By Morgan Deane:
Donald Trump continues to make cabinet appointments, creating controversy. He has chosen Marine General James Mattis as defense secretary. Multiple outlets reported that he has selected John Kelly, another retired Marine general, as secretary of homeland security. Former Lieutenant General Michael Flynn got the nod as national security adviser on November 17 and it’s possible that General David Petraeus will be Secretary of State. This creates some concern among analysts that he is picking too many military men which will lead to a lack of policy and leadership experience. But an analysis of the issues shows that at worst the generals are no less qualified than nonmilitary elites and career public servants that have served before.
Senator Chris Murphy echoed many when he said that he was concerned. “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.” Criticisms like this seem very short sided. There is no guarantee that civilians will make better decisions regarding warfare than the generals. Senator Murphy represents the group of people who have been wrong on every strategic question in the last 20 years, letting terrorism flourish. The president ignored the recommendation of military men to leave 10,000-20,000 soldiers in Iraq, ISIS filled the resulting vacuum. These are also some of the same politicians that opposed the successful surge in Iraq.
The military is often unfairly blamed for disastrous policies set by civilians. In the US those policy makers are increasingly disconnected from the military as well as the sound knowledge of how to make policy. The generals make their recommendations, but they only execute policy set by the president and indirectly by the people. When they are given the necessary tools, such as extra soldiers for the surge, they can have a great deal of success. But they are not miracle workers that can execute any policy. Prior to World War I, Germany had set a political strategy that created enemies on every flank. Ultimately, they were outnumbered by foreign armies who had to win a quick, decisive victory in the west before shifting east. Essentially the foreign policy of Germany created a loss before the war started. They did this because they had a national policy divorced from strategy. Thus, having military officers filling policy positions will begin to correct the drift that caused a president to escalate the war in Afghanistan only to precipitously withdraw a few years later in the middle of the fighting season.
The general public has started to attack these choices of generals as the beginnings of a military junta. This is rather offensive as the members of the American military are the most professional soldiers in the world with a long history of civilian leadership. They are Americans that care about a democracy as much and often more than the average punk on twitter. In fact, a person could make an argument they care even more, because they’ve put their lives on the line for their country, raised their hands to support and defend the constitution, and spent their lives defending it. They are eye witnesses of military juntas around the world and recoil at the thought of bringing that to America. They have spent decades assessing and addressing threats, deploying overseas learning local cultures and customs, and furthering the training of foreign militaries.
College professors such as Daniel Benjamin at Dartmouth claimed that generals have one set of skills, and diplomacy is not in the top drawer of that tool kit. This ignores the fact that generals have to navigate rather complicated situations on a regular basis. Instead of an average business where the value of a stock is on the line, or government positions where nobody ever gets fired, the generals have to lead thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of men into combat. They know how to study the situation (General Mattis is said to travel with a small library), use finesse and tact when necessary with subordinates, colleagues, and their civilian leaders, as well as obstreperous allies all in pursuit of difficult missions often times with politicians holding unrealistic expectations of what they can deliver. As a result, they have a robust tool kit of skills that includes the tact and diplomacy that President-elect Trump finds virtue in.
What these criticisms really show is an arrogant and obvious disdain for military men. The critics seem to hold a Dr. Strangelove type of stereotype about the military where men are obsessed with warfare and straddling bombs. War is traditionally a male dominated sphere, but these are not substantive criticisms, they simply repeat a general condemnation without specific evidence. From the “whiz kids” of JFK to the central planners behind Obamacare, the civilian elites have always thought they could govern the country and win wars using their brilliance and feel average Americans and Visigothic generals only need to be properly led in order for America to succeed.
Military standards dictate following the chain of command. Flag level officers who are retired understand they will remain subordinate to civilian leaders while serving in civilian roles, but also have as much claim to leadership as whiz kid elites. In addition to the extensive military training leading troops into combat, many of these men and women have a scholastic pedigree that rival and for the most part, surpass their civilian counterparts. General Petraeus has a PhD from Princeton. He literally wrote the counter insurgency manual for the US Army.
All of this to say, President-elect Trump values their direct leadership style and executive decision making experience. It’s possible they will contradict his isolationist tendencies, but they will also provide sound advice. They have a better skill set from which to do so than the civilian elites they are replacing. They will provide President-elect Trump with wise council and vociferous point counter-point arguments, however, will always execute his policies. We should expect nothing less.
Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.