By Alan W. Dowd
Trump tapped Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster last week to serve as his (second) national
security adviser, he touched off a now-familiar chorus of warnings and worries.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Trump (as this writer and this
publication have pointed out early and often), but his appointment of generals
to serve in key posts—during a time of war—is not one of them.
McMaster replaces former general Michael Flynn, who resigned
after it was revealed that he had misled Vice President Pence. In replacing Flynn, McMaster joins former
generals James Mattis (secretary of defense), John Kelly (secretary
of homeland security) and Keith Kellogg (chief of staff for the National
Security Council) in the Trump administration. In addition, Mike Pompeo, a West
Point grad and former Army captain, is Trump’s CIA director; and former Navy
SEAL commander Ryan Zinke is interior secretary.
into the overreaction from the press and some policymakers about Trump’s
affinity for generals, a word about Flynn’s resignation: Whether he withheld
information from Pence or misled him, Flynn’s actions made it impossible for the
former general to continue as national security advisor. Looking at the bright
side, perhaps the president’s second choice in this case will turn out as well
as President Reagan’s second choice for secretary of state (George Shultz
replaced the seemingly-unhinged Al Haig), or President Bush 41’s second choice
for defense secretary (Dick Cheney replaced John Tower, who was rejected by the
Senate), or President Clinton’s second chief of staff (Leon Panetta replaced
the badly-miscast Mack McLarty), or President Bush 43’s second choice for an
open Supreme Court seat (the highly-qualified Samuel Alito replaced the
under-qualified Harriet Miers after she withdrew from the nomination process).
We should hope and pray for the best.
Turning back to
the near-hysteria about Trump’s appointment of generals, 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 Gillibrandopposed a congressional waiver allowing Mattis to become secretary of defense
because “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 came from Sen.
an Iraq War veteran who called Trump’s appointments a “real danger.” She
even used the phrase “military junta” in voicing her concerns.
These comments make the
reaction to Trump’s appointment of McMaster sound tame by comparison. Calling
Mattis, Kelly and McMaster “a powerful troika”—interesting word choice—the pages of The New York Times have taken pains to point out Trump’s “reliance
on high-ranking military officers.” Sen. Jack Reed adds, “There are weighty
questions about senior active-duty officers and non-military service that
deserve careful consideration.”
The kneejerk opposition to former (or current) generals
serving in the administration is not surprising. As Americans, we know that civilian
control over the military is one of the foundation stones of our republic. We
wouldn’t have a republic without civilian control of the armed forces and the
rest of the federal government. But a little perspective is in order. There is
a civilian in charge of the federal government. His name is Donald Trump, and
he never served in the military, which continues a recent trend: Only one of
the four presidents elected between 1992 and 2016 served in the military (Bush
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. Reagan selected Gen. Colin Powell to serve as national security adviser, and Reagan
selected Haig (a four-star general and former NATO commander) to serve as
secretary of state. Bush 41 recruited Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft to serve as his
national security advisor. Bush 43 appointed Powell to lead the State
Department. And President Obama appointed 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.
In short, Trump’s decision to turn to, and lean on, generals
is nothing new. Americans have been doing that since the founding of the
As people of faith, we know that the soldier is essential to
maintaining some semblance of order in a world bent on chaos and destruction.
It pays to recall that Jesus had sterner words for scholars and scribes than He
did for soldiers. In fact, when a centurion asked Him to heal an ailing
servant, Jesus didn’t admonish the military commander to put down his sword.
Instead, He commendedhim. As soldier-turned-author Ralph
Peters reminds us, “Throughout both testaments, we encounter violent actors
and soldiers. They face timeless moral dilemmas. Interestingly, their social
validity is not questioned even in the Gospels...The thrust of the texts is to
improve rather than abolish the soldiery. It is assumed that soldiers are,
however regrettably, necessary.”
A Time of War
Whatever one’s view of the Trump 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 traverse. 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. McMaster led what is considered a textbook battle in Operation Desert
Storm; after 9/11 he served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi
Freedom. Far from sending in the cavalry wherever and whenever the president
sees a problem, they will serve as a calming and steadying influence on the new
commander-in-chief—something we should welcome given Trump’s demeanor.
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.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur counseled, “Never get
involved in a land war in Asia.”
Powell urged restraint during the Gulf War,
warned Clinton not to send troops into the Balkans, and sounded the loudest
warning before the Iraq War.
Lt. Gen. Michael Short 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.”
Gen. Eric Shinseki 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.
McMaster wrote a book about the need for
generals to push back against the preconceptions and inertia that can set in
during military conflict.
On the other hand, it was the politicians who ignored
MacArthur’s counsel in 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, while American troops were chewed up by the
thousands. 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 the general officers Trump has recruited into
the administration signals a welcome break from some of Obama’s most worrisome
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.”
Obama pulled U.S. stabilization forces out of Iraq, gambling
with the hard-earned gains of the surge. Mattis reported 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.”
shifted tactics from counterinsurgency operations (which relied on U.S.
personnel on the ground to engage the enemy and build relationships with
civilians) to drone strikes (which relied on unmanned
combat aerial vehicles to conduct remote-control war). As Leon Panetta, who
served as CIA director and defense secretary during the Obama administration,
observed, drones are “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying
to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership.” Thus, America came to be seen as detached
and remote in every sense of the word. McMaster warned in 2013 that “Wars
like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely.”
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.
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.”
focusing on “nation-building at home” and rolling the dice on the bipartisan gamble
known as sequestration, neither the White House nor Congress governed as if
America was at war in recent years. If the generals can remind the politicians
of that truth, they will have done another great service to our nation.