Trump and the generals – a good or a bad thing?

There seems to be growing concern over Donald Trump’s proposed appointments of three former generals to senior positions in his Administration:

  • Retired Army Lieutenant-General Mike Flynn as National Security Adviser;
  • Retired Marine General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense;  and
  • Retired Marine General John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security.

I’ll mention two critical articles first, then give my own views.  First, the Wall Street Journal opines:

President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday turned to a third retired military officer to help him run the country when he takes office in January, a move that represents an unusual level of military influence in the executive branch.

. . .

In so doing, Mr. Trump is plumbing the global expertise and experience that comes with a life in the U.S. military, but he has also aroused concerns that his reliance on retired officers to lead security agencies ignores an important constitutional tenet of civilian oversight of the government.

“I can’t honestly recall an administration with as many flag officers” in top roles, said Thomas Alan Schwartz, a history professor at Vanderbilt University. “I think this is probably somewhat unprecedented.”

. . .

Critics of Mr. Trump … believe the choices threaten the constitutional fire wall between the civilian government and the military. “This is not normal,” said Stephen Miles, director of the antiwar Win Without War coalition. “As the saying goes, if all you have is hammers, everything looks like a nail.”

. . .

Mr. Trump hasn’t discussed the reasoning behind his choices, and they may reflect his desire for results-oriented individuals who approach problems pragmatically, not necessarily ideologically, as experts say military officers tend to do.

“These nominations and appointments of former military leaders do make a break from the GOP establishment, the traditional think tankers and former government officials of previous Republican administrations—a break which the candidate promised, if elected,” said Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University.

It may also be Mr. Trump’s reaction to the Obama presidency. The Obama White House is widely seen as being leery of the Pentagon’s power and the agendas of its generals ever since the decision to “surge” troops into Afghanistan in 2009. That move came after Mr. Obama and his national security advisers felt boxed in after the plans were leaked.

There’s more at the link.

Next, the Washington Post weighs in on the subject.

“I’m concerned,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “Each of these individuals may have great merit in their own right, but 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.”

. . .

Trump’s heavy reliance on military leaders marks a departure from the previous three presidents, who tapped a few generals for the highest jobs with mixed success and relied mostly on people who had spent decades in civilian service, as politicians or academics or lawyers.

“Trump is clearly operating out of a particular model,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Almost all of his Cabinet will be made up of people from the military or people from a corporate background, and what they have in common is strong leadership and executive ­decision-making.”

. . .

Daniel Benjamin, the former senior counterterrorism official at the State Department in the Obama administration and now a professor at Dartmouth College, said having too many generals in what are traditionally civilian positions is “a matter of deep concern.”

“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,” Benjamin said. “Generals have one set of skills, and diplomacy is not in the top drawer of that tool kit.”

On social media Wednesday, there was some snarky commentary about Trump’s emerging Cabinet resembling “a military junta.” Anthony Scaramucci, a Trump transition team official, defended Trump’s selections on Twitter: “Decorated American Generals aren’t warmongers — they’re among the most intelligent, disciplined & patriotic people our country has to offer!”

Most military officers have spent their entire careers within structured organizations with large staffs and clear chains of command. Sometimes they struggle in the more freewheeling world of politics and policy — to say nothing of what is expected to be the Trump White House’s unpredictable environment.

“Great generals don’t always make great Cabinet officials,” said Phil Carter, an Iraq War veteran and senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security.

Again, more at the link.

My responses are mixed.  I think the critics are partly right, but partly wrong.  Let’s start with an area of agreement.

I regard an overly authoritarian emphasis in any administration as potentially dangerous.  For example, I agree that Senator Jeff Sessions is technically well qualified for the post of Attorney-General of the United States, for which Mr. Trump has nominated him.  Nevertheless, I’m worried by several of the positions he’s taken as a Senator, where he’s supported infringements on personal privacy in the name of electronic security, and restricted the long overdue reform of a clearly broken criminal justice system.  If he uses the authority of the Attorney-General’s office to pursue his personal agendas in those issues, that will be as egregious an overreach as was the conduct of Eric Holder (e.g. in racial and voting rights issues) and Loretta Lynch (e.g. in stonewalling investigations into IRS misconduct and the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal) in misusing that office for their own partisan political agendas.  If we (rightly, IMHO) condemn both of the latter cases, we certainly need to be on our guard against the former.

