ASCF Report, 1.3.17
By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
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 Gillibrandsays 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
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. Mattistakes 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 opposedthe plan, defendedthe need for such a facility and warned about the many threats encroaching on
the Western Hemisphere.
Before leaving his post at SOUTHCOM, Kellynoted 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
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.”
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.