After eight years of an Obama Pentagon, certain defense issues were meant to be settled, finished, over, dead—shot by a firing squad composed of History and Progress and rolled without ceremony into shallow graves. The list included the integration of women into combat jobs, the normalization of transgender troops, and the importance of green energy to the military. The imposition of draft registration on women, though not yet accomplished, was thought to be all but inevitable.
Especially on the social issues, conservative national security experts had long felt they were defending less and less favorable terrain, forced to make arguments the country (not to mention the president and his appointees) didn't want to hear. Eventually, there seemed to emerge a kind of unspoken consensus that it wasn't worth contesting these issues, because the limited political capital of national security conservatives was needed for more important debates, like the size of the Pentagon's budget.
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Well, that was then. "Social conservative" isn't exactly the description that springs to mind when one thinks of Donald Trump, but the fact is that social conservatives are in his coalition, and a fair few of them are going to get government appointments, including in the Defense Department—where their decisions will be subject to oversight from a Republican Congress. Additionally, there are those who, regardless of political labels, were always skeptical of imposing policies on the military that appeared to have political purposes beyond combat effectiveness.
Consider the case of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.) a Marine reserve officer, outspoken critic of the Obama administration, and an early Trump backer. Speaking to the Washington Times‘ Rowan Scarborough, Hunter called this morning for an "armed forces counterrevolution" that reverses policies that have "cut down on the warrior mentality." Scarborough reports that Hunter is under consideration for "Navy secretary or even secretary of defense."
Replacing the historically terrible Ray Mabus with Hunter would be a reversal on the order of Obama finding himself succeeded by Trump. Hunter's definition of a counterrevolution includes reopening the issues of women in combat and transgender service members, restoring the word "man" to titles in the Navy and Marine Corps (nixed by this year by Mabus, but for a handful of exceptions), and restoring the Navy's traditional rating system—an esoteric subject for outsiders, but another Mabus-driven reform that has caused an uproar amongst sailors.
Such a tack to the right would be popular among the troops, a narrow plurality of whom supported Trump for president in a September Military Times poll—close second was Gary Johnson, by the way, with Clinton a distant, distant third. Moreover, President Obama earned a shockingly low 15 percent approval rating in another Military Times survey taken at the end of 2014—a number the paper attributed, in part, to the social liberalism of his administration.
But that's the troops. Senior officers have spent eight years adapting to the reality of the Obama administration, which has, in turn, appointed officers assumed to be copacetic with its own worldview. On the social issues, public stands on principle have been rare—General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was a rare exception when, along with the General Robert Neller, the Marine Corps Commandant, he recommended certain exemptions for opening combat jobs for females late last year, only to be overruled by Ash Carter.
Moreover, it is less politically costly to prevent "reform" than it is to reverse it, and Trump administration counterrevolutionaries could find themselves dealing with a insurgency able to draw on plenty of support from the media, the out-of-power defense establishment, and from liberal pressure groups—who are already preparing to fight, and who are happy to take their issues to the courts. There is also the question of how much cover such efforts would really get from the White House, and from a president who has sent mixed signals on these issues. In some areas, compromise may end up being more realistic than a complete rollback: for example, granting the Marine Corps the well-documented exemption it originally requested on women in combat, without imposing a stop order on an Army that seems to have happily adopted the policies of the Obama administration.
But the mere fact that we are even having this conversation again shows just how much, and how quickly, things have changed.