Politics & Policy

Trump Is Wise to Surround Himself with Generals

General John Kelly adresses Marines and sailors aboard USS America in 2014. (Photo: Corporal Donald Holbert)
Former officers — such as one George Washington — can be extremely effective and cautious civilian leaders.

We’ve reached an odd point in American political discourse when a civilian president-elect can appoint three civilian former members of the military to key positions in his administration (with his cabinet appointees being confirmed by a civilian Senate) and mainstream journalists fret about whether Donald Trump is forming a “junta.”

Yet that actually happened yesterday, when Politico’s Julia Ioffe tweeted: “Three generals and maybe a fourth. Can we just cut to the chase and call ourselves a junta?” The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson mused on Twitter: “How many generals do you need in government before you technically become a junta?” Then, last night the Washington Post picked up on the theme, writing an article titled “Trump Hires a Third General, Raising Concerns about Heavy Military Influence.”

Trump has tapped retired general Michael Flynn to be his national-security adviser, James Mattis to be secretary of defense, and now John Kelly to run the Department of Homeland Security. These choices are causing “worries” at the Post:

Trump’s choice of Kelly — and his continued deliberations about tapping as many as two more military figures for other posts — has intensified worries among some members of Congress and national-security experts that the new administration’s policies may be shaped disproportionately by military commanders.

Trump should ignore these concerns. With the possible exception of Michael Flynn (who has made a number of erratic statements since he retired, although he has a formidable service record), his selections are the right political, operational, and strategic choices.

How can the most disliked and most distrusted president-elect in American history signal that he’s competent and capable of leading the nation? By appointing people from the nation’s most trusted institution to important positions. We can’t forget that in an era when trust for government and other civic institutions is plunging, the military has retained strong public support.

And it has that support for a reason. In 15 years of war since 9/11, the military has consistently fought with honor, courage, and excellence. The best military in the world isn’t built by accident, nor is it maintained through negligence. The generals who are responsible for some of the military’s greatest recent successes — whether it’s the brilliant push to Baghdad in the 2003 Iraq invasion or the intelligence innovations that empowered the deadliest aspects of the Surge — have proven that they’re worthy of respect. And in polarized times, respect is a precious commodity.

But the choices are wise for reasons beyond public support, however well earned. Most Americans can’t possibly understand the immense challenge of leading large formations in the modern military. A general is a warfighter, yes, but he’s also a human-resources officer, a procurements expert, and a manager. A general is accustomed to dealing with bloated bureaucracies and making them bend to his will. The military has an extremely sharp and deadly spear, but behind that small tip is a bureaucracy so unwieldy that it can make you weep with frustration. No general has been capable of stripping down that bureaucracy — no person has proven that powerful — but the best generals can at least shape it, command it, and accomplish the mission.

Selecting retired generals for key national-security posts is a key signal that Trump is shunning a law-enforcement approach to the war on terror. For the time being, the longstanding debate about whether terrorism is primarily a police challenge (like fighting a Mafia on steroids) or a military challenge is over. And that’s very welcome news. Jihadists present a military-scale challenge to American lives and treasure, and we must counter that with a consistent military-scale response.

Selecting retired generals for key national-security posts is a key signal that Trump is shunning a law-enforcement approach to the war on terror.

Critically, however, if Trump truly listens to his generals, that does not mean that America will necessarily be more interventionist. No one is more familiar with the capabilities and (crucially) limits of American power than the class of officers who’ve been fighting jihad since 2001. No one knows the costs of war more than those who’ve led men in combat or — like General Kelly — lost children in war. The crucible of combat combined with the inherent frustration of fighting an enemy such as ISIS or al-Qaeda has created widely divergent viewpoints among senior officers. The military isn’t an ideological or strategic monoculture, and I would expect Flynn and Mattis to clash over strategy and tactics. Managed properly, that’s a good thing.

There is simply no good reason to be suspicious of retired generals unless we see specific evidence of moral, intellectual, or strategic failings. At the same time, no one should presume they’ll be successful in civilian office. American history is littered with examples of retired warriors who simply couldn’t lead civilians effectively. Others have been outstanding. But we can’t know the future. We only know the present and the past. We should judge Trump’s picks on what we know, not what we can’t predict.

#related#Civilian control of the government is indispensable to the American republic, but if the Founders of that republic had the slightest concern that former officers were less qualified to govern, they wouldn’t have wanted the commander in chief of the Continental Army to become our nation’s first president. It was that retired general who established many of the traditions and customs of the presidency — traditions and customs that limited the control and influence of that office. He could have been a near-king, a warrior-leader of our new nation. Instead, he chose to be a constitutional president.

Trump’s generals aren’t “dangerous.” They fit within a long and distinguished line of military leaders who went on to serve their nation as civilians. We now hope they will serve as well in business suits as they did in combat boots.

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