January 2017 – As of this writing, President-elect Donald Trump has appointed four former general officers to key national-security posts: James Mattis to lead the Pentagon, John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Flynn to serve as national security advisor and Keith Kellogg as chief of staff for the National Security Council (NSC). In addition, Trump has nominated Congressman Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander and Iraq War veteran, to head the Interior Department; and Congressman Mike Pompeo, a West Point grad and Cold War-era veteran, to lead the CIA.
Trump’s appointment of so many former military men to the cabinet and other posts has drawn concerns from several current and former policymakers. For instance, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel worries that having Mattis as the top man at the Pentagon could “undermine the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” Sen. Chris Murphy says, “I’m concerned…What we’ve learned over the past 15 years is that when we view problems in the world through a military lens, we make big mistakes.” Daniel Benjamin, a former counterterrorism official in the Obama administration, warns, “Generals as a rule believe in hierarchies and taking orders, and if the president gives them an order you have to wonder how likely they are to push back against it.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand says she will vote against a congressional waiver allowing Mattis to become secretary of defense, declaring, “Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule.”
But by far the most over-the-top criticism comes from Sen.-elect Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who calls Trump’s appointments a “real danger.” She even used the phrase “military junta” in voicing her concerns.
To be sure, civilian control over the military is one of the foundation stones of America’s republic. We wouldn’t have a republic without civilian control of the armed forces and the rest of the federal government. Of course, there will be a civilian in charge of the federal government. His name is Donald Trump. The president-elect has never served in the military, which continues a recent trend: By the time America inaugurates its 45th commander-in-chief, only one of the four presidents elected between 1992 and 2016 will have served in the military. (The same trend is evident at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. As the Congressional Research Service reports, the number of veterans peaked in the House in 1967-68, when veterans accounted for 75.2 percent of the body, and in the Senate during in 1975-76, when veterans comprised 80 percent of the upper chamber. The new Congress will have 103 veterans, or just 19 percent.)
Notwithstanding the hysterics about Trump’s cabinet, it pays to recall that President Truman appointed Gen. George Marshall to lead the State Department and the Defense Department. President Bush 41 recruited Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft to lead the NSC. President Bush 43 appointed Gen. Colin Powell to lead the State Department. And President Obama tapped Gen. David Petraeus to lead the CIA. Moreover, 11 of America’s presidents—including the father of our country—were generals before they served as chief executive.
Whatever one’s view of the incoming administration, there are benefits to sprinkling the cabinet with military veterans.
First, confidence in our elective institutions is at its lowest point ever, while confidence in the military is the highest of any institution in America. Gallup polling reveals that 72 percent of Americans have high confidence in the military, while only 33 percent express confidence in the presidency and just 8 percent express confidence in Congress. Given those numbers, it stands to reason that turning to successful former general officers could help Americans regain confidence in their government.
Second, this is a unique period in American history: Given that America’s military has been engaged in ongoing kinetic operations for more than 15 years—with no clear end in sight—it seems reasonable to have former military men in charge of agencies that deal with national defense, homeland security and intelligence operations.
These men have proven they can execute missions, manage large systems and navigate the diverse political-diplomatic-international-interpersonal terrain a modern general must navigate. Plus, they have seen and borne the cost of battle. Kelly’s son was killed in combat in Afghanistan. Kelly deployed on lengthy tours to Iraq. Mattis led the assault into Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, liberated Kandahar during Operation Enduring Freedom, commanded the 1st Marine Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom and guided the Marines in Fallujah. Flynn deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. Far from sending in the cavalry wherever and whenever the president sees a problem, they will more likely serve as a calming and steadying influence on the new commander-in-chief.
Those who warn about former generals not “pushing back against” the president’s orders and/or preferring military options over other alternatives have watched too many movies and read too little history. Consider:
It was Gen. Douglas MacArthur who counseled, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”
It was Powell who urged restraint during the Gulf War, warned President Clinton not to send troops into the Balkans, and sounded the loudest warning before the Iraq War.
