The scariest thing this Halloween wasn’t that generals are running the government; it’s that we kinda want them to.
Members of Donald Trump’s family and entourage, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and China-hawk trade adviser Peter Navarro, will not be playing a major diplomatic role in the president’s upcoming visit to Asia, Politico reported last week. Instead, the president’s handler-Cabinet, a group dominated by military generals, will be calling the shots.
White House chief of staff John Kelly has so far managed to ensure that the official delegation is dominated by the coterie of senior officials increasingly referred to as the “adults in the room” at the White House, such as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary James Mattis. That these men’s job is to protect Trump from himself is no longer a point of debate.
Kelly and Mattis are retired Marine generals, and McMaster is a serving lieutenant general in the Army. These men occupying some of the top positions in the White House represent an unusual level of military access to and control over the president, author Mark Perry writes in a troubling piece at Politico Magazine.
Eliot Cohen, director of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, calls these men a “benign junta” and says we should be “grateful” for having them there. Perry’s other expert compares Trump’s staff of generals to the Turkish general staff and admits that the problem is Trump himself:
“If the president were not such a polarizing figure these appointments wouldn’t be a problem,” Bryan McGrath, a naval war expert at the Hudson Institute, says … “In many cases the generals and admirals have more experience on some issues than anyone else. Why would be deny ourselves the benefit of their wisdom?” But even for McGrath, there are nagging doubts. “It almost sounds like we expect these men to take on the role of the Turkish general staff—as guarantors of the secular constitution.”
The neoconservative Trump critic Jennifer Rubin, who also uses the word junta to describe Kelly and his fellow brass, wants to bar generals from serving in government, calling on Congress to “stomp out creeping military authoritarianism.” That is a remarkable statement coming from an American Likudnik who has built a career as a professional proponent of war and militarism both here and in Israel.
Rubin’s criticism of Kelly, however, is that he has actually failed to impose discipline on this White House: In other words, government by the military is bad in general, but even worse in this case because John Kelly is not particularly good at politics. Regardless of how she got there, her conclusion is right: We should not, as a rule, have generals running our government. First, because military-dominated governments are dangerous, and second, because they are, indeed, not good at much of the stuff governments have to do.
Nor are these generals the only way in which the armed forces appear to be leading, rather than following, U.S. foreign policy. The Navy has three aircraft carriers arriving in the Pacific in the lead-up to Trump’s Asia trip, just conducted a missile defense drill off South Korea, and is geeking out over its cool new nuclear submarine (a category of military wares in which we’re currently arms-racing with China).
It looks like U.S. strategy in the Pacific, under the guidance of these generals, is to ramp up the hard power and intimidate North Korea and China into doing as we say. So again, to come at Rubin’s point sideways, the policy the generals are pursuing is one of no-first-offer negotiations with North Korea backed by suggestive shows of force — which Rubin, a neoconservative, doesn’t necessarily mind at all. The real problem is that Kelly hasn’t managed to take away Trump’s Twitter account, which makes those plans harder to pull off.
These shows of force will inevitably set the tone for the high-stakes diplomacy this week, for which the plan is, as always, to keep Trump from saying something that derails the work of the “adults in the room.”
And therein lies Cohen’s gratitude, which reflects the fact that the president is widely acknowledged to be a loose cannon who requires the guidance (or restraint) of a steady hand. For its many faults, the military is still considered more trustworthy by the U.S. public than religious leaders or school principals, to say nothing of the media or elected officials, and is one of the few institutions Trump is able to respect. It’s not surprising to see generals fill the yawning leadership gap in this government.
It is frightening, however, to see so few civilian institutions enjoying that level of trust, and a country that looks to the armed forces for its political leaders is on a dangerous path. Perry has spent more than enough time in the Middle East to appreciate the threats a Cabinet of generals poses to liberty.
Yet Trump is making this level of military involvement in civilian leadership necessary through his unorthodox and unpredictable behavior (hence Cohen’s gratitude). In requiring constant supervision, he puts these military leaders in the untenable yet understandable position of protecting the public from the president we elected. There’s a reasonable case to be made that people who have experienced war firsthand should be involved in making our foreign policy rather than letting Stephen Miller, Jared Kushner, or Peter Navarro dictate it.
Unfortunately, Trump is also flirting with foreign-policy crises in which a military-led approach is incredibly risky. Case in point: China and North Korea already recognize the capabilities of the U.S. and don’t need aircraft carrier roll-bys to remind them. It’s not clear what the point of this latest gesture is, other than to antagonize.
The trouble, in other words, is that both Cohen and Rubin are right: A U.S. “soft coup” of military men running the government while Trump holds rallies and robs the till, then safely shuffling him through his term and out of office without starting a nuclear war, sounds like a better outcome than, well, Trump starting a nuclear war. But in promoting a military-first approach to foreign policy, the generals at the helm may be exacerbating the same risks they are supposedly defusing by running interference on Trump’s Twitter feed. Even if the “benign junta” were indeed keeping disaster at bay by reining in Trump’s worst impulses, its existence would be fundamentally bad for the country and we should find the need for it disturbing. As it is, we’re not even guaranteed protection from those impulses.
A big fear that underpins this blurring of military and civilian roles is that, as Rubin rightly points out, it politicizes the military by forcing a man of relative integrity like John Kelly to defend Trump when he does the indefensible, which he lacks the political skills to do anyway. There’s a good reason to keep partisan politics separate from the armed forces: It’s never good to worry about the military being “owned” by a particular party or faction within your government, or for partisan politics to have a role in the armed forces as military leaders are selected, promoted, or groomed with Cabinet positions in mind.
But that’s exactly the risk you run when you have a president who requires “adult supervision.”