Air Force‘s Top General Emphasizes Need for Apolitical Military

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter briefs the official announcement of Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, center, who was nominated to become the 21st Air Force chief of staff, in the Pentagon on April 29, 2016. With them is Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

The Air Force’s top general told reporters Tuesday that wars should be fought as humanely as possible and the military is apolitical — statements that, in tone if not substance, are at odds with the president’s.

Gen. David Goldfein, the service’s chief of staff since last July, did not directly say he takes issue with President Donald Trump. And the four-star general explicitly said that he was not referring particularly to Trump’s recent statements contending that the U.S. military supported his candidacy in the election.

But Goldfein’s views rebutted, in effect, positions on warfare that Trump has articulated in the campaign and since taking office. The contrast spotlights a critical clash between Trump’s stated positions and the military ethos. And those differences could portend tensions ahead between the commander in chief, on the one hand, and top officers and senior Pentagon civilians, on the other.

‘Apolitical military’

Trump, in a visit Monday to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, suggested to a crowd of military personnel that they are part of his political base.

“We had a wonderful election, didn’t we?” Trump said. “And I saw those numbers. You liked me, and I liked you. That’s the way it worked.”

Similarly, Trump suggested at CIA headquarters on Jan. 21 that America’s military forces and intelligence personnel are part of his constituency.

“We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military,” Trump told the CIA audience. “And probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did. But I would guarantee a big portion, because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks.”

Goldfein was asked at a Defense Writers Group breakfast on Tuesday whether such remarks about and to the military are accurate, appropriate and relevant.

Goldfein said, “I won’t comment particularly on the president’s comments.”

But he also said: “By design, we don’t pledge support to any particular party or any particular leader.  . . .  Actually, I take this as an opportunity for the American people to reinforce that by design we are an apolitical military that doesn’t align itself with any particular party or position.”

Goldfein said he takes “very seriously” his statement to Senate Armed Services during his confirmation hearing that he will give his best military advice to the president and other civilian authorities.

The American people “expect us to speak truth to power regardless of party or administration,” he said.

New ISIS plan afoot

On the issue of fighting wars as humanely as possible, Trump has made statements indicating he is prepared to potentially violate the laws of war in order to defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS.

He has said, for instance, he would support killing the families of suspected terrorists. He has said America will “bomb the hell out of them.”

In a memo to the administration’s top national security officials on Jan. 28, Trump called for a plan within 30 days to defeat ISIS and stipulated that it should include any “recommended changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.”

Trump also has repeatedly said — including during his CIA appearance last month — that America should have “kept” Iraq’s oil after overthrowing Saddam Hussein. And, he told the intelligence professionals, “maybe you’ll have another chance.”

Such an action would be widely seen as pillaging. And officials in Iraq, America’s chief ally in the war against ISIS, are worried about it.

Moreover, Trump has endorsed questioning alleged terrorists by using harsh interrogation techniques — such as waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse,” as he put it — although more recently he has said he will defer to Defense Secretary James Mattis, who opposes such methods.

‘Who we are’

Goldfein’s defense of ethical conduct of warfare was not a response to a question about Trump. Rather, it came in response to a question about whether bombing might increase in Iraq and Syria. But his comments stood in bold relief to Trump’s.

“One of the things I’m very proud of is that we have never lost sight of the fact that we go to war with our values,” he said.

Any short-term gain from stepped-up bombing must be weighed, he said, against the long-term cost of “stepping away from how we fight, which is as a nation of values. Those that are critical of the extraordinary efforts we go to to prevent civilian casualties perhaps forget that that’s who we are.”

The Agency for International Development’s programs in the Middle East, he concluded, are “as important if not more important” than U.S. military strikes there.

“If we don’t create something better on the ground for those that are there after we’re done, then I’m not sure we’ve accomplished our long-term objectives,” he said.

It remains unclear how many of Trump’s more incendiary statements about military operations will become policy proposals. To the degree they do, officers such as Goldfein may resist, depending on exactly what they are asked to do.

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