Let me explain. As President-elect Donald Trump has started to fill out his national security and foreign policy Cabinet, it seems he likes general officers an awful gosh-darn lot. Mike Flynn, a retired three-star general, will be the national security adviser. James Mattis, a retired four-star general, will be his defense secretary. We know that Trump has interviewed or intends to interview several other general officers to round out his Cabinet. Adm. Mike Rogers, the current National Security Administration boss, is in the running for director of national intelligence, Gen. John Kelly for homeland security secretary, and at the State Department, possibly Gen. David H. Petraeus or my current boss
so don’t ask me any awkward questions in the comments cause I ain’t talking, Adm. James Stavridis.
Now these appointments or rumored appointments have caused some person–specific concerns, but mostly it’s about the larger question of drawing so much from the military. In The Washington Post last week, Phil Carter and Loren DeJonge Shulman warned: “Great generals don’t always make great Cabinet officials. And if appointed in significant numbers, they could undermine another strong American tradition: civilian control of an apolitical military.”
Brooks and Schake have separate Foreign Policy columns pushing back on that concern. They’re both worth reading. Schake — who has co-written with Mattis — acknowledges some concerns, but notes the high prestige held by the military in public opinion. She asks:
Why shouldn’t the country’s most informed defense experts transition to civilian roles, provided they perform civilian functions and are rigorously vetted in congressional confirmation? Forty-five years into an all-volunteer force, and with small numbers relative to our population, few Americans are directly affected by decisions about our military forces. It is not particularly surprising they look to this widely admired institution for understanding, and have confidence the institution will act with integrity. Nor is it surprising that veterans feel a strong obligation to contribute to better defense policies because they care deeply about the United States and about the young men and women putting their lives on the line to defend it.
Brooks argues that concerns about civilian control of the military are peanuts compared to the deeper concerns posed by a Trump administration. As for the likelihood of a politicized military, well:
In today’s world, does a formalistic commitment to civilian control of the military still do the work it did in 1789? Is it still crucial to preventing the powerful from trumping the will of the people? (No pun intended.)
I’m not at all sure. For one thing, today’s U.S. military has elaborate internal checks and balances and a deeply ingrained respect for democracy and the rule of law. It’s difficult to imagine any active-duty general or group of officers, no matter how popular, persuading the troops to ignore or overturn the results of an election or a properly passed law. (That’s even truer for retired military officers. Technically, they are civilians. They can still give orders if they want to, but even the lowliest private is free to tell a retired general to take a hike, subject only to the constraints of courtesy.)
So this is the point in the post where I moronically disagree with Brooks and Schake. This really is pretty dumb of me: Brooks and Schake have both served in the Defense Department and I haven’t. They have forgotten more about civil-military relations than I will ever know. And to be honest I don’t even disagree with their specific points that they make in their FP columns. At the current moment, compared to the alternatives, picking people like Mattis or Rogers or Stavridis (though not Flynn) is hardly the worst outcome.
Furthermore, to compound my stupidity, I feel the need to illuminate my counterargument by using the following clip from an obscure documentary called Starship Troopers:
My concern about the team of generals is that it emanates from and exacerbates a phenomenon that Schake hints at in her essay:
The data show a public enormously deferential to the military on issues of war strategy, and supportive of the military having a broader role than traditional civil-military relations allows for. The public does not share experts’ concerns about retired military officers endorsing political candidates or speaking at political conventions, because the public has outsourced its expertise to the military itself.
Why does the public feel that way? All of the public opinion data shows that as public trust in institutions has waned, trust in the military has remained high. And this, in turn, has led to the militarization of foreign policy. By that I don’t mean that presidents use force more recklessly than before (although that may be true). Rather, because of the gap in trust, the Pentagon commands an ever-growing share of the foreign affairs budget. This means it exercises operational control over a large swath of activities that heretofore were probably not thought of as being under the purview of the Defense Department. Indeed, this was a phenomenon that Brooks identified in her great book that came out earlier this year.
In the long term, it is dangerous to signal that the best way to become secretary of state is to have achieved the rank of a general officer. There are a lot of other dimensions of foreign policy that go beyond military statecraft. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not a coincidence that the best secretaries of state over the past 40 years — George P. Shultz and James A. Baker — were originally secretaries of the Treasury (meanwhile, it’s not like Al Haig, John Poindexter, or James Jones covered themselves in policymaking glory when they occupied civilian foreign policy positions). Diplomats, intelligence officials and even out-and-out politicians bring other points of view to the table. A team of generals might be talented, but it’s also one-dimensional.
If Schake is right, then appointing general officers to Cabinet-level positions could be a way to restore faith in government. And maybe they will do a great job and, like Washington or Cincinnatus, ride off into the sunset. Or it could just convince the public and the politicians that the only route to a policy principal position is not just service, but a lifelong career in the military.
The worst outcome — which Erin Simpson suggested to me — is that the generals could fall on their faces. Even the most talented former general would be serving an unpredictable, dangerous gasbag of a president. Failure is likely. In which case, Trump will have proven to be a true egalitarian, and have eviscerated public faith in the last outsized institution in America.
This is probably a stupid argument. But given the trend of the past decade, I think it’s a stupid argument that’s worth having.