Washington — A new president, swept into office on a tide of fake news and media manipulation, surrounds himself with generals: his adviser on foreign policy, the defense minister, his minister of the interior and the further possible appointments of foreign minister and intelligence director.
If this happened in a third world country, the United States, as a global promoter of democracy, would warn against it. America has frequently urged the militaries of other countries to stand down and stay in barracks. The United States supports civilian control; the military’s job should be to provide military advice, not make policy and govern.
Yet these admonitions do not now seem to apply at home. Having roundly criticized generals during the campaign, President-elect Donald J. Trump is now surrounding himself with them.
The issue is not about getting good military advice to the president. The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the principal military adviser to the president for that purpose. The president regularly listens to uniformed officers in the Situation Room and the Pentagon.
As much as Americans like and respect their generals, civilian control of the military has nothing to do with the personal merits or otherwise of particular flag officers. They may be smart (David H. Petraeus), bold (James N. Mattis), temperamental (Michael T. Flynn) or quietly competent (John F. Kelly). There is not just one kind of general.
The larger principle goes back to the founding of the republic: Civilians should oversee the military, and the president is the commander in chief. The founders worried about the influence that a military with excessive power could have on America’s young democracy.
The issue is the same today. It’s not the risk of a military coup; it is what I call the “velvet militarization” of American foreign and national security policy over the next four years.
Military officers do view the world differently. Their experience has necessarily produced in them what psychologists sometimes call a “professional deformation,” a necessary conditioned way of looking at the world that is structured, hierarchical, strategic and operational. It focuses on the uses of military force.
Military officers are “can do.” Operational problems require operational solutions — fix the problem, and done. Fundamentally, military deterrence and combat are what they do, generally well.
Civilian analysts, strategists and diplomats focus on statecraft: how to wield the foreign policy tool kit to achieve national goals and protect American interests. They focus on broader strategy, diplomatic nuance, setting one sticky problem aside to make progress on another.
Both skill sets, military and civilian, are important. The president and his staff coordinate between the two. But filtering all policy decisions through a military lens will compromise the balance in decision making that good statecraft requires.
More fundamentally, our older democracy is in trouble. Over the past 70 years, the military has become the dominant institution in how the United States engages with the world, especially since Sept. 11, the so-called global war on terror and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Special Operations forces are now deployed to more than 80 countries, the counterterrorism apparatus has expanded across the country, and the military conducts cyberwarfare abroad.
Like water to a fish, our militarized medium has become invisible to us. To have generals in charge of the foreign and national security policy agencies looks normal. While it is true that the strategic failure behind the two biggest operational failures of the past 15 years, Iraq and Afghanistan, was a civilian responsibility, it seems ironic that the careers of the three officers so far appointed by Mr. Trump — Generals Mattis, