When President Trump picked John Kelly, the retired four-star Marine general who had been leading the Department of Homeland Security, as his new chief of staff, most people were relieved.
This is no accident. Poll after poll reveals that the military is essentially the only institution that Americans still trust. Consider the alternatives: politicians, party hacks, lawyers, big-shot CEOs, labor leaders, and finance executives are all immediately derided, even when we know nothing about them personally. Appointing any one of them would be a political risk. Only generals, despite the outcomes of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, still seem to merit the goodwill of the American people.
The American people’s confidence in the military is a pillar of American strength. In a democratic society, popular support is necessary to sustain the allocation of outsize levels of funding to defense. And such funding, of course, allows us to project power across the world, protecting the liberal order.
But as Bob Kagan has written, this mission requires more than money. It is also a “heavy moral burden for a democratic people to bear.” The American people must trust their nation and its military to operate competently, justly, and in their own best interests. If this trust were to be shaken, little would stop Americans from simply shrugging off the burden Kagan describes. Our ability to meet our international commitments and craft a superpower’s foreign policy would rapidly diminish.
We shouldn’t threaten that confidence by placing so many recently retired generals in political positions. For example, Trump may well demand that General Kelly, like Reince Priebus before him, blatantly lie to the public in his defense, or aggressively attack the media and Democrats. Seeing Kelly become a hack in the service of a particularly divisive president would reflect poorly upon the military, tarnishing its prestige in the eyes of Trump’s many political opponents.
It is not difficult to imagine General Kelly performing an overtly partisan role. Once, in handing the president a ceremonial saber, he joked that Trump should use it on the press. In April, Kelly said that if lawmakers do not like the laws that the executive branch enforces, they should change them. Otherwise, he suggested, they should “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.” No one should tell Congress to “shut up,” but when a general does so, it inevitably means something more.
In a time of such political polarization, this is extremely dangerous to the long-term health of the U.S. military, the institution that keeps us safe.
That Kelly is a retired general is irrelevant; he is still widely perceived as a military man. We, along with the president, call him “General Kelly” for a reason. Watching a military leader quickly transition from general to controversial political partisan, as Trump demands, rank-and-file Democrats may feel that the military is taking sides. In a time of such political polarization, this is extremely dangerous to the long-term health of the U.S. military, the institution that keeps us safe.
Some will argue that it is even more important to have Kelly’s experienced military presence by the president’s side. Perhaps this would be convincing if Trump did not already have so many generals in key civilian positions. General H. R. McMaster was chosen to be the national security adviser, the president’s chief in-house aid on these important questions. General Mattis was chosen and received a special waiver to take charge of the military itself.
These positions are usually reserved for civilians, to ensure civilian oversight of the military, and to balance out the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Now add General Kelly as the president’s chief of staff, in charge of access to the Oval Office, and military men will surround Trump. It falls to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bring a different point of view, but he is a foreign-policy novice, like President Trump himself. Neither has the wealth of experience to confidently or capably stand up to the generals in the Situation Room.
One can point to General Al Haig, who became chief of staff under President Nixon in 1973, as precedent. But Haig was not joined by other generals in key civilian positions. Throughout his tenure, both the secretary of defense and the national security adviser were civilians. That NSA, later the secretary of state, also happened to be Henry Kissinger, a knowledgeable and trusted strategic planner. Rex Tillerson, needless to say, is no Henry Kissinger.
My worry is not John Kelly. It is that there will not be a substantial civilian presence to advise Trump on military issues, and think differently from the military brass, subordinating military objectives to larger American political interests. In such circumstances, groupthink will become even more dangerous than it usually is; when everybody thinks the same, nobody thinks anything at all.
Already, Trump has shown incredible deference to his generals, delegating control over troop levels in Afghanistan to Mattis and the Pentagon. Some may mistakenly find this abandonment of civilian political control reassuring, but they forget that “War is too important to be left to the generals,” as Georges Clemenceau once put it.
This understanding of war begins with Carl von Clausewitz’s famous observation that “War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” The goals of military action are political in their nature, and thus subject to political debate and control. As Winston Churchill wrote in 1923, “The distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit true politics and strategy are one.”
In his 2002 masterpiece Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime, professor Eliot Cohen explains that good political leaders stay actively involved in their nation’s military strategy and operations, “querying, prodding, suggesting, arbitrating, and, on rare occasion, ordering their professional subordinates,” the generals, and thereby making them better.
Churchill once said, “It is always right to probe.” In addition to setting strategies and goals at the outset of military conflicts, it is surely the responsibility of civilian leaders to probe their military commands, keeping them motivated, honest, and free of groupthink. But who will take up this task if the president is distracted and the top of the civilian command structure is largely populated by senior military officers?
Generals have always wanted a free hand in war, away from meddling politicians. As Consul Lucius Aemilius of Rome declared in 168 b.c., upon proposing to resume war against Macedonia:
If there is anyone who is confident that he can advise me as to the best advantage of the state in this campaign which I am about to conduct, let him not refuses his services to the state, but come with me into Macedonia. . . . If anyone is reluctant to do this and prefers the leisure of the city to the hardships of campaigning, let him not steer the ship from on shore.
Indeed, in a famous speech to the Semper Fi Society of St. Louis, General Kelly repeatedly drew sharp distinctions between the sacrifices and greater virtue of those who serve and the softness of those who do not. I do not condemn him for this; the speech was meant to be inspirational and was delivered shortly after the valiant death of Kelly’s son. But it is representative of a common attitude: The military takes the risks and the military knows best, so leave the decisions to them.
This sounds proper, but is in fact misguided. Even the general on the front lines cannot see what civilians can see from the summit of government. And military judgment is by no means infallible. Generals often have little experience in fighting the types of wars that arise, and thus try to fight the last war instead. For example, how ready will our generals, who have cut their teeth in counterinsurgency warfare in the Middle East, be to fight a nuclear-armed North Korea?
Just imagine what would have happened if no civilian had been willing to challenge the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1962, when they unanimously recommended a preemptive strike on Cuba. We now believe that the Soviets were prepared to launch tactical nuclear weapons at the U.S. in the event of such a strike. It took Robert McNamara, a former business executive serving as secretary of defense, to intervene and suggest a blockade.
Trump could well face a similar national-security crisis or two in his time in office. That is the responsibility that comes with the chair — no matter how “fit” its occupant may or may not be. In such a crisis, military leaders will have all sorts of recommendations, no doubt delivered with the confidence befitting their expertise. But for the good of the country, Trump needs more civilian principals empowered to challenge, or at least probe, his generals’ advice.
— Elliot Kaufman is an editorial intern at National Review.