Why do I get the sense that fighter jets are Donald Trump’s biceps, warships are his pectorals and what he’s doing with his proposed $54 billion increase for the Pentagon is flexing?
Maybe because that’s a strongman’s way. Maybe because so much with him is preening. Or maybe because so little of his military talk adds up. To listen to it closely is to conclude that he’s no savvier about martial affairs than about medical ones.
“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” he said to the nation’s governors on Monday morning, and at that same meeting, he maintained that when he was young, America was the proud victor in all of its wars.
Really? World War II wrapped up before Trump came along, and the Korean War, which ended when he was 7, was no unfettered American triumph.
Then came Vietnam, which found Trump in college and unable to serve because of a podiatric ailment so debilitating that he couldn’t recall which foot was affected when he was asked about it in 2015. Surely, though, he remembers how Vietnam went. It didn’t continue some glorious winning streak.
In Trump’s selective telling, everything about the America of yore was superior: That’s a necessary frame for his insistence that everything about the America of today is wretched.
And somehow, magically, he has solutions that even the most practiced hands don’t. That was a major theme of his military musings during his campaign, when he touted a secret plan for defeating ISIS that he conveniently couldn’t divulge, lest he trample on its secret-ness.
He subsequently ordered his top military advisers to come up with their own strategy, which makes a skeptical voter wonder what happened to his. Are the generals and he going to compare plans – I'll show you mine if you show me yours – to determine whose is mightiest? For now that’s a secret.
He crowed that he knew more than the generals consulted by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did and that his replacements would be wiser. Then, on Tuesday morning, he fingered them for the death of a Navy SEAL, William Owens, who was called Ryan, in a raid in Yemen in January.
“They explained what they wanted to do – the generals, who are very respected,” he said. “They lost Ryan.” He’s the all-knowing alpha dog until there’s blood, and then he’s an obedient Chihuahua following faulty commands.
Both before and after the election, Trump complained bitterly that America was paying too much of the defense bill for our allies. He was going to get them to pony up.
But if those contributions are forthcoming, why do we need to pump tens of billions of additional dollars into the military, especially when we already spend more on it than the seven countries that spend the next most combined?
We can’t afford the increase, not if Social Security and Medicare are off limits, not if he follows through with the tax cuts he promised, not if he’s going to embark on the infrastructure projects that he’s (rightly) calling for, not unless he’s willing to gag Paul Ryan and shove him into some Capitol broom closet while the debt balloons.
And that increase doesn’t square with all that Trump has said about being more reluctant to embroil us in military conflicts than some of his predecessors were. One day we rush too rashly into battle. The next we need to lavish extra treasure on being ready to rush.
He could argue that such readiness is a deterrent, but does America’s count of aircraft carriers really give jihadis pause? The wars that we’re fighting aren’t traditional ones, and they hinge on the kind of diplomacy and foreign aid that Trump is giving short shrift. But then soft power doesn’t gleam or puff up the ego the way that muscular new fighting equipment does.
His approach is provocative, antagonistic. He berates and bad-mouths allies in a fashion that threatens to push them away while promising a gantlet along America’s southern border and an upgrade of our nuclear arsenal.
He’s saying that we can and will go it alone, and while that attitude may be emotionally satisfying to many Americans, it’s not at all certain to keep us safe.
I suspect that it’s emotionally satisfying to Trump most of all. He’s determined to cast himself as a figure of epic proportions – hence that recurring claptrap about “a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen” – and he has to size everything around him accordingly.
That includes the armed forces, and that mandates “a historic increase in defense spending” that constitutes “a message to the world, in these dangerous times, of American strength, security and resolve,” he told the governors.
He might have said “Trump’s strength” or “Trump’s potency.” The military he envisions is a measure – and mirror – of that as much as anything else.