While everyone is focused on the direct threat to the rule of law in the US--where Trump obstructs justice by firing the guy investigating the Trump/Russia collusion, I am in Brazil as part of the big project to understand the role of legislatures in civil-military relations. How do parliaments and congresses vary in oversight of the armed forces, why and to what effect? I have been to Japan (and am going back in June), my co-authors have been to Australia, New Zealand, France, Belgium, a suite of Arctic countries and we have much left to do.
And I can't get cocky. I see some stuff in Brazil, and find that 30 years is not that long as the old military regime hangs over things. But the US is facing its greatest challenge to democratic and civilian control of the armed forces since, yes, the Civil War, maybe.
How so? Trump has made it clear that he is authorizing the US military to do whatever it feels is right, and we are seeing escalation in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia (so much for those reluctant warriors, eh, Debbi?). Ah, but isn't the Secretary of Defense the guy who is mostly responsible for managing civilian control of the military? Sure, but is Mattis really a civilian? Trump keeps calling him General Mattis, and he's not alone. I tend to refer to James Mattis as General Mattis out of habit, rather than James or Jim or Jimmy.
The problem is Mattis did not have that long in between serving as a military officer and serving as SecDef. How much of his thinking and his values and his beliefs are shaped by the brief interregnum versus his lifetime as a Marine? He has never been a politician, so persuasion, coalition-building, and compromise have not been in his set of tools as much as has been authority and command. We, of course, knew this before January 20th. But we (meaning others, not me) may have thought a fully staffed group of civilians at the Pentagon might soften the authoritarian edge. Of course, having a bunch of generals running the NSC hasn't helped. Crazy Flynn has been replaced by serving LtGen McMaster who has appointed another general, Major General Ricky Waddell to his staff as his deputy. At least Waddell is a reservist, which means he has lived more of a civvie life than the others. We don't think of State Dept as an actor in civilian control of the military, of course, but as an alternative source of advice, it can be handy except when it is lead by Tillerson who is mostly focused on gutting the organization.
This, of course, is worse as the US used to have civilian control of the military exercised through the legislative branch as well. The military is co-owned by the President and by Congress, which may not always happen in Presidential systems (determining that is part of the project). With the unwillingness of the GOP to do anything more than protect the party, Congressional oversight over the armed forces may be in trouble.
So, is there civilian control of the US military these days? I wonder. In name only? Maybe not there yet, but we are closer than I can recall. Good thing the rest of American institutions are safe, right?