I think having former Generals in positions of executive authority in a political administration may – I say again, may, not necessarily will – risk a similar problem.  Whether or not it does depends on the generals concerned, and on the President, who must supervise and control them.  Generals are used to saying “Frog!” and seeing people jump in response.  (Or, as a former Navy SEAL once put it, “If I say ‘S***!’, you just ask how much and what color.”)  Having been in situations where such discipline was entirely appropriate and absolutely necessary, I can’t disagree with it under such conditions.  However, it probably won’t work in a largely civilian administration.  I think critics are right to be cautious about the potential for such conflicting approaches . . . but again I emphasize, that’s potential, not necessarily actual.  Only time will tell whether or not it happens.

Despite these risks, there are some very real potential upsides as well.  One of them is that generals are accustomed to getting things done, and holding accountable subordinates who don’t get them done.  When the WSJ says that their appointments “reflect [Mr. Trump’s] desire for results-oriented individuals who approach problems pragmatically, not necessarily ideologically”, I think that’s exactly correct – and very appropriate, too.

The Federal bureaucracy is legendary for its entrenched stubbornness and recalcitrance.  Lifelong bureaucrats, who know they can’t be fired without a long, involved, elaborate process that requires jumping through all sorts of hoops that they themselves have erected in order to protect themselves, are notorious for doing as they see fit, irrespective of the policies of the administration of the time.  Examples:  the EPA conniving with pressure groups to deliberately lose court fights in order to enact measures that would be politically unacceptable, or the IRS targeting conservative and/or right-wing groups and using tax audits as a weapon against critics of the Obama administration.  There is no evidence that any of these incidents or patterns of behavior were undertaken on the orders of the President;  they appear, instead, to be the knee-jerk, reflexive reaction of senior members of those departments and agencies, to support and defend policies and politicians of which they approved.

If anyone is in a position to do something about such entrenched resistance, I suggest that former generals are probably among the best people available.  They aren’t about to put up with that sort of nonsense, and I think they’re more than capable of bypassing it, leaving the individuals and departments involved to ‘wither on the vine’, and implementing more direct solutions to the problem.  When it comes to obstructionist bureaucrats, I suspect that even if they can’t be fired, they can be transferred to another job where their resistance will be less effective.  (For example, how about the left-wing, progressive lawyers hired since Obama took office to staff the Voting Rights Division of the Department of Justice?  It may be hard to fire them altogether . . . but there’s nothing in civil service rules to stop them being transferred to another job, if their old one is ‘reorganized’ out from under them.  I’m sure they’d enjoy the bracing breezes of Nebraska, where agricultural investigative and enforcement inspectors are hard at work – and what a contrast to the Beltway that would be!)

As for fears that the appointment of three retired generals will “threaten the constitutional fire wall between the civilian government and the military”, I think critics are ignoring three realities:

  1. President Trump will be a civilian.
  2. The vast majority of his senior appointments will be civilians.
  3. Retired Generals are, by strict legal definition, now civilians, too.

I think that settles that one.

Finally, there’s the problem of simply getting things organized and moving.  There’s far too much red tape and obfuscation in Washington.  The Trump administration will have to cut away an awful lot of deadwood that’s built up there, particularly the stifling web of regulations and administrative rulings that Congress has never passed, but delegated to government departments (who promptly used the opportunity to entrench themselves and their own power, at the expense of the constitutional separation of powers).  Generals are used to dealing with such obstructions.  They may not be able to use artillery or close air support in Washington (which may or may not be a pity), but they are probably better suited than most career civil servants or politicians to applying judicious pressure at appropriate points to get things done.

At least, I sincerely hope so.



  1. Having personal experience and knowledge of both retired Marines, I believe they themselves will ensure strict adherence to the rule of law and civilian leadership of the government. Lacking such knowledge of General Flynn, I am less sanguine: especially in matters of privacy and individual liberty. But I'm also encouraged by the emerging executive qualities apparent in the President-elect. "You're Fired" seems to come easily from his lips.
    I feel lucky that America stepped back from the edge of a great dismal swamp of social justice wimps and their Jammie-wearing apologists.


  2. Keep in mind that there are Generals and there are generals.

    There are clinton generals (mostly gone by now), Bush generals and obama generals. As I hear it, obama fired more generals than any other president. Which means he was shaping the general corps to his liking. Thus any general serving under him may be of suspect character.

  3. Any O-7 and above should be a pretty fair manager, a better than average leader and have an excellent knowledge of American politics.

    I think Trump wants people who can get the job done as he sees it. These people are that kind of person.

    Maybe he'll pick LTCOL Ralph Peters for an Intel job if we're lucky.


  4. Good article you wrote.
    Yes, these guys were at the top of military rank, and this must color their thinking somewhat, but they're not robots – they know that they're not in that direct chain of command anymore.
    If these generals are also LEADERS (as opposed to managers) then their staffs will sense that, and will probably go a few percent extra.
    If they just try to shout orders, they'll see work that makes molasses seem speedy by comparison.
    I say give them a try. We depended upon them once, for some of the toughest work in the world.

