The Trump administration is likely to feature the largest number of retired generals in modern history. Retired four-star generals James Mattis and John Kelly have been selected to lead the Defense and Homeland Security Departments, respectively, while retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn has been appointed to serve as National Security Adviser.
Several academics, commentators, and politicians, most notably Congressman Ruben Gallego (D – Ariz.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D – N.Y.), have suggested this concentration of generals in traditionally civilian security positions will have a detrimental impact on American civil-military relations. Critics suggest that the presence of so many senior generals will, at best, cause the military’s view of international affairs to be overrepresented—as the saying goes, “all problems look like nails when you have a hammer.” At worst, commentators have suggested it could lead to military professionals crafting advice for political, rather than strategic aims, threatening national security and potentially intruding directly into domestic politics.
While this concern is valid, and the accumulation of power by military professionals a risk to be carefully guarded against, it is not the most likely driver of a potential civil-military crisis in the coming administration. History shows that while civil-military breakdowns can occur when military leaders challenge their civilian counterparts, an equally damaging situation occurs when civilian leaders fail to communicate effectively with military and national security professionals. And given the recent public battle between the presidential transition team and the Central Intelligence Agency over the extent of Russian influence in the 2016 election, and the reorganization of the National Security Council to remove the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence from permanent membership of the principles committee meeting, communication failures driven by civilians from the president down could begin to multiply in coming years.
The Civil-Military Problem in American History
Civilian control of the military is a core principle of the United States, enshrined in the earliest articles of the Constitution. The central challenge of civil-military relations rests on the simple fact that military officers are trained to use violence to achieve political ends, while their civilian peers are not. As a result, the American founders feared a violent military effort to seize control of the government, and established the president, a civilian, as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and Congress as the chief paymaster in order to institutionalize civilian power over the military.
The constitutional checks on military power, combined with the strong commitment to a democratic republican government among the American officer corps, have ensured that a coup d’état or similar violent confrontation between the military and civilian leadership has never occurred in U.S. history. However, these checks have not eliminated the inherent tension in civil-military relations, and the rigidity of this relationship has been illuminated in public clashes between civilian and military leaders in several notable instances of American history. The most well-known of these disputes—President Lincoln versus General George McClellan over Civil War strategy, President Harry Truman versus General Douglas MacArthur over the Cold War—were spurred by disrespect and violations of presidential policy by the generals in question. The civil-military dynamic, though, is a two-way street, and poor presidential leadership can be just as damaging to the relationship.
Dwight Eisenhower and Presidential Mismanagement of Civilian Control
While these examples are some of the best known, they are not the only examples of civil-military discord in American history. A less-notable, but in many ways more prescient episode occurred when Dwight Eisenhower served as president. Eisenhower, like Trump, had no experience in electoral politics or government, and his primary leadership experience was as a senior general in the U.S. Army. While his positions as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces during World War II and first military commander of NATO near the end of his military career required significantly greater political activity than most military positions of the time, the majority of Eisenhower’s career was spent in the hierarchy of the U.S. Army. As president, he ran the White House in a similar manner.
Eisenhower relied primarily on his Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to implement his national security policy. However, he also was extremely confident in his own understanding of national security affairs, remarking at a press conference in 1960 that his lifelong military service allowed him to know “more about it than just about everybody.” His choice for Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, had no prior background in military affairs, and was selected primarily for his managerial talent as the CEO of General Motors. His pick for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Arthur Radford, differed significantly from his colleagues with regards to national defense and strategy. Radford emphasized the importance of nuclear weapons as a central component of national defense, at the expense of conventional forces in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, earning pushback from the other Joint Chiefs during his tenure. As a result of this structure, Eisenhower ran the Defense Department and military through two senior leaders who were viewed at times skeptically by other members of the military, contributing to a sense of isolation from the President and from the policymaking process among many senior officers.
Eisenhower also entered office with strong opinions about national defense, and chose to focus on pursuing his views vis-à-vis defense policy, rather than soliciting assessments and fashioning his strategy in cooperation with the military. He believed the defense budget had grown too large, and set out to slash huge numbers of troops from the Army and reduce the size of the Navy. These cuts were generally undertaken against the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs, and by ignoring their input, Eisenhower steadily alienated them.
The primary victims of Eisenhower’s alienation, Army Chiefs of Staff Matthew Ridgeway and Maxwell Taylor, were especially alarmed by what they saw as a policy designed to seriously weaken the Army, and with it the nation’s ability to defend itself. Both sought avenues to push back against the President, using congressional and public pressure as their most effective weapons. Ridgeway testified multiple times in the run-up to his retirement in 1955 that the president’s policy of emphasizing nuclear arms over conventional forces was leaving the country unprepared to fight non-nuclear conflicts. Ridgeway’s defiance did not alter administration policy, but it did spark an effort by the president to exercise stricter control over the Joint Chiefs. When he was asked to replace Ridgeway as chief of staff, Taylor was inquired not for his strategic advice, but to determine whether he would comply with Administration objectives. After initially agreeing, Taylor also became fed up with Eisenhower’s detachment and refusal to incorporate the advice of the Joint Chiefs in his national security policy, and retired in 1959.
