The Trump Administration Is Right to Bring on the Generals

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If one is to believe the more excitable oracles of cable television and the blogosphere, Donald Trump’s selection of retired generals for high offices foretells a wholesale militarization of American society and government. Soon, the country will look like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, with American elementary schools teaching infantry tactics and U.S. generals plotting invasions of weaker countries. More-refined opponents of appointing retired officers warn that the government will rely excessively on the military to solve problems, internationally and perhaps also domestically.

Before applying for residency in Canada or Norway, Americans should examine the historical context of these prophesies. The historical record indicates, first of all, that opposition to former military leaders serving in government is most often applied selectively, based on one’s opinions of the president or president-elect. When Barack Obama appointed General James Jones his national-security adviser in 2009, only three years after Jones had retired, one heard little handwringing over “militarization” of the government. The prevailing view was that Obama was wise to add someone with military experience to his team.

Another inconsistency is to be found in the purported relevance of military experience to national leadership. During the presidency of George W. Bush, senior administration leaders were routinely denounced as “chicken hawks” because they had not fought in a war. Now, however, the self-appointed arbiters of moral authority say that we should not wish to be led by those who have served in wartime.

In an era when identity politics has proliferated in the upper strata of American society, we should not be surprised to hear pundits and politicians presuming to know the intentions of others from their prior affiliations. The purveyors of identity politics are as mistaken in this case as in others. Retired generals are no more prisoner to their profession than are retired professors or retired lawyers.

A wise military officer once warned against linking ability or character to the uniform that someone wears. Although military organizations work hard to cultivate good leaders, being a sailor or soldier, airman or Marine, Navy SEAL or Green Beret does not ensure that someone is a good leader. An officer’s ability to lead is primarily a function of personal attributes — such as commitment, judgment, vision, and integrity — and the key ones are the same in the military as in the civilian world. The incoming administration is well advised to select top officials primarily on the basis of personal attributes, not prior occupation or other identity category.

Having spent much of my career as a civilian within the Department of Defense, I have been fortunate to come to know Generals Mike Flynn, John Kelly, James Mattis, Stanley McChrystal, and David Petraeus. Each of them is far more qualified and far more committed to the nation’s interests than the individuals Obama put at the top of his national-security team, Dennis McDonough and Ben Rhodes. Having done work for or written books about all five of these generals, I can attest that each is a man of high character and intellect. Each has demonstrated skepticism about the use of military force — often greater skepticism than that expressed by civilian officials. As a result of decades spent studying and practicing the military arts, they know better than anyone what the military can and cannot accomplish, and how the military can be used most effectively in conjunction with diplomacy and aid.

When President Obama attempted to use the surgical strikes of drones and special-operations forces as a panacea for terrorism, the aforementioned generals — including the world’s two foremost practitioners of surgical counterterrorism, McChrystal and Flynn — objected that the strategy would fail. And they were right. Obama’s misguided counterterrorism strategy is the principal reason why he is bequeathing disastrous messes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan.

The soothsayers who forewarn of militarized doom also fail to consider the history of the United States prior to the 21st century. Twelve U.S. presidents were retired generals, starting with George Washington, who had been out of the military for less than six years when he became the nation’s first commander-in-chief. None sought to create paramilitary youth organizations, or to wage a new war each spring. In the current case, we are not even talking about the president, but his senior subordinates, and only through a complete disregard of human nature can one argue that Donald J. Trump will let his subordinates run the show.

Much of the fretting about “militarization” stems from a misreading of the nation’s one major experiment in military governance, Reconstruction. After the Civil War, U.S. military forces governed the former states of the Confederacy, where they remained until their removal by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. Many Americans believe that the act reflected disillusionment with military governance. Actually, unlike the civil governments of the Reconstruction era, the U.S. military had not governed poorly; it was withdrawn because its presence ensured enforcement of a racial equality that was anathema to white southerners.

When the U.S. military left the South, segregation followed. Racial equality would not return until 1957, when Dwight Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to deal with an Arkansas state government that had disobeyed the U.S. Supreme Court. The segregationist state government yielded, and the 101st Airborne went back to worrying about foreign enemies, which it has done ever since, aside from contending with the occasional riot. History suggests that the only “risk” posed by the involvement of the military in domestic affairs is that it will be employed to enforce civil rights or restore public order.

High representation of former U.S. military officers in the Trump administration will have salutary effects after eight years during which the president gave the military short shrift. Obama imposed a disproportionate share of federal budget cuts on the military and made military decisions based on what was good for his personal approval ratings or his reelection prospects rather than for the country. He overruled military objections to his social-engineering initiatives and consistently ignored strategic advice from senior military leaders. Several top generals were forced into retirement for disagreeing with Obama’s policies or his rose-colored views of the nation’s enemies. The presence of retired generals will help prevent further such wrongdoings and enable the administration to undo the damage that can still be undone.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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