President-elect Donald Trump has tapped at least three retired generals to fill his administration’s top national-security positions.
He’s considering two others, Gen. David Petraeus and Navy Adm. James Stavridis, for the role of secretary of state.
And in the running for other high-level national-security positions have been NSA director and US Navy Adm. Mike Rogers, as well as retired generals Jack Keane and Stanley McChrystal.
The appointments — retired Gen. James Mattis as defence secretary, retired Gen. John Kelly as homeland security secretary, and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser — and potential nominees have sparked fears of a potential imbalance between civilian and military relations in a Trump administration.
“When many of the norms and institutions are under attack, we need to be more, not less, careful about the role of the military in our society,” Stephen Saideman, an expert on civil-military relations, wrote Thursday.
“Getting any complex agency to follow orders is hard,” Seideman wrote, referring to the US military. “Especially one that largely lives apart from society, that tends to attract leadership from only a small portion of the country, that socializes so very powerfully, and that is seen as one of the few institutions that is highly esteemed these days.”
Trump’s decision to surround himself with military brass is not without precedent. President Barack Obama, for instance, appointed Petraeus and Gen. Jim Jones as CIA director and national security adviser, respectively. Adm. Dennis Blair and Gen. James Clapper served as successive directors of national intelligence under Obama.
But Trump appears to be “setting a new precedent” by appointing generals who, though retired, have not been out of service for long.
“It certainly is not unprecedented for a commander in chief … to surround himself with military talent at multiple levels,” Ed Lengel, the chief historian at the White House Historical Association, told ABC on Thursday. “But Donald Trump’s appointment, particularly of officers who had retired so recently from military service, is quite unusual.”
He added: “Trump is setting a new precedent by appointing such a large number of recently retired staff level Cabinet members.”
Because Mattis only retired from the military three years ago, his appointment is in conflict with a US law that prohibits anyone who has been on active duty within the last 10 years from serving as secretary of defence. Congress is expected to waive that requirement, however, for the first time since George Marshall was tapped to lead the Pentagon in 1950.
“Appointing too many generals would throw off the balance of a system that for good reason favours civilian leadership,” The New York Times’ Carol Giacomo wrote late last month, pointing to the Constitutional mandate that the president serves as the military’s commander in chief.
“The concern is not so much that military leaders might drag the country into more wars,” Giacomo wrote. “It is that the Pentagon, with its nearly $600 billion budget, already exercises vast sway in national security policymaking and dwarfs the State Department in resources.”
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO’s Secretary General from 2005-2009, said during a conference call with reporters last month that the “one and only person being vetted [for defence secretary] that I consider a very experienced hand in foreign and security affairs is Stephen Hadley.”
Hadley, who served as President George W. Bush’s national security adviser and is now on the board of the US Institute of Peace, was ultimately passed over for Mattis.
‘The point is that he hates this s—‘
Others think the fear that the military will be vastly empowered under Trump has been overblown.
With the exception of Michael Flynn, “I don’t see them [the Generals] as a threat to the system,” Jeff White, a defence fellow at the Washington Institute, told Business Insider on Thursday. “There are a lot of upsides to the Cabinet generals, including strong organizational skills, disciplined thinking, problem-solving ability, issue knowledge, and goal-setting and pursuit.”
Still, he noted, the generals “could emerge as a ‘national security’ block within the Cabinet” and may lack the bureaucratic and political sense and skills required to lead an institution like the Pentagon or Department of Homeland Security.
Mattis is one example of someone who, while qualified, could struggle to thrive in a convoluted bureaucracy like the Pentagon, War on the Rocks’ Erin Simpson wrote last month.
“The point is not that Mattis is unqualified,” Simpson wrote. “Rather, the point is that he hates this s—.”
“Budgets, white papers, and service rivalries, not to mention the interagency meetings and White House meddling — these tasks are not what you go to Jim Mattis for. Not only does the role of secretary of defence not play to Mattis’ strengths, but success in that role would compromise much that we admire most in him: his bluntness, clarity, and single-minded focus on warfighting. The secretary’s job is by necessity much more political than all that. You can’t run the Pentagon like the First Marine Division.”
Trump has alienated many of the nation’s most senior national-security officials and veteran foreign-policy experts, however, leaving him with an apparent shortage of qualified Republicans willing to serve in his administration.
At least 100 GOP national-security leaders — most of whom served in previous Republican administrations and would be among the most highly qualified Republicans to advise Trump on foreign policy — effectively ruled themselves out after signing open letters in March and August saying he was “hateful,” “dishonest,” “dangerous,” “erratic,” and generally unfit for the presidency.
Trump has consistently brushed off criticism from establishment figures. He dismissed the August letter as the “failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power,” thanking them for “coming forward so everyone in the country knows who deserves the blame for making the world such a dangerous place.”
Yet based on the options Trump is considering, he might not be done picking generals. Politico reported Friday that Trump has asked friends and advisers in recent days “just how many generals would be too many.”
And Trump has quickly become enamoured with his pick to lead the Pentagon.
“‘Mad Dog’ plays no games, right?” he said at a Tuesday rally introducing Mattis.
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