    – Charlie

  5. As has been noted there are Generals and there are generals.

    The choices he has made seem to be good ones. I really only have one other comment about this.

    In these choices, especially Mattis, I trust them to keep their oath to the US Constitution more than I trust 99% of the house and senate.

  6. Agreed with you assessment. Agreed with the generals commentary. Disagree on two or three sticking points. Arrest Hillery, no, jail those idiots that sent classified docs to her on the wrong server. Eliminate red tape? Sometimes red tape is a limiting factor saving us from the wrong decision. And ob's canning of generals. As a civilian in charge of the military, it's his right and perogitive to kick out those who disagree with the boss. Even Trump would say that.

  7. First and formose, lets get history right. Trump has not appointing more generals than any other administration. Bush and Clinto had more former generals than Trump. I am sure if you go back even further there will some with more and some with less. I agree that only time will tell if it is a good decision or not.

  8. This is the left squealing again… Trump isn't the first to use retired military officers and won't be the last. If nothing else, they will bring order to the chaos currently existing in DC, IMHO…

  9. Following 1865 and 1945 we had a huge surplus of flag level officers who, lacking command positions, either went into business or politics. Hell, even in my earlier days I can remember when not having served was a negative mark against a candidate.
    Of course candidates for political office are essentially drawn from three pools, businessmen, retired military, and lawyers. Most businessmen won't touch political office at any price as they see the ugliness of the election process and may have a few family secrets they don't want uncovered. Retired military, if they have any merit, know to follow direct legitimate orders, but also have a sworn duty to refuse any illegal orders. Nuremburg very definitely established that. Lawyers, who for a good many years have been thick on the grounds of our political system work on the assumption that words are tools used to persuade people to a certain decision. This has been evident in no less a personage than our current fearless leader who has been well known for a statement being interpreted one way one time and 180 degrees opposed a week later.
    So, to me cleaning the swamp would seem to be best done by first trimming down the plethora of lawyers infesting the District of Columbia.

  10. "when we view problems in the world through a military lens, we make big mistakes."

    Jumping Jehosaphat.. when did that happen?

    The majority of the US military would be far less likely to support retarded 'nation-building' than your typical Obama critter, let alone the neocon Palinite types. I'm sure even the general population of generals realised well in advance that the destruction of Libya was just a terrible publicity stunt by the Wicked Witch. Kelly's son died to bring democracy to the land of baka bazi FFS.

    No. We make big mistakes when Washington neuters with no skin in the game make political decisions. If Trump throws them all out of helicopters, that'd be a great start.

  11. Please note, there are NO Air Force generals or Navy Admirals. If Trump maintains that omission, we should be fine. I do think General Flynn bears watching, however.

  12. and relied mostly on people who had spent decades in civilian service, as politicians or academics or lawyers.

    There's the problem right there.

  13. It is my understanding, to rise above the rank of Lt. Col. you have to have Congress' approval. You don't get to General without being a political animal. Trump needs to be surrounded by people who are experienced at playing the game in DC. Trump, also, needs people around him with strong personalities that can tell him to keep his ego in check or We As A Nation are going to have to pay for the checks his mouth could write.


  14. I'm inclined to think worry about this is more brainless nattering by the brainless nattering class.

    Trump's picks – so far – are coming from the action-oriented segment rather than the word-oriented segment. Good military leaders – and i emphasize "good" – are very much aware of the limitations of the military they command. I'd wager each is intimately familiar with events like Gallipoli, the Somme, the Bulge, Monte Cassino, Tet, etc. which demonstrated limitations in devastating fashion.

    We've used the "word-oriented" bunch for a few decades now and can observe the result. It's time to try the "action-oriented" practitioners; I'm reasonably confident that Trump won't tolerate lack of accomplishment and will politely but ruthlessly replace non-performers anywhere in leadership positions.

    If his plan turns out to be less than successful, well, given the momentous tears, hand wringing and angst his election provoked he'll probably be one of the easiest Presidents to get out of office. Until then I'm inclined to try it his way; we know the other way doesn't work.

  15. I think the encroachment of the military into civilian law enforcement and internal security is far, far more alarming than ex generals in charge of government agencies. That's been happening for decades with nary an effing peep from those clutching their pearls and collapsing onto their fainting couches over ex military in cabinet positions.

  16. If only the media's Democrat propagandists would show the same concern for the FACT that there are too many lawyers involved in/running our government……not to even mention that far too many lawyers EXIST within our nation, regardless of where they are employed………..

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