The Generals Guarding American Democracy
It has fallen to military men to keep our institutions safe.
February 25, 2017
Donald Trump promised as a candidate to deliver fundamental change to how Washington works, and in one critical way, he is already delivering. A little more than a month into his presidency, a fundamental shift in civil-military relations is taking hold. Rather than civilian leaders checking military power, it is now military leaders, who represent one of the strongest checks against the overreach of a civilian executive.
Take President Trump’s comments on Thursday, in which he said the deportations of undocumented immigrations would be a “military operation.” Several hours later, the retired Marine general who serves as his secretary of homeland Security, John Kelly, spoke to the press. There would be, “No, I repeat no, use of military forces in immigration operations,” Secretary Kelly said. The White House later said, rather unconvincingly, that the president was merely using the word “military” as an “adjective.”
The incident was just one of several revealing discrepancies between the president and military leaders, active duty and retired, who now serve him and on his Cabinet. It also demonstrated some of the inherent risks in how President Trump understands the role of the military and his relationship to it.
“Life is a campaign,” the president told reporters this week, and it appears the president’s political campaign is permanent, to include his events with the military. While most presidents attempt to forge a close connection to troops as commander-in-chief and appreciate the political value in it, they usually leave explicit partisan politics out of it. Not Donald Trump.
In his first remarks to a military audience earlier this month at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida the president took the opportunity to decry the influence of “dishonest media,” accusing journalists of downplaying stories about terrorism for uncertain purposes. As he often does, the president boasted about his campaign victory, including the support he received from the military. “I liked you, and you liked me,” he told them.
A month into his presidency, he shouldn’t be so sure. There are several indications that his support from military leaders is less robust than he’d like to believe.
Comments from Gen. Tony Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Forces, concerning recent upheaval in the White House, as well as the decision of Robert S. Harward, a retired-three star admiral, to forgo serving as the president’s national security adviser, represent an important development.
General Thomas, when asked last week at a conference in Maryland about the state of affairs in the White House, used the words “unbelievable turmoil.” Turmoil is something General Thomas knows plenty about, having served as an elite Special Operations officer in Iraq and Afghanistan for much of the last 15 years. “As a commander,” he said “I’m concerned our government be as stable possible.”
His responsibilities commanding U.S. Special Forces also mean General Thomas knows something about how the decision-making process in the White House affects combat operations. The SEAL team leading the raid on al Qaeda operatives in Yemen late last month, which resulted in the death of Chief Petty Officer William Ryan, fell under General Thomas’s command.
One of General Thomas’s predecessors leading U.S. Special Forces, retired Adm. William McRaven, leveled his own critique of Donald Trump’s leadership this week. McRaven, speaking at the University of Texas, where he now serves as chancellor, commented on the president’s recent vilification of the media. “We must challenge this statement and this sentiment that the news media is the enemy of the American people,” McRaven said, according to the Daily Texan. “This sentiment may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.”
There was already some difficult history between Trump and military leaders before he became president. During the campaign Trump said the nation’s generals had been “reduced to rubble.” He questioned the value of their experience, at one point saying he knew more than them about ISIS.
Days after the election, Trump’s view shifted dramatically. “We have great generals,” he told 60 Minutes. Nothing had changed—America’s generals were already great.
Naming James Mattis and John Kelly to his cabinet, two retired four-star generals who are some of the most revered military leaders in recent history, helped to strengthen Trump’s standing in security circles. By now, the president’s references to “General, now Secretary of Defense James Mattis” and “General, now Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly,” are so frequent they should be considered part of Trump’s stump speech.
The president clearly sees a political benefit in attaching himself to military leaders with distinguished names. Far less clear is whether President Trump appreciates how the generals on his cabinet developed these reputations, partly through their penchant for straight talk and asking tough questions. President Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster, wrote a celebrated history of the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty, emphasizing the importance of these qualities, and of military officers who challenged the views of their civilian leaders.
There’s another reason why President Trump’s selection of the two retired Marines on his cabinet seems out of character. As a business leader and reality TV celebrity, he earned a reputation for encouraging divisions and rivalries on his teams, but in choosing Kelly and Mattis he has not two but three Marines occupying critical national security roles. Their friend and fellow Marine, Gen. Joseph Dunford, currently serves as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mattis, Kelly and Dunford share more than a pedigree. Kelly and Dunford served under Mattis in Iraq as part of the 1st Marine Division. It was where Kelly earned his first star as a general and where Dunford, then a colonel with a reputation for toughness, famously refused to wear his armor inserts until each of his Marines had received their own.
The counsel that Mattis provided his Marines – Kelly and Dunford among them – before their launch on Baghdad in 2003 remains prescient for their work together in the current administration. “Share courage with each other as we enter the uncertain terrain,” Mattis instructed his troops.
The three Marines again serve in uncertain terrain, under a president who appears more comfortable mixing matters of politics and national security than any commander-in-chief in recent memory. Each has now taken at least one turn at the center of events and a controversial policy introduced by the White House.
Kelly was barely in the loop when White House aides cooked up the executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries with very little input from the agencies affected, and reportedly clashed with the president’s chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, over its implementation. It was Kelly’s agency that bore the brunt of the ensuing confusion, and it was Kelly who had to give a news conference insisting that everything was going as planned.
In an extraordinary moment during his confirmation hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told Mattis: “We’re counting on you.” In the absence of a vocal secretary of state, it has indeed fallen upon the retired general to reassure partners and allies and to explain the administration’s foreign policy to a confused and nervous world. In particular, Secretary Mattis’s message on Russia has been a departure from President Trump’s. When asked about Russia’s interference in elections, Mattis responded directly, while avoiding mention of the United States. “There is very little doubt,” he said, “that they have either interfered or attempted to interfere in a number of elections in democracies.” And in Iraq, it fell to Mattis to reassure the government in Baghdad that the United States was not out to steal its oil.
Chairman Dunford has said little so far, but his role was brought to the fore by the president’s executive order reorganizing the National Security Council. The order left him, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, without a permanent seat on the NSC’s most senior body, while giving one to Bannon. According to reporting from the Associated Press, it was on account of concern with these sorts of half-baked executive orders coming out of the White House that Mattis and Kelly arranged to have one of them in the country at all times during Trump’s initial weeks in office. While the detail is buried deep in the AP’s story, it’s a significant revelation. Essentially, it shows that it is military leaders, albeit retired, who feel the need to guard against the overreach of a civilian executive. It’s a phenomenon familiar to countries like Turkey or Egypt, but not the United States. Until now.
As the president takes to Twitter to attack the judiciary on one day and declares the press the enemy of the American people on another, one of Samuel P. Huntington’s predictions appears to be coming to pass. “As the mass society looms on the horizon,” he wrote, “he [the soldier] becomes the conservative guardian of the existing order.”
If the president and his close civilian advisers continue to argue that historic norms and constitutional constraints do not apply to executive power, they should remember that those who protect this country swear an oath not to a person but to the Constitution and will be some of the most faithful guardians of American democracy.