The first few hundred US troops arrived on the southern US border on Friday, just days after President Trump announced that active forces are already joining the US Customs and Border Guard (CBP) and National Guard would. On October 29, the Pentagon announced that some 5,000 troops would be approaching the border – a move that includes "air and ground transportation and logistics support," "anti-battalions" and "medical support units" as well as surveillance technology and expedition members housing for CBP personnel.
The US government hopes the "Show of Force" will prevent the caravan of 3,500 to 7,000 migrants marching through Central America to Mexico from entering the US.
Critics accuse the Trump administration of "wagging the dog" of using the military to create a threat that will boost the Republicans ahead of the highly competitive elections – the president himself calls the interim referendum a "referendum" on his own Office performance. Supporters claim that the military presence is necessary to defend US national security and sovereignty.
Americans rely on an apolitical, impartial military to preserve our democracy. Therefore, this mission gives rise to concern that the military is drawn dangerously into politics:
1. This deployment level has no operational reasons
The armed forces are clearly surprising the migrants. Combining the initial projection of 5,200 fresh troops with the 2,092 National Guardsmen deployed earlier, the ratio of troops to asylum seekers is nearly 2 to 1, and the ratio may increase as weary marchers move away from the caravan.
Despite the hiring problems, the firepower, logistics, mobility, and communications of the border patrol – even without reinforcements – surpass the abilities of individuals walking on foot and families who may have cell phones and clothing, but little else.
2. The Americans value the military – and the politicians know that
It is not the first time that the credibility of the military towards the American public has been used to sign election goals. And because US troops are socially desirable, they can be used as a shield against political criticism. However, the debates about the operational logic of this station mask the deeper impact that such decisions can have on the domestic role of the military.
The military is one of the few institutions that still admires a comfortable majority of Americans – military approval has not dropped below 70 percent in the last 10 years. Trump counts the military among his supporters and surrounded himself early in his reign with retired and active general officers. He bragged after the 2016 elections that the military had mostly voted for him and brought the audience together on military bases to shout anti-media chants.
3. The use of the military in their own country has long been controversial
Trump's border movements have generated considerable controversy among military veterans.
Throughout the history of the United States, civilians inside and outside the government have generally acknowledged that neither military personnel nor politicians should use the military as a domestic coercive or police force instrument. This is expressly prohibited by the Posse Comitatus.
Why is that a concern? In extreme cases, routinizing the use of the military to achieve political goals raises concerns about slippage towards political violence and even coups. When officers and their institutions are used to legitimize a domestic agenda, partisans could end up threatening opponents with violence, not just electoral losses. Coups evolve when the military itself uses its power of coercion to protect its own interests to take control of the government.
Have Americans ever had to seriously worry about a military coup? Luckily, the answer is no. In addition, Posse Comitatus prevents the use of military force in one's own country, and presidents tend not to use the military explicitly in elections.
4. The scope and timing make this deployment different
There have been instances of Presidential Election forces – including the stationing of troops by Presidents Bush and Obama at the southern border (in 2006 and 2010).
What makes this deployment different is not just the extent that Trump seems to build daily, but also the timing just before the interludes and its political context.
Trump's decision to send more troops – "somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 servicemen" a week – is likely to point to votes proving that Republican voters have concerns about immigration. The government has been arguing for weeks that immigrants and especially the caravan pose a threat to migrants. "This is an invasion of our country and our military is waiting for you!" Was the message in a presidential tweet. The President accuses the Democrats of lax immigration policy and loose border security.
The migrants caravan is currently about 900 miles (300 hours walk) south of the southernmost section of the US border. The militarization of the southern border this past week seems to be a dramatic gesture to increase public perceptions and perhaps collect Republicans in polling booths on Tuesday.
5. In an era of polarization, the mission risks further politicization of the military
Candidates for high office have been seeking advocates for officers for years, including during the last election cycle. Critics argue that deepening the role of the military in electoral politics promotes narrower than national interests. If such abuses continue, the military could join a party – or a political instrument for any party assuming the position of commander-in-chief.
The public foundations for this result already exist. In a talk presented at the American Political Science Association conference in August, Peter Feaver and Jim Golby noted that their surveys and other surveys show that "public trust in the military is essentially dependent on partisanship and political ideology "As a Republican, the military on average has far more confidence than someone who identifies himself as a Democrat. However, Golby and others also found that strong partisans in the United States show greater confidence in the military when a member of their own party is president – and Democrat confidence in the military increases dramatically when a Democrat is a president ,
The confidence Americans have in their armed forces in the political assets of their own party is something to worry about, perhaps to politicize the military, and create a civil-military dynamic unhealthy for US democracy.
Alice Hunt Friend is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a PhD candidate at the School of International Service of the American University. She was the chief African affairs director at the Defense Secretary's office from 2012 to 2014. Find her on Twitter @ahfdc.