There are red lines in the military. One is that there is no red or blue, and that the partisan divisions that may grip our populace have no place within our politically demilitarized armed forces.
Donald Trump crossed that line during his surprise visits earlier this week with U.S. troops in Iraq and Germany. He engaged in an attack against Democrats for, in his spin, not wanting “to let us have strong borders,” and he openly snarked at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. (In truth, both Democrats and Republicans allocated $1.7 billion to the Trump administration in for “physical barriers on the border” in the past two fiscal years — of which the administration has spent only 6 percent).
Let’s put aside the president’s disregard for that facts (or his lie that he secured the first military pay raise in over a decade when, in fact, the military has received steady pay raises for decades in both Republican and Democratic administrations). Why does trying to turn an assembly of troops into a Trump rally matter?
I traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq more than a dozen times as a member of Congress. On each trip, my colleagues and I on both sides of the aisle understood the importance of not importing our partisan arguments to the battlefield. Sending troops a message that they were fighting for a “Divided States of America” seemed to be demoralizing, petty, even dishonorable.
We also knew that in any group of troops, there were likely Republicans, Democrats and independents from blue urban areas, red rural communities and the purple suburbs. How dastardly it would be for us to disparage the personal politics of anyone brave enough to risk his or her life to defend our right to our opinions. So we didn’t venture into cheap political sound bites designed to degrade one party or the other. That not only would be callous, it would be a disservice to our troops and dishonorable to their service.
Some of my Republican friends have told me I’m overreacting, finding yet another fault in the president. But, Republicans, how would you have reached if Barack Obama turned a visit to troops into a partisan thwack at Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act, or any other issue?
By insulting Democrats, including some who may have been in his audience, Trump crossed a line. The commander in chief attacked the personal politics of those willing to give their lives to carry out his orders.
When we visited troops, we respected the honorable and critical tradition of the military to eschew partisan politics. As a Democrat, I don’t want a military of Democrats; I don’t know any Republican with whom I served in Congress who wanted a military of Republicans. We wanted the best trained, best equipped and most skillful warriors ready to protect and defend the Constitution, to provide for the common defense. We wanted people willing to watch the backs of their fellow warriors without thinking about ideology.
We don’t want our troops marching to the orders of a military junta or a specific political view. That might be acceptable in some countries. Not here.
I’m glad the president visited our troops. But the way he did it — trying to draw them into a cheap partisan brawl — was a grave disservice. If any member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, who visits our military knows that, so should the commander in chief.
Steve Israel, a Democrat from Huntington who served in the House of Representatives from 2001 to 2016, chairs the Global Institute at Long Island University.