Taylor’s retirement however, was only the beginning of his conflict with the administration. Less than six months after leaving his position, he published The Uncertain Trumpet, a book that castigated the Administration’s defense policy and called for a new strategy he called “flexible response,” based on a series of military options ranging from small scale infantry forces to the nuclear deterrent. While the serving Joint Chiefs did not publically support Taylor, numerous other commanders backed his recommendations or issued similar criticisms of Eisenhower’s defense policy. General William Quinn, the Army’s Chief of Information, declined to explicitly endorse Taylor, but publically stated his support for the policy proposals in Taylor’s book. Testifying at the Senate Subcommittee on Preparedness a day after General Taylor had, the commander of the Strategic Air Command, General Thomas Power, suggested the United States was vulnerable to a surprise attack by the Soviet Union and called for a continuous airborne alert protocol, directly reversing Eisenhower’s policy of a temporary, crisis-driven airborne alert for American nuclear bombers. And numerous Democratic leaders, including Senators John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, joined the chorus of criticism as they prepared to run for president in 1960.
For his part, Eisenhower blasted the senior command as “too many generals” with “all sorts of ideas,” and his Defense Secretary, Thomas Gates, sarcastically suggested he was not “as wise as General Taylor” when asked to comment on the recommendations. Eisenhower even considered legal action against Taylor, asking aides to assess what the Administration’s legal grounds before eventually deciding against the move so as to not “make a martyr” of General Taylor. Rather than consider the validity of his critiques, Eisenhower and his team treated the military officers who critiqued them as borderline insubordinate and dismissed their claims as baseless, furthering the gulf between the administration and the military.
By the time Eisenhower left office, his relations with the military had reached a serious low. He famously warned the country against military influence with his invocation of the “military industrial complex” in his farewell address in 1961. However, he failed to recognize his own role and mismanagement as central elements of the breakdown that had occurred between him and the senior generals.
Prospects for a Civil-Military Crisis
Eisenhower’s crisis is an instructive one for the present day. Like Eisenhower, Trump’s largely hierarchical experience in leadership differs from the consensus and political compromise based backgrounds of most other Presidents. He also has strong views on the War on Terror, Russia, and China that are at odds with the senior commanders of the American military. And his track record over the past election cycle, as illuminated by his most recent dispute with the experts in the CIA, is one of confronting and degrading those who present information opposed to his current worldview rather than acknowledging criticism and using it to refine his opinions.
Flynn, Mattis, and Kelly themselves hold a series of competing views about the world that simultaneously complement and contradict Trump’s stances. Of these, Flynn’s hostility towards Islam and friendliness towards Russia are the closest to Trump’s views, but place Flynn far outside the mainstream of the senior American officer corps. Mattis and Kelly, as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, differ with the president in multiple ways which may lead to clashes over American national security. In contrast to the president, Mattis has been highly skeptical of Russia, and has supported both close coordination and working with American allies and reducing the numbers of American nuclear warheads. Kelly, for his part, has spoken much more favorably about immigration, and has even suggested that transnational drug trafficking outstrips radical Islam as a threat to the United States. And General Dunford strongly defended NATO during the Presidential campaign against Trump’s charges that the alliance is obsolete while naming Russia as the top military threat to the United States at his confirmation hearing in 2015. Moreover, both Mattis and Kelly have demonstrated a willingness to push back against presidential directives and positions they disagree with under President Obama. Mattis has pushed the Obama administration to adopt a more thorough assessment of American foreign policy towards Iran, while Kelly has questioned lifting restrictions on women in combat—suggesting both men would not hesitate to work against White House policies they see as detrimental to American national security interests.
Besides the opposing views of Mattis and Kelly, among others, is the administration’s emerging dynamic of minimal consultation with cabinet officials regarding major policy changes. Neither the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of Homeland Security were informed of the “Muslim ban” executive order until the day it was signed. Kelly was just being briefed on the order as his aides watched the signing on television. Furthermore, the administration intentionally restricted the information on the policy shift provided to career officials within the Departments of State and Homeland Security. Should this dynamic remain going forward, miscommunication and a divide between the White House and the national security bureaucracy and the military is much more likely.
These serious differences between senior generals within Trump’s cabinet, combined with the president’s tendency to push back against opposing viewpoints rather than refine his own, suggests that a dangerous chasm between Trump and American national security professionals may steadily emerge throughout the next four years. The most likely civil-military dilemma that the incoming administration will face, then, is not that a former or serving general like Mattis, Kelly or Dunford will be able to usurp greater power; it is that the president will decline contradicting advice from military and national security professionals, and push them into open public opposition to national policy. Administration priorities that clash with the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Congress will place generals and admirals in an increasingly difficult spot, forcing them to both deliver their own, potentially contradicting, analyses while simultaneously defending administration priorities. Such a dilemma could possibly lead to efforts to remove sitting generals for their political views, a practice which has precedent from the run-up to the Iraq War. This could have the detrimental effect of politicizing military advice and forcing commanders to consider political rather than security issues in their assessments. And should a sitting, highly controversial president end up in a widely publicized clash with the military, one of the few remaining American institutions that retains public confidence under the leadership of charismatic and popular generals, then the potential political fallout is impossible to predict.
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