HALIFAX, Canada – When Cindy McCain handed the inaugural John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service to two Boy Scouts from Greece, recognizing their island’s generosity to migrants and refugees arriving at their border, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford was first to stand and lead the Halifax International Security Forum in an ovation.
It was hard not to think of how, at that moment, roughly 6,000 active duty troops are now at the southern U.S. border to provide, essentially, the opposite. President Trump has repeatedly said he sent them to rebuff a group of Central American refugees walking the length of Mexico to seek asylum in the United States. So a reporter asked Dunford to square the two images and explain why he supported the president’s order for those who question whether it’s a moral action.
“I reject the characterization or comparison,” replied Dunford, saying that the troops are simply helping the Department of Homeland Security by providing logistics, helicopter rides to Border Patrol officers, and the like.
“Nothing that we are doing is illegal. I can tell you we looked at that very carefully,” he said. “We are not coming in contact with the migrants. Our job is not to deny migrants access to the United States. Our job is to support the Department of Homeland Security in doing their jobs. I think it’s important to understand that.”
He repeated the same themes Defense Secretary James Mattis expressed during his visit to the border on Wednesday, but it is important to hear Dunford to say this out loud and on the record.
“Border security is part of national security,” Mattis said. “Our units are in a position to enable the Border Patrol’s law enforcement operations. We determined that that mission was absolutely legal and this is also reviewed by Department of Justice lawyers.”
From the moment the troops were deployed, critics have called for Mattis to explain why he backs Trump and believes in the mission, or to resign. On Wednesday, Mattis didn’t wait to be asked, saying in his introductory remarks, “It’s obviously a moral and ethical mission to support our border patrolmen.”
Neither leaders’ answers are likely to appease critics of the troops’ presence or the president’s action, and Dunford’s didn’t satisfy the national security policy veterans at this conference.
“There’s a whole lot more to it than the legality,” said Rosa Brooks, Georgetown University law professor and former Pentagon official, in Halifax. “That’s a very narrow and stingy reading of the legal requirements. It’s certainly not the spirit of the legal requirements, it’s barely even the letter of the legal requirements.”
“But there’s also the broader issue of what message we are sending to the world: the militarization of an issue that is fundamentally not a military threat. This is not a military threat. The Pentagon knows that. The retired military officials who have spoken out against it know it. It’s an absurd overreaction and it’s extraordinarily poor use of scarce military resources when there are real threats around the globe. This is not one of them.”
“The symbolism of desperately needy people, some of whom will have valid asylum claims — that the American response is troops, as opposed to compassion — the symbolism matters and the words matter.”
Dunford’s explanation revealed once again how carefully he and Mattis have tried to meet the Defense Department’s constitutional obligations to the president, no matter how politically unpopular or challenging in the public sphere, while avoiding being dragged into the public debates. It’s a point that the duo seems to make with actions or words often, but that the president’s opponents refuse to absorb, or accept.
After Dunford gave his answer, moderator Yalda Hakim of BBC World News asked if the American public’s support for the military would take a hit. Dunford confidently said he thought it would not, and here’s why:
“We do have a very strong, nonpartisan, apolitical ethos in the U.S. military. And I view one of my more important responsibilities as the chairman as being the steward of that ethos,” he said. “And I’m very proud of our young men and women over the past couple years during a very contentious period in our history that the institution has remained apolitical and nonpartisan.”
Previous Joint Chiefs chairmen have not had to bump “stay apolitical” to the top of their responsibilities list in the way Dunford has. But it’s a point worth hearing, if only to remove the uncertainty of why Mattis and Dunford together continue to support the president’s orders, and refuse calls to resign at each outcry of outrage.
“We don’t participate in politics, and we’re very careful…to stay in our lane and address the military dimension of the problem and not comment on policy. I don’t think in our nation we want generals to be deciding where we use force. We want generals to be deciding how to best accomplish the political objectives that have been outlined by our properly elected officials.”
Dunford stressed to the international audience at Halifax that U.S. troops take their oath to the constitution, and not to a political party or person, and they recite the oath out loud and in public — a good practice for the chairman to continue.