Gen. Hayden in The Hill: “Words matter, and Trump’s may mean war”

October 11, 2017


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By Gen. Michael Hayden

This article originally appeared in The Hill.

It’s pretty amazing what kind of behavior has become normalized around Washington these days. I mean, I don’t remember an earlier period where I was counting on the the leader of North Korea to have enough emotional maturity and geopolitical wisdom to ignore the taunts of an American president.

Really. I don’t remember that.

Last Saturday, after dismissing diplomacy, negotiations, agreements and financial assistance as foolish, failed experiments with Pyongyang, President Trump announced that “only one thing will work” in dealing with North Korea. He didn’t further identify the “one thing,” but he was clearly implying military action.

Earlier in the week, in front of all of the nation’s four-star combatant commanders and their spouses during a White House photo op, the president told reporters that the formal scene was the “calm before the storm.” Pressed for the meaning of his words, Mr. Trump crypitcally replied: “You’ll find out.”

To my ear, neither statement rang “presidential,” and I’m pretty sure that the four-stars weren’t thrilled with being props for the president’s unscheduled, extemporaneous threats.

A president wields great power and needs to act differently than, say, a Manhattan real estate developer. What a president says has weight beyond the words, weight beyond the man. President Trump doesn’t seem to understand this.

I often told my senior leadership at CIA that, as seniors, they were now no longer just responsible for what they said. They had a responsibility for what other people heard.

How much more so for the president?

So what was heard in Pyongyang by an isolated, thirty-something dictator in survival mode? One whose nation’s foundation mythology teaches him that the United States is one day going to come get him? And does what was heard make war more or less likely?

Even more concerning for me was the president’s not-so-veiled critique of his own military leadership: “Moving forward, I also expect you to provide me with a broad range of military options, when needed, at a much faster pace.”

This was nowhere near the savage campaign taunting of Lil’ Marco or Lyin’ Ted, the treatment of Sean Spicer or the harsh commentary on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but it was more important and more ominous.

It was the president signaling that he has lost patience with the normal and healthy caution that people who are actually responsible for military action always have. This is his way of trying to pressure them to give him what he thinks he wants.

These are reflexively cautious people when it comes to the use of force, cautious because they have done it before and they know the potential costs and uncertainties.

The president has a cartoon image in his head that all good generals are aggressively combative field commanders like his hero, the frequently invoked George S. Patton. In reality, I suspect that most of the flag officers in that White House picture more admire another general, George C. Marshall, who was all about the prudent use of American military power only when necessary and only in concert with the other tools of American power and influence.

I also think that most of us actually want these officers to be the least enthusiastic people in the room when it comes to committing America’s sons and daughters to combat.

So take notice. The president just announced that he is growing weary of their caution.

I used to worry that the president could blunder us into war with his language.

Now I’m afraid he’ll order us to start one.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, and a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.