November 30, 2022
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Commentary: Cabinet of generals threatens civil-military relations

Donald Trump, plainly put, has an obsession with military brass. On the campaign trail, Trump invited veterans to his rallies and boasted an endorsement letter signed by 88 retired generals and admirals. In his speeches, he often alluded to beloved leaders such as George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. The political involvement of so many retired military officers in this year’s presidential election sounded an alarm for many scholars of civil-military relations and defense experts, and Trump’s recent presidential cabinet appointments have all but exacerbated such concerns.

Pending Senate confirmation, Trump will have the most retired general and flag officers in a presidential cabinet since Truman’s in World War II. So far, Trump has chosen retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security. Several others may join Trump’s administration: Navy Adm. Michael Rogers for Director of National Intelligence, retired Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Kellogg has been selected as National Security Council Chief of Staff, and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is anticipated to be Trump’s  National Security Adviser.

In some ways, Trump’s court of high-ranking officers should come as no surprise. Polls have shown that the United States military is the government institution with the highest approval ratings by the American public. Many of the men up for selection have had long, illustrious careers in our armed forces; however, the question isn’t whether these men are qualified to serve.

Our Founding Fathers understood the importance of effective civilian oversight of the military, a tenant that has been central to our nation’s checks and balances system since the beginning. Many of the enumerated powers in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution and several issues of The Federalist Papers emphasize a balance in civil-military relations. The Fathers stressed the importance for a military for defense purposes, but believed that measures needed to be taken to prevent potential abuses of power.

Additionally, the best warfighters are not always the best bureaucrats. The military tends to emphasize a “can-do,” “fix it” attitude, while bureaucracy tends to focus on diplomacy and statecraft. Federal executive departments need leaders familiar with budgets and paperwork, but most of Trump’s picks have not demonstrated a capability — or desire — to work within the civilian bureaucratic system in the traditional means.

Perhaps the most apt example of this is in Mattis, Trump’s pick to lead the Pentagon, who has almost a cult-like following in the United States Marine Corps and has shown little patience for management and administration. Affectionately dubbed “Mad Dog” and “Chaos,” Mattis is a gifted warrior and a scholar, and co-wrote a book on civil-military relations. Interestingly, he noted in the book that military officials often draw politics out of political decision-making, which can be “impractical for consideration by elected officials whose portfolios are broader than the military mandate alone.” Mattis will need a Congressional waiver to serve as the Secretary of Defense, and for good reason.

When Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947, it mandated that the Secretary of Defense have been in retirement for at least ten years from active duty. The mandate was later reduced to seven years, but Mattis still does not fit the bill — he retired in 2013. Congress made one exception for George Marshall during the Korean War, but not without heated debate and contentious hearings. And in its 1950 law exempting Marshall, Congress noted that “after General Marshall leaves the office of Secretary of Defense, no additional appointments of military men to that office shall be approved.” Republicans have supported expediting a waiver process for Mattis, while many Democratic lawmakers have argued for serious confirmation hearings or even outright opposition to the waiver.

Mattis is, no doubt, one of the more qualified picks compared to some of the other officers being courted. If Mattis were the only general under consideration for Trump’s Cabinet, there would likely be more support for his nomination. But his appointment — and a Congressional waiver — must now be viewed in a larger context, one which raises real concerns not just on civil-military relations, but the politicization of our military. The 2016 Presidential Election saw numerous generals and admirals publicly endorsing both candidates, a move that was criticized by Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — a position that already serves as the president’s principal military adviser.

Dempsey noted that such political endorsements could lead “future administrations … to determine which senior leaders would be more likely to agree with them before putting them in senior leadership positions.” As Trump continues to court the high brass, this direction seems increasingly likely, and could pose a dangerous threat to the integrity of our military and national security as a whole.