Despite his many flaws, President Donald Trump speaks inconvenient truths that imperial Washington prefers to ignore. He did so again earlier this week in a stream-of-consciousness White House conversation that immediately burst into headlines. “We’re going to do something militarily until we can have a wall,” Trump said.
Deploying troops to any border is a big deal. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — the oldest pro in the room and seated right next to his president — immediately seized this latest opportunity to keep his mouth shut. But everywhere else the chattering classes faced an urgent question: Can he really do that?
Her admiration for President Trump always under firm control, CNN’s Barbara Starr was first to answer yes, because “Obama and Bush already did.” For Operation Jump Start in 2006, for example, President George W. Bush deployed 6,000 guardsmen to four border states for two years.
Barely suppressing a sniff, Starr quickly added that President Trump would certainly face legal obstacles, like the use of deadly force as well as Posse Comitatus, an 1878 law that restricts the use of federal troops in civilian law enforcement.
CNN also enlisted Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL), of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to sound a similarly cautionary note: “I don’t feel really comfortable with the idea of deploying military troops and creating the possibility for an increase in violence and an escalation of the conflict.” He preferred dealing with illegal border-crossers “through the normal process.”
Actually, Congressman, the main reason why you deploy armies — to the border or anywhere else — is to suppress violence and to terminate conflicts through the application of overwhelming military force. Or as Carl von Clausewitz put it in his classic writings, “To compel the enemy to do our will.” As an adopted Texan who lives within 100 miles of that southern border, the sustained ignorance of both official Washington and those chattering classes is a constant source of amazement. And nowhere is that ignorance more inexplicable than on the Mexican border, where “the normal process” began disappearing almost a decade ago.
One man who has a crystal clear understanding of those harsh realities is Trump’s chief of staff, General John Kelly. While serving in 2014 as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Southern Command — with operational responsibility for Central and South America — General Kelly raised eyebrows with his compelling testimony before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. Latin American instability, cross-border flows of refugees and our “insatiable” demand for drugs amounted to “an existential treat” to American national security. The general even admitted that his command lacked the resources to defend our southern border against drug trafficking. Most of the time, he said, “I simply sit there and watch it go by.”
Thankfully, General Kelly somehow wasn’t fired. But nothing much changed until Donald Trump began talking about the border wall, the disgraceful weakness of our immigration policies and the resulting threats to our national existence. In places like Texas — and wherever else “Last Man Standing” and (most recently) “Roseanne” provoked laughter and applause — Trump’s message came across loud and clear. It is one of the major reasons for his improbable 2016 victory — something that still mystifies inside-the-Beltway elites.
But to turn Tuesday’s presidential outburst into coherent policy, how should Generals Mattis and Kelly advise their principal?
1. Those previous deployments of the National Guard were little more than Band-Aids, a knee-jerk reaction to Mexican instability. The best use of any military force is not as a substitute for the new border wall but — just like any other obstacle — as an essential reinforcement. Doctrinally, you strengthen any obstacle with surveillance, reconnaissance and flexible forces, trained and equipped to subdue any invader.
2. Whether you face terrorists, cartels, human traffickers or caravans of illegals, you confront tidal waves of human misery that will exploit any physical, legal or administrative seam in your defenses. You must certainly command the high ground of federal responsibility for border defense, including the ultimate guarantee of military force. But you must also unravel and de-conflict the overlapping responsibilities of the Border Patrol as well as a host of those state and local authorities charged with law enforcement. All need to be enlisted as partners rather than as mutually suspicious rivals.
3. Rethink the role of the National Guard in border defense, maybe even making it into a 21st century version of the United States Cavalry. Like their frontier forebears, this force would be mobile, focused on the missions of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. You might also consider using an expanded National Guard as an experiment for young people. Why not encourage more of them to serve their country? Especially when combined with educational benefits, a short-term enlistment in the Guard might ultimately lead to a lifetime of public service.
Colonel Kenneth Allard is a former Army intelligence officer, West Point professor and military analyst for NBC News.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.