Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

‘Seven Days in November?’ — Some thoughts on Trump’s emerging junta

President-elect Donald Trump ran partly on general bashing, and now he is contemplating stocking his administration with retired generals. What’s up with that?


President-elect Donald Trump ran partly on general bashing, and now he is contemplating stocking his administration with retired generals. What’s up with that?

Here are six related thoughts.

First, he is not just picking any generals. Rather, he seems particularly to favor those who displeased President Barack Obama — Generals Michael Flynn, James Mattis, and David Petraeus (and I expect before this is all over he may tap a fourth general ousted by Obama, one Stanley McChrystal). These are the ones that Trump has listened to, so far. We don’t know how he will deal with the Other Generals — those he perceives as having failed to cross the Obama White House — such as the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the four service chiefs.

Second, he has yet to issue an order (although I do hear that Flynn has already given some “heads-up” taskers to people in government). When he does issue one, his favored generals likely will be surprised by how much they tell him they can’t do with the military instrument. He also might be taken aback in finding they are less radical than he thinks, and that these old officers generally agree on policy. Generals Petraeus and Mattis, for example, know each other pretty well. They have different personalities, but are similar in their professional outlooks. Both have been commanders of Central Command, and so planned for war with Iran. I suspect both are likely to advise him to keep the nuclear deal but to hold Iran’s feet to the fire in other ways.

Third, he may be surprised that both are fans of beefing up the State Department. I remember Mattis once telling members of Congress that they either needed to spend more money on diplomacy or more money on ammunition, and that he preferred the former.

Fourth, I think he is going to be surprised at how often they respond, “Yep, tried that. Here’s why we think it didn’t work.” These guys aren’t dummies. They’ve spent most of the last 15 years either fighting or getting ready to fight or recovering from a fight. These are generals who think it is their duty to tell the facts as they see them — whether or not the civilians want to hear it. That’s one reason Mattis got crosswise with the Obama White House: He kept on pushing them on Iran, saying, “Okay, what happens next? Say you get a nuclear treaty with them, and then they step up conventional hostilities in Syria, the Persian Gulf, and the rest of the region?”

Fifth, these guys have been around the block. They won’t be stampeded by some kid on the National Security Council staff calling up and saying, “The White House wants…” The only proper response to that is, “Who at the White House wants that?”

Sixth, related to that, these old generals know Congress a lot better than Trump does. It would be fairly easy for the secretary of state and the secretary of defense to line up with Senate committee chairmen to block a White House move they dislike. I think that former Secretary of State Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, did something similar very early in the Bill Clinton administration, cooperating with Sen. Sam Nunn, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to outmaneuver the White House on lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military. And note that in that case, Nunn was a member of the president’s party, just as John McCain, the current chairman of SASC, is now.

There will be conflicts and gaffes. My guess is that Flynn will be the first to leave office. That’s partly because it is easier to get rid of a national security advisor than a cabinet member. For example, yet another retired Marine general, James Jones, came and went quickly in Obama’s first term. Republican icon President Ronald Reagan churned through six national security advisors in eight years. I also see departure looming in Flynn’s future because I’ve been told repeatedly that he did not do well at Defense Intelligence Agency, and so in his new job may be in even more over his head. As I wrote before, his reputation is that he is tactically great but strategically clueless.

Mattis and Petraeus might last longer, but both might do a lot of grinding down their teeth. Neither one suffers fools gladly, or even presumptuous civilians.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1