In this piece, U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer Anthony Clay examines the concept of Command by Negation and the impact of this cornerstone of military accountability on President Donald Trump’s relatively uninvolved approach to the role of Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


In the 1980s the U.S. Navy developed a process of conducting Battle Group defensive actions relying on the judgement of the lowest necessary commander. Acting on framework of orders set up by the superior officer, it allowed the rapid deployment of tactics, and only required intervention when there were conditions requiring the approval, or disapproval, of the next higher in the Chain of Command. This term was dubbed Command by Negation.

The core of Command by Negation is the oft repeated principle that you can delegate authority, but not responsibility. While this was principally developed for tactical warfare, where speed of response is of the essence, the concept is as old as the military itself. While there are many situations where an Army marched under the direct orders of the General, there were always units detached to conduct individual tactical maneuvers, free from the view of the General, but still operating under his guidance.

Military operations in the modern world operate with many of these principles on a daily basis. A small unit commander has responsibility to conduct small operations in his Area of Responsibility (AOR), but when there are incidents he is obligated to report to his higher. And he, having a larger AOR, is responsible to his superior, and so on. And with each level comes the ownership of the responsibility, and the delegation of authority.

With tensions rising and U.S. forces operating in tightly packed contested spaces along the NATO-Russian frontier, along the 38th Parallel, throughout the South China Sea and across the Arabian Gulf, the President must hold himself accountable for the actions of military forces which could spark major diplomatic crises through miscalculation or misstep.

In the organization of the U.S. Armed Forces, only one person doesn’t have a superior with whom to share responsibility: the Commander-in-Chief. This is one of the central roles of the President of the United States. As it pertains to the U.S. military, the entire world is his AOR.

President Trumps assertion early in his presidency that he would turn many of the decisions over to his “Generals” was met with some degree of skepticism. It wasn’t that he was ceding much of the day to day operations, it’s that he was ceding major decisions that would directly affect military and diplomatic affairs. The first hint of what was to come was a botched January 2017 raid in Yemen, leading to the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens: A mission that had previously been reviewed by the Obama Administration but delayed in approval for “operational reasons”. Ostensibly the nascent Trump Administration, looking for a PR win after a rough few months of scandals, gave the go ahead.

Following the mission, the death, and the realization that the intelligence was less than what was originally expected, the President said the following in an interview on Fox News; “This was something that was, you know, just they wanted to do. And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. My generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.” This sentiment from the president was decried by some, and defended by others given his virtually nonexistent understanding of military operations and capabilities.

On April 13, 2017, in a press conference after the employment of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast “MOAB” bomb in Afghanistan without his direct approval, President Trump outlined his perspective in his typically vague way. “What I do is I authorize my military, we have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done a job as usual. We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”

The vagueness of the direction from the Commander-in-Chief has led to some clashes, both figurative and literal. In a Tweet on July 26th President Trump issued a policy that no transgender individuals would be allowed to serve in the Armed Forces. There was very little follow up direction from the President, and the direction was placed at the feet of the Secretary of Defense, recently retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, for implementation. As someone who had previously been supportive of incorporating trans gender service members, Mattis delayed implementation and an injunction was placed on its implementation on 30 October.

Another area where this delegation of command has led to issues is regarding deployed troop numbers. Deployment levels throughout the world were delegated down to the geographic area commanders, and that in turn led to the expansion of operations in Africa, independent of White House oversight. Many in Congress were in fact unaware that there were combat operations being conducted in Niger at all, let alone the recent increases in troop levels under the auspices of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) order. This order was signed in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and was originally written to combat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

When four soldiers were killed in an apparent ambush in Niger on October 4th 2017, there was little apparent understanding by those in government responsible for civilian control of the military. This was further compounded by silence from the President and the White House staff. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders gave a brief mention the day after the attack in her daily press conference. In all, the President took 12 days to respond, and then engaged in an open war of words with the wife of one of the soldiers killed in the ambush. He appeared to try and distance himself from the operation and the mission, again deflecting responsibility down. While there is no one who rightly believes that the President should be single-handedly authorizing all missions of any size, Command by Negation ensures that the responsibility rests with him.

Whether the Commander-in-Chief chooses to retain authority for troop movements, and the management at the strategic and operational levels of war, he can not divest responsibility for the activities conducted by those under his command. As he takes himself out of the equation, the President begins the process of eroding the civilian control of the military, which is enshrined as a fundamental aspect of the United States’ stability. With tensions rising and U.S. forces operating in tightly packed contested spaces along the NATO-Russian frontier, along the 38th Parallel, throughout the South China Sea and across the Arabian Gulf, the President must hold himself accountable for the actions of military forces which could spark major diplomatic crises through miscalculation or misstep.


Anthony Clay is a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy who has served in every operational fleet, and most geographic Combatant Commands. He has an International Relations Degree from Tulane University and a Operations Research Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. Anthony is currently assigned to a staff posting within a numbered fleet.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

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