It was Lt. Gen. Michael Short who traveled to Belgrade to plead with Slobodan Milosevic to change course and avoid war, warning the Serbian strongman, “Nothing here will ever be the same, if we do this.”
It was Gen. Eric Shinseki who urged the Bush administration in 2002 to deploy “several hundred thousand soldiers” to ensure a decisive victory in Iraq and to provide for postwar stability.
On the other hand, it was the politicians who ignored MacArthur’s counsel in Korea and Vietnam.
It was politicians like Dean Acheson who thoughtlessly and haphazardly declared where America’s security interests ended in Asia, thus giving a green light to the communist bloc in Korea.
It was politicians like President Johnson and President Nixon who chose incrementalism and bombing pauses in Vietnam instead of an overwhelming force of ground troops and a ferocious air campaign.
It was politicians like Madeleine Albright who glibly asked Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
In short, America’s generals are not to blame for America’s wars.
Third, each of Trump’s high-profile appointments signals a break from some of President Obama’s most worrisome national-security positions.
President Obama made an unenforceable deal with an untrustworthy Iran. Mattis takes a clear-eyed view of Iran, calling it “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East…a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem.” He warns that the nuclear deal only delayed the day of reckoning: “What we achieved was a nuclear pause, not a nuclear halt. We’re going to have to plan for the worst.”
President Obama pulled U.S. stabilization forces out of Iraq, gambling with the hard-earned gains of the surge. Mattis reported to Congress that “senior military officers…explained that the successes we’d achieved by 2010-2011 were—and this is a quote—’reversible,’ that the democratic processes and the military capability were too nascent to pull everyone out at one time.”
President Obama ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention facility. Kelly opposed the plan, defended the need for such a facility and warned about the many threats encroaching on the Western Hemisphere.
Before leaving his post at SOUTHCOM, Kelly noted that “terrorist organizations could seek to leverage” existing smuggling routes into our southern borders “to move operatives with intent to cause grave harm to our citizens.”
He reported that Iran has established 80 “cultural centers” in Latin America—“a region with an extremely small Muslim population.” Calling Iran “the foremost state sponsor of terrorism,” he described “Iran’s involvement in the region…a matter for concern.”
While the Obama administration tried to “reset” relations with Moscow, Kelly told Congress that Russia “has pursued an increased presence in Latin America through propaganda, military arms and equipment sales” and has tried “to gain access to air bases and ports for resupply of Russian naval assets and strategic bombers operating in the Western Hemisphere.”
While the Obama administration expunged the phrase “war on terror” from the federal government’s vocabulary, declared al Qaeda “on the path to defeat,” called ISIS a “JV team” and said it was time “to turn the page” on years of war, Kelly bluntly countered, “We are at war…our country today is in a life and death struggle against an evil enemy…Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, and has a single focus and that is either kill every one of us here at home, or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that decent men and women could ever grasp.” And Kelly defended our defenders. “If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service and not support the cause for which they fight—America’s survival—then these people are lying to themselves and rationalizing away something in their own lives, but more importantly they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to this nation,” he explained. “It’s not Bush’s war. It’s not Obama’s war. It’s our war and we can’t run away from it.”
Flynn never could understand the administration’s refusal to call the enemy by its name, and that name, in his view, is “radical Islamic terrorism.” As director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he was unyielding in his view that al Qaeda and other jihadist groups were far from defeated, regardless of the administration’s assertions to the contrary. Like Kelly, Flynn pleaded privately and then publicly for the American people and their government to get serious about waging the war that began on 9/11: “We have to energize every element of national power—similar to the effort during World War II or during the Cold War—to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle.”
After focusing on “nation-building at home,” after the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, after “leading from behind” in Libya and erasing “red lines” in Syria, Washington has not heeded that advice. Perhaps that’s about to change.