewed Mr. Trump’s action as “reckless.” See

Ned Price and Jeffrey Prescott of Foreign Policy have asserted that Praise for the Suleimani strike isn’t based on reality, and that “many of the ideological architects of one of the United States’ most disastrous foreign-policy decisions—the 2003 invasion of Iraq—are spinning a tale to support the president’s most dangerous move to date. It is no surprise that the arguments they are putting forward now are just as misguided as those from nearly 20 years ago.  The most prominent such argument relies on the idea that Iran and its proxies understand only the language of strength and military might. That’s why, in the parlance of some supporters, the hit against Suleimani was necessary to “restore deterrence.” In truth, whatever the concept of restoring deterrence may promise in theory, it bears little resemblance to reality. Trump’s defenders, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, may claim that the strike has thrown Iran off balance. But in truth, the level of uncertainty and risk on both sides remains extremely high. Logic and history suggests that further attacks from Iran—via proxies, militias, or other asymmetric actions—are probable. Indeed, even if Tehran is satisfied with its response to date, namely some 20 missiles fired at bases in Iraq that housed U.S. troops, its proxies and those inspired by them may feel no such restraint.
...After all, a supposed need to restore deterrence will always be available as justification for further military action.”  See

Rebecca Ingber has argued that If there was no ‘imminent’ attack from Iran, killing Soleimani was illegal; and that Suleimani’s “horrible past," as Trump put it, cannot justify the strike.  Ingber addressed the ambiguities surrounding the killing of Soleimani and acknowledged the power of the president to order the military to use deadly force to protect the U.S. from imminent threats, and the Constitutional powers of Congress to restrain the President’s use of deadly force.  “Ultimately, however, Congress and others outside the executive branch can do only so much to rein in a president who is determined to stretch the bounds of his or her power. The president has immediate control over the military. And while military officers and others in the chain of command may question or push back on his proposals, they will follow his orders (short of clear war crimes and other patently illegal acts). The most significant check on a president who has little inherent interest in law or norms is a political one. Elections matter. Law can constrain the president, but only if we care, sufficiently and in sufficient numbers, when he violates it.”

There is a distinction between assassination, which is illegal as murder, and targeted killing, which can be lawful if the target is a person asserted to be taking part in an armed conflict or terrorism, whether by bearing arms or otherwise, and has thereby lost the immunity from being targeted that he would otherwise have under the Third Greneva Convention.  On the other hand, Georgetown Law Professor Gary Solis, in his 2010 book entitled The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War, writes: "Assassinations and targeted killings are very different acts". The use of the term assassination is opposed, as it denotes murder, whereas the terrorists are targeted in self-defense, and thus it is viewed as a killing, but not a crime.  See Wikipedia at

Seven members of the House have acknowledged that while they differ in their politics, they agree on Congress’s power to declare war.  They advocate a repeal of the 2002 Authorization for the use of military force that has given presidents a virtual carte blanche to use military force against any alleged terrorist.  To restore congressional war-making powers under Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution they “seek an informed debate on a strategic alternative to the 2001 authorization. It granted the president authority to use force against those responsible for the attacks on 9/11, or those who harbored such organizations or people, yet it has been used to justify an array of military engagements against targets that, although perhaps worthy, were in some cases nonexistent or unimagined 19 years ago. We are committed to developing and debating a new approach that provides the executive branch with the latitude necessary to fight the ongoing transnational terrorist threat, while also ensuring that Congress takes responsibility, as the Constitution requires, for the decision to send men and women off to war. Our debates and votes must affirm that the decision to proceed with war-making resides in Congress. The declarations or authorizations we pass must have a clear scope and requirement of periodic congressional reconsideration to ensure the proper defense of our nation and prevent ill-defined forever wars.”  See    

Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker have cited Trump’s stunning tirade against generals which has been excerpted from A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America, to be published January 21 by Penguin Press.  It reports Trump’s scathing and contemptuous condemnations of then Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson in a Pentagon meeting in July 2017, which is cited in the above commentary.  Leonnig and Rucker conclude: “Trump has become a president entirely unrestrained. He has replaced his raft of seasoned advisors with a cast of enablers who execute his orders and engage his obsessions. They see their mission as telling the president yes.”  Trump’s “tirade against generals” confirms that he is an imminent threat to the legitimacy of America’s military and to the rest of the world.

On military legitimacy generally, see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium (Frank Cass, London, 1996), posted in Resources at

Related commentary:
(3/25/17) National Security and Military Legitimacy: When Might Must be Right 
(4/1/17) Human Rights, Freedom and National Security (4/1/17)
(5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion
(9/2/17): The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies  
(4/14/18): Musings of a Maverick on Military Legitimacy
(4/21/18): The Legitimacy of an Authoritarian Military in a Libertarian Democracy
(6/1/19): Musings on Military Legitimacy and Murder in Wartime
(10/19/19): Musings on the Meltdown of Military Legitimacy in the Middle East
(11/30/19): Musings on Trump’s Corruption of Military and Political Legitimacy

No comments:

Post a Comment