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Breaking the general rule in the White House

Loren DeJonge Schulman analyses the military’s dominance in Trump’s White House

James Mattis, Trump’s choice as Secretary of Defence, although others question the effect a military-dominated administration will have on US policy

The past six months of the US political circus have been a gift for experts hungry for wider debate on civil-military relations. 

Candidate Trump’s criticism of the US military, his threats to remove those military officials with whom he disagreed, and both his and Hillary Clinton’s solicitation of retired general officers’ endorsements generated a field day for civil-military pundits, forcing public debate on matters usually left to academia.

Since the election, Trump has offered additional fodder, such as packing his National Security Council with current and former military officers. His appointment of James Mattis as Secretary of Defence, as well John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security, both former Marine Corps generals, Lieutenant-General HR McMaster as National Security Adviser, and Deputy National Security Adviser Ricky Waddell, an Army Reserve two-star general, have various precedents. Many welcomed the experience of these seasoned leaders. But others are questioning the impact a military-heavy NSC will have on the administration’s foreign policy, the public’s view of the military and the potential incentives for current and future officers. 

Sceptics of such concerns are quick to point out that they are a luxury. The American experience of civilian control of an apolitical military has largely been one of consensus on its merits, with only small aberrations. None is alleging that appointing a Secretary of Defence so recently in uniform increases the risk of a coup, nor does it necessarily foretell a more bellicose foreign policy. Some even call such concerns a form of discrimination against the military. Though the legislation establishing the position of the Secretary of Defence demands a seven-year break in service, this is an exceptional time and James Mattis and his colleagues are exceptional leaders. Thus, so the argument goes, exceptions to the ‘rule’ on the participation of former and current senior military officials in political national security roles should be made. 

But there is no question that the military has an influential position within the Trump administration, and even exceptions can leave a lasting precedent. It is not clear that Trump or his NSC have made a move to mitigate any such implications on their own policy, the military, or its future reputation. 

Impacts on foreign policy

Shortly after the election, Phil Carter and I wrote about the dangers of Trump surrounding himself with generals. We highlighted the risk of an over-militarization of foreign policy, particularly in a context where the ‘military has achieved such policy and budget primacy, and military tools are often looked to as options of first, rather than last, resort’. We were rightly criticized at the time for the simplistic view that the presence of military at the table may lead to more conflict, as academic analysis paints a more complex picture. Furthermore, some have noted that other national security institutions would have their own seats at the table, and Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster know the value of civilian institutions. 

None of us could have predicted the weak hand that these same civilian institutions would be dealt by the Trump administration, or the free rein offered to the Department of Defence. President Trump has since announced a proposal that slashes the State Department budgets for diplomacy and foreign aid. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has received middling reviews for his early performance at a time when hundreds of senior civilian political posts across the national security establishment remain empty. 

Trump has also delegated considerable authority in operational matters to the Department of Defence with no strong civilian oversight to act as counterbalance. Despite the considerable experience of Trump’s veteran NSC in complex crises, this could prove problematic. As my colleague Alice Friend told Politico: ‘Because you have a lot of military minds thinking of this in a military context, you are going to get answers to things that are really, really finely tuned to the military considerations but not the diplomatic considerations or even the domestic political considerations.’

These issues are not fully within the control of the senior veterans at the helm of the NSC. But in this administration they present a perfect storm in which the non-military elements of American power are considerably weakened, Department of Defence tools are both the most familiar and most available, and national security has a military face – quite literally, with McMaster stepping forward as its spokesman. They also establish habits of practice and perception that Trump’s national
security team and their successors may find difficulty in breaking. 

Creating Incentives for the force

While senior veterans take the lead seats in the Situation Room, their uniformed peers and subordinates are watching. Before the inauguration, Carter and I also wrote: ‘The greatest risk posed by Trump’s rush to court the brass is the extent to which our military leadership may become, in reality or perception, a politicized institution.’ 

There are several dimensions to such a risk: that military advice would become a political factor, favouring the objectives of one party or another; that service members would view political appointments as logical career steps; or that the military would view itself as a constituency to be won. 

Each of these is as risky in perception as they are in reality, and, as Friend notes, ‘civilians [also] play a vital role in the military’s political neutrality’. Military endorsements are highly sought by politicians of both parties, as is the imprimatur of a ‘strong defence’ agenda. 

But defining the lines around the norms of a historically − and by regulation − apolitical military is easier said than done. Service members are rightly encouraged to vote and, with the growth of social media, are increasingly active in political expression online. 

Despite the historical nonpartisanship underpinning the professionalism of the all-volunteer force, ‘likes’ and retweets are defended as individual free speech. Furthermore, retired senior officers are arguably setting an example for those who
believe that the military community should be more involved in the political debates that affect it. After years of budget roller-coasters, the temptation to step into the political arena is probably strong. 

Some of this activity has been sharply criticised. In 2016, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, warned against retired generals playing key roles in political campaigns, suggesting that making themselves political prizes might encourage ‘future administrations … to determine which senior [military] leaders would be more likely to agree with them before putting them in senior leadership positions.’

It could weaken the trust between civilians and the military that is necessary across administrations, based on the belief that the military will serve either party. It could, as Jason Dempsey and Amy Schafer wrote in World Politics Review ‘give outsize weight [to retired officers] and be perceived as representing a force that in reality has a diversity of political beliefs’, transforming the military from ‘a neutral force to a more political actor’. And it could skew recruitment to an even narrower base of officers and enlisted personnel.

How America views the force

Such changes may have an impact on how the US military is perceived by the American people. Currently the military is the most admired institution in the country. There are significant incentives for Trump to recruit veterans to his NSC and to treat military audiences as political allies. But at the same time, the American people are increasingly disconnected from the military. As the all-volunteer force declines in size, service members are often isolated from their civilian counterparts both physically and in terms of experience. 

With the military venerated but generally unknown, more active involvement in the policy and political sphere might actually bring them down to earth. Regardless, some like Charles Dunlap argue, group-based exclusion due to prior service is at odds with American values; for example, it is Congress’s responsibility to examine the qualifications and attitudes of individuals nominated to serve in political positions rather than dismiss groups out of hand. ‘Why shouldn’t the country’s most informed defence experts transition to civilian roles?’ asks the Hoover Institution’s Kori Schake. And why shouldn’t civilians desire this outcome? 

But public trust in the military and the blurred lines of Mattis, Kelly and McMaster’s civil-military roles, do present some risks. Previous analysis has shown that the enormous deference given to military actors over politicians ‘could shift the informal balance of power in the civil-military relationship too much in favour of the military at high policy levels’. Conversely, McMaster’s role in defence of the administration puts a strain on his own integrity and that of other military professionals. These are not catastrophic risks, but they set grooves of precedent for their successors that will be a problem in the long term. 

Mattis, McMaster and Kelly are each held up as necessary exceptions to norms of civil-military relations and necessary leaders for the times we find ourselves in. Yet, in practice, their participation in this administration is setting both a precedent for an increased role for future active and retired officers in politics, and incentives for the politicization of the military. Some of these negative implications are out of their control, and they may judge them less important than the day-to-day policy-making. We may be grateful for their present participation, but in the future we may look back on this administration wishing they had acknowledged and mitigated the risks their service created. 

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