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If All You Have Is a Mattis, Everything Looks Like a Nail
Why Trump’s generals-heavy national security team is a danger to national security.
In the 1990s, during Bill Clinton’s second term, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (A), National Security Advisor Sandy Berger (B), and Secretary of Defense William Cohen (C) would meet weekly for what was called the “ABC lunch.” When the rest of us minions gathered in the White House Situation Room for one crisis or problem or another, we always had the sense that the agenda was kind of fixed, with the statements of the principals a choreographed ballet reflecting agreements already reached at that lunch table.
If current trends from President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees continue, the new lunch crowd may all be senior generals in the U.S. military. With National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn now joined by Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis, and both Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. John Kelly being considered as a possible secretary of state, three of the five institutions most centrally involved in U.S. national security policy could be headed by former senior military officers. That would be an unprecedented event in American history, a serious challenge to the tradition of civilian control over the military, and a danger to U.S. national security.
This dominance of U.S. national security policy by retired general officers is a trend long in the making, but Trump’s appointees would seal the deal, upsetting the delicate balance of civil-military power in U.S. foreign-policy institutions.
Since the start of the Cold War, and particularly in the shaping of a containment policy that emphasized the growth and use of military force (largely at the hand of Paul Nitze in National Security Council memorandum 68 in 1950), the Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, military service chiefs, and combatant commanders have become the 800-pound gorillas of U.S. foreign-policy making. Arguably, the last secretary of state to articulate U.S. national security strategy was John Foster Dulles. Since then, no secretary of state has led the development of national security policy, whereas the Defense Department has regularly trotted out a National Defense Strategy and the Joint Chiefs a National Military Strategy.
The gap between the money and people available to the civilian foreign-policy institutions has grown exponentially, with defense budgets running as much as 12 times that for civilian foreign-policy engagement. The responsibility for dealing with international tensions and conflicts is still embedded in a Cold War context. U.S. security assistance support to other countries, while nominally channeled through the State Department budget, is almost entirely designed and implemented by the military services and defense contractors. The exceptional ex-general that proves the rule, Dwight Eisenhower, who happened to be president, was concerned about the rising influence of the Defense Department and the military in U.S. policy and society, leading to his coining of the term “military-industrial complex” in his 1961 Farewell Address, though very little changed, as a result.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the expansion of military responsibility for U.S. national security policy and international engagement has grown exponentially. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan turned the U.S. military into an occupying power, with a broad expansion of the role the armed services played in foreign-policy making and implementation. As governance and development became military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, money for security assistance in those two countries — plus Jordan, Pakistan, and, eventually, dozens of countries around the world — flowed into the Pentagon. The Defense Department deliberately sought a wide expansion of its statutory authorities to provide foreign and military assistance, programs historically the responsibility of the State Department under the Foreign Assistance Act. From Iran to Iraq to the “war on terrorism,” the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have been largely left in the dust, both in terms of budgets and responsibilities.
Flynn, Mattis, and the other generals who may emerge at the top of Trump’s policy machine were all involved in this expansion of authority and in these wars. Why should we care? If they are competent individuals, so the argument goes, it shouldn’t matter if they were military men once upon a time, right? Aren’t generals the best people for these jobs, given the troubled world we live in?
No and no. There are four reasons why the emergence of generals at the top of U.S. national security policy is a bad idea for the United States.
First, these appointments break an important tradition of separation between civilians and the military in U.S. governance. Although some military officers have ended up in politics (Ulysses S. Grant, Eisenhower, among others), it is uncommon; as Samuel Huntington emphasized in his classic 1957 study of U.S. civil-military relations, The Soldier and the State: “The military officer must remain neutral politically.… The antithesis of objective civilian control is military participation in politics: civilian control decreases as the military become progressively involved in institutional, class, and constitutional politics.”
There has been a history of struggle over this principle, but Huntington’s point is that policymakers and particularly the president are best served when generals stick to their profession and provide their best military advice to the civilians, who are in charge of making policy decisions. Putting a gaggle of military men at the apex of policy (and not just military policy) advice to the president simply sets that foundational principle aside.
The second reason begins with a caveat: There is ample evidence that having military officers at the policymaking table is important and that they are frequently conservative about the use of military force. Indeed, generals are well-educated in strategy but not particularly in statecraft — the combination of the tools a competent head of state needs to have at his or her disposal when engaging the world. When generals talk strategy, they are talking deterrence and the conduct of combat, not about the “other means” in Carl von Clausewitz’s classical formulation. Sitting atop the State Department does not suddenly make a general an expert in diplomacy.
The fundamental bias — and a necessary bias — of trained officers is to create a military and to advise civilians about the contribution of that military to national security policy. It is a military mindset, a necessary part of their professional expertise, and borne of years of training and education. But it is not a balanced view of how the United States should engage the world. As such, the military paradigm is likely to be the dominant narrative, to the detriment of broader thinking about statecraft. That paradigm focuses on solutions to tactical and strategic problems but not on the nuances of managing intractable international issues.
One can readily imagine the starting point to a conversation among generals about the Syrian crisis being about the application of greater or lesser U.S. military force, rather than the tools of diplomacy or negotiation. But that’s an easy one. Is the answer to Nigerian instability and the scourge of Boko Haram further deployment of U.S. forces, training, and weaponry — or a deeper engagement in civil institutions and placing pressure on the Nigerian regime to eliminate corruption and establish effective governance? Is the key to dealing with China’s assertive presence in the South China Sea an aggressive U.S. military buildup in the Pacific or a diplomatic strategy that deals with the surrounding countries and seeks to resolve the most contentious issues? It’s not that the generals are ignorant, but simply that diplomacy is not their stock in trade nor what they’ve spent their lives thinking about and planning for. The differences may appear slight, but they send U.S. global engagement in two very different directions.
Third, despite the widespread public respect for the military, the United States has yet to confront the reality that after 15 years of using armed forces to establish order and security in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against terrorist organizations, the record is largely one of failure. Americans live with a myth that the military is the only effective “can-do” organization and that failure in missions such as Iraq and Afghanistan was only because the military was not tasked with doing more. But a decade of training, assistance, and governance support in Iraq led directly to a regime that was nearly overwhelmed by the Islamic State. Afghanistan teeters on the edge of takeover by a combination of Taliban and warlords. And the aggressive, invasive counterterrorism effort in more than 80 countries, led by a more militarized CIA and U.S. special operations forces, may have killed a lot of people but has resulted in the death of not one terrorist organization that existed before 9/11. In fact, it has arguably stimulated their growth and the expansion in the number of terrorist attacks.
This history of failures has gone unremarked; the Defense Department and the services continue to whistle through the graveyard of buried policies, rearranging the next step as if it were the first, and patting themselves on the back as heroes for what they have accomplished. As Huntington warned long ago: “Battle transforms generals into heroes; the heroes transform themselves into politicians; and the result is a loss of professional military restraint and caution.”
Despite his campaign rhetoric about firing generals, President-elect Trump is on the verge of rewarding the very same men he recently derided for a “can’t-do” record. But the rest of the world knows well the failures. They are a result of local incompetence, the inability of military personnel to carry out nonmilitary tasks, institutional inflexibility, and, most basically, an abiding ignorance about the difficulty of changing another country through the use of force. Trying harder doesn’t do it better; trying harder has the tragic outcome of reinforcing a record of failure and alienating the very populations the strategy is designed to help.
And finally, the continued recourse to military officers as the answer to our national security needs makes the imbalance at the heart of American statecraft a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we act as if the military is the best instrument of statecraft, the more we reinforce the notion that civilians are not competent to carry out national security policy. Moreover, the most difficult long-term national security issues we face, like climate change, are not easily susceptible to military solutions but require instead a significant investment in civilian statecraft. Although many actions could strengthen these instruments — from the State Department to USAID — developing a robust set of civilian institutions will not be a policy or budgetary priority in the next administration. And although some retired generals have urged greater funding for State Department programs, when budgetary push comes to shove and trade-offs need to be made, defense resources and authorities are not volunteered as part of the bargain. (The services have lobbied hard, for example, to concentrate and expand the Pentagon’s foreign assistance authorities in the latest National Defense Authorization Act.)
We don’t yet know for sure who will be named to head the State Department. It could be a civilian (Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are currently being considered), but it appears that two generals — Petraeus and Kelly — are clearly still in the running. Even with a civilian pick, Trump would still have two generals at the table. And having a generals’ club running national security policy risks becoming the very definition the Greeks gave to tragedy: Acts taken to avoid one outcome lead directly to that disastrous outcome. A more direct U.S. military operation in Syria leads to conflict with Russia and a third military failure in the Middle East, for example. Or putting U.S. soldiers in Nigeria leads to combat deaths and greater recruitment to Boko Haram. It’s not hard to imagine an expansion of policies and deployments we think will make us more secure, but which actually lead us directly to greater insecurity.
Civilian control over the military is a fundamental value of our democracy. Generals — even retired ones — should advise, not make policy. A successful national security policy depends on restoring the civil-military balance that has been lost in the lopsided approach of the last 15 years, one that has clearly failed to the detriment of U.S. security. Our civilian national security institutions need reinforcement to help restore that balance; but with two generals in place and a possible third to come, it is very late in the day to restore this important equity.
Photo credit: JABIN BOTSFORD/The Washington Post via Getty Images