President Joe Biden talks with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III during a visit to the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
How Biden Will — and Won’t— Battle the Pentagon

Early in his term as president, Donald Trump famously called America’s military leadership “my generals.” It was a description that might have rubbed the military the wrong way were it not for his decision to increase defense spending by some $100 billion over three years. The spending spree, which included pay raises for those in uniform, solidified Trump’s standing at the Defense Department and in the field. Many in the military, even in its most senior and skeptical ranks, supported Trump and celebrated his off-the-cuff derision of progressives.

The love affair didn’t last. Trump’s reproachful and mocking manner—“You’re all losers,” he said during his first full meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in July 2017. “You don’t know how to win anymore.”—so undermined his standing as commander in chief that, by the end of his term, the military was sick of him, with 2020 election polls showing a preference for Joe Biden among all ranks, an astonishing slippage in Trump’s support among a group that voted overwhelmingly for him four years prior. “I was really shocked by how many of my former colleagues voted for the former president and openly supported him,” said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who pointedly refused to mention Trump by name. “But when he [Trump] turned on the military, well, the military turned on him.”

And so it is that, even inside the military, President Joe Biden is defined not so much by who he is but by who he isn’t—namely, Donald Trump. The difference between Biden and Trump isn’t that Biden is loath to confront the military—quite the opposite. For decades, his dealings with officers have been marked by an insistence on showing he’s not intimidated by them. But the new president is steeped in the ways of Washington rather than reality television. Before Biden has had any chance of applying his deal-making powers abroad, he has already been using his full range of diplomatic skills at the Pentagon.

Biden remains largely a mystery to the military, and there’s a good reason why. While Biden served for 36 years in the U.S. Senate, his experience with the military’s upper echelons has been incidental. “We have to remember that Biden headed up the Senate judiciary and foreign relations committees,” said Gordon Adams, a former White House official for diplomacy, foreign assistance, defense, and intelligence budgeting. “That’s not to say that Biden didn’t know or talk with military leaders, because he certainly did, but his primary contacts were with diplomats, not generals.”

Read the full article in Foreign Policy.

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