Recently I had a chance to comment on some policy proposals put forward by Donald Trump.
I really didn't think I was making news. It was more like an observation, akin to saying that things that are dropped tend to move toward the center of the earth. You know. They fall.
What I said to Bill Maher was that I believed that American military members would simply not carry out an order that was, on its face, patently illegal. Maher had just asked me on his comedy/commentary show about Trump's promise to intentionally target and kill the families of suspected terrorists.
“God no,” I said. “If he were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act.”
“That’s quite a statement there. I thought the whole thing was, you had to follow orders,” Maher replied.
“You cannot — in fact, you are required not to follow an unlawful order. That would be in violation of all the international laws of conflict.
Although I quickly dismissed Maher's comedic overstatement about "a coup in this country," I was serious that the US military's traditional deference to civilian control would not include such a blatant offense.
American military professionals learn about these things very early in their formation. I got mine in an ROTC class in the mid-1960s. I'm sure today's cadets get the same lesson. They are still reminded that the defense mounted by Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg trials ("I was just following orders") is not a defense at all and that you are always legally and morally responsible for your actions.
During a recent Republican debate, Bret Baier asked Trump about my comments. Trump responded, “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse, believe me....I’m a leader, I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”
Let me translate that for you: "I'm going to use the power of my office and the force of my personality to direct twenty-somethings in America's armed forces to commit war crimes."
Trump then, after cataloging the truly bestial behavior of ISIS and claiming that "I'd go stronger", proceeded to create an alternative universe to justify his views. Apparently speaking of 9/11 (the alternative universe was hard to accurately discern), he proclaimed, “When a family flies into the World Trade Center, a man flies into the World Trade Center and his family gets sent back to where they were going…They knew what was happening. The wife knew exactly what was happening…They left two days early, with respect to the World Trade Center, and they went back to where they went, and they watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center, flying into the Pentagon, and probably trying to fly into the White House....I have no problem with it.”
Note: Few of the 9/11 hijackers were married. None had family in the United States. I know of no family members, even overseas, who were flown anywhere before or after 9/11.
We got a glimpse of another alternative universe the next day when Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson claimed to CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the candidate had been misunderstood, that people had mistakenly taken him "literally", and all he was saying was that "he wants to go after them with the full force of everything we have."
We took him literally? Really? I couldn't help but think of a loose version of the words of Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin's character) in "The Princess Bride": "So, those words do not mean what we think they mean." Or perhaps of Benicio del Toro's plaintive question in "Excess Baggage": "How stupid do you think I am, huh?"
Pierson referred to a walk back that the Trump campaign had tossed through the transom that day to the Wall Street Journal. In a written statement the candidate admitted that he understood "that the United States is bound by laws and treaties" and that he would "not order our military or other officials to violate those laws and will seek their advice on such matters."
It wasn't much of a walk back. First of all, it was a press release, not the candidate personally saying it. At rallies Trump quickly returned to the theme that we have to be tougher, much tougher, And, at the first opportunity, he chafed at the restrictions of the Geneva Convention, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper, "Let me explain something. We are playing at this level and they don't care....it's interesting what happens with the Geneva Convention everybody believes in the Geneva Convention until they start losing..."
So here we are. The leading candidate of a major American political party is, at best, offering a late, tepid and not altogether convincing concession that he understands that as president he would be limited by domestic and international law when acting as commander in chief.
What view of the world--what view of self--could make that a debatable point or even suggest that any other position was possible?
We might want to find an answer before we pull many more levers around here.
Michael Hayden is a retired United States Air Force four-star general and former Director of the National Security Agency, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He is currently a principal at the Chertoff Group, a security consultancy founded by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Hayden also serves as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at George Mason University School of Public Policy. He is the author of "Playing to the Edge" (Penguin Press 2016)