Don’t get me wrong: Some of the better appointments President Donald Trump has made are generals or lieutenant generals (e.g. H.R. McMaster). In part, that’s because other picks suffer from egregious inexperience and ideological extremism. The lesson here should not be that generals make good civilian leaders. To the contrary, we are already seeing that a record number of generals in Cabinet-level ranks has its downsides.
Generals are accustomed to barking commands and seeing subordinates salute and carry out their orders. Once a decision is made, they are used to unwavering and enthusiastic compliance. Civilian government and democracy do not work that way.
This culture clash was on full display when Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly arrogantly declared, “If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.’’ That rather stunning insult came in a speech in which he lashed out at a number of critics. The Post reports:
“Several times in the speech, he took on critics of the agency, following months of complaints from Congress, civil rights groups and protesters that DHS is targeting Muslim travelers for unfair scrutiny. . . .
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“Kelly, a retired Marine general, said criticism of the agency’s work is often misguided and based on inaccurate reporting.
“Lawmakers, politicians and advocacy groups may hear ‘a partial or inaccurate media report’ and ‘assume the men and women of DHS are intentionally abusing innocent individuals while breaking or ignoring U.S. laws or court orders, instead of assuming as they should that the men and women of DHS are carrying out their assigned mission in accordance with the law.’”
Kelly should know better than to bite the hands that appropriate funds to his department and conduct oversight. Moreover, his public tantrum underscores the Trump administration’s anti-democratic disdain for dissent, a tenor that certainly flows directly from the president.
One might dismiss the complaints of lawmakers who say Kelly is unresponsive as sour grapes from the opposition party. (”This is not boot camp,’’ Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., said after a contentious private meeting with Kelly. “This is not newly inducted members of the Marine Corps. These are experienced lawmakers who understand the law.”) However, the same kind of criticism has been raised even by Republicans when it comes to otherwise well-respected Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Politico recently reported that in a dispute over Mattis’ desire to hire former ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, his highhandedness with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., made matters worse:
“Kevin Sweeney, Mattis’ chief of staff, kept the Cotton staffers waiting and declined to invite them into his office, instead meeting with them briefly in an anteroom. He showed only a heavily redacted staff list and spent the meeting ‘barking’ at the staffers before ‘storming out,’ according to one national security source.
“When [Vice President] Pence called Cotton days later, the senator relayed details from the meeting and signaled that he remained uneasy with Patterson’s nomination. ‘Had that meeting gone better, the vice president would have gotten a different message,’ the national security source said. ‘Sweeney did more to sink Patterson than the Muslim Brotherhood did.’ (Sweeney did not respond to requests for comment.) . . .
“ ‘Everybody thinks very highly of him, but he doesn’t have any political sense, and he doesn’t think he needs any political sense,’ said one former Bush administration Defense Department official. ‘But it’s quintessentially a political job.’ “
Like it or not, Congress, the press, outside experts and even those pesky voters will criticize Cabinet officials. If the latter react with contempt and arrogance, they will only increase criticism and undermine support for their department. A former State Department official who thinks highly of Mattis and Kelly told Right Turn, “It’s part of the broader problem we’re going to have from having a bunch of generals - good guys though they may be - in the positions they’re in.”
The greater danger, however, is an imbalance in our national security posture. Trump’s preference for showy displays of hard power cannot be the sum total of our foreign-policy approach. We still lack a comprehensive policy for Syria. Trump has made a mess of our attempt to keep Turkey within the camp of Western democratic governments. Our North Korea policy consists of big talk, a lie (”The Trump administration is again facing questions about why it appeared to mislead - or, at the very least, failed to correct the record about pervasive reports - that the USS Carl Vinson was headed to North Korea starting 10 days ago”) and the faint hope that China will “do something” about North Korea (something three presidents tried to achieve, with no success). Trump’s decision to certify Iran as complying with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action -- after decrying the deal throughout the campaign -- was bracing for those who imagined that Trump would not follow the Obama administration’s practice of turning a blind eye toward Iranian corner-cutting. (Conservatives have highlightedevidence of less than full compliance.) In short, a military plan is not a foreign policy.
To be fair, Mattis and McMaster clearly have helped steer Trump back to a more “normal” national security approach (although Trump personally remains a Vladimir Putin fanboy in an administration of Russia hawks). That said, it is incumbent upon generals to recognize they are in civilian roles in which criticism and oversight go with the territory. They must adapt to new ground rules and become part of a comprehensive national security policy, of which hard power is only one element.