The hot take from wistful progressives and conspiratorial-minded conservatives, and casual observers everywhere who are unfamiliar with the military’s operating procedures, is that the Pentagon is essentially refusing the commander-in-chief’s orders about transgender service members. Unfortunately, this narrative is picking up steam with each day that passes without the publication of a formal policy change.
A significant number of outlets have run stories about the Pentagon’s supposed insubordination. Even credible, thoughtful commentators like Charles Krauthammer are discussing the “whiff of insubordination” coming from the Pentagon. With respect, they are all wrong.
Trump Hasn’t Done Anything But Tweet Yet
Let’s recap: after Trump tweeted out his intent to return the transgender service member policy to its pre-Obama form, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joe Dunford, announced that the Pentagon would not implement the policy change until it received formal, detailed guidance from the White House. Apparently, his response has been wistfully interpreted as a soft refusal of a presidential order. But what else would you expect the general to say?
Did these commentators expect the summary discharge of every transgender service member five minutes after the president’s thumb hit the send button? Early-morning tweetstorms are not orders. Whatever one may think about the method of announcement, it would have been unrealistic to expect the instantaneous implementation of a complex personnel policy decision.
Media outlets pushing the idea that the joint chiefs supposedly back their worldview conveniently ignore the fact that the service chiefs of the Army, Air Force, and Marines all requested a two-year suspension of the Obama administration’s transgender enlistment policy no less than six weeks ago, to review “issues that need to be resolved before [the policy] could move forward.” They were instead granted a six-month delay by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, an Obama administration holdover. But now we are made to believe that these same generals are so outraged by the injustice of Trump’s decision that they are refusing to enforce it.
Military Leaders Are Open to Dropping Obama’s Policy
As the Center for Military Readiness points out, there is simply no evidence that this is the case. To the contrary, Air Force General Paul Selva, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate that the joint chiefs’ request for delay in transgender enlistments was motivated by the “disagreement on the science of how mental health care and hormone therapy for transgender individuals would help solve the medical issues that are associated with gender dysphoria.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis added that the purpose of the delay in transgender enlistments was to “evaluate more carefully the impact [of the policy] on readiness and lethality.”
On Thursday, Navy Secretary Robert Spencer responded to media questions about the transgender policy by saying, “We will process and take direction of a policy that is developed by the [Defense] secretary [with] direction from the president and march out smartly. On a fundamental basis, any patriot that wants to serve and meets all the requirements should be able to serve in our military.” The media, left and right, immediately seized on his statement as “defying” the president’s orders. “Navy Secretary Defies Trump: Transgender Troops ‘Should Be Able to Serve,’” The Daily Wire blared.
Of course, this interpretation of Spencer’s statement requires one to ignore the first part of his answer, in which he explicitly said the military would follow orders once it received them from the president. The interpretation also requires an implicit assumption, perhaps fueled by confirmation bias, on the part of the reader. Understanding Spencer’s statement that “every qualified patriot should be able to serve” to mean “every transgender soldier should be able to serve,” implicitly assumes that Spencer agrees with the premise that transgendered soldiers enhance our military’s readiness. That premise is easily disproven.
We Don’t Want the Military to Go Rogue, Either
There is also very little evidence that Spencer, who was most likely pulling his punches as he waits for details about the policy change to emerge, would agree with the above assumption. In his confirmation hearing, Spencer declared that the military should not be “a petri dish for social experiments,” because our military’s “readiness is key and lethality is [its] product.”
Finally, why is the media treating the Pentagon’s supposed insubordination as a cause for celebration? Those who praise the image of high-minded generals refusing to follow orders in the name of progressive ideals are embracing a watered-down version of the same philosophy championed by Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman when they publicly called on the military to depose the president. Call it coup-lite. It is even more disturbing that more than 50 Democrats have endorsed this position in a letter to the Pentagon.
In reality — which often seems like a galaxy far, far away from our recent public discourse — the military implements orders when they receive them from the president, and in a manner that is consistent with the president’s intent. The president has given his intent, but he has issued no formal orders. Thus, the military is not defying orders; it is waiting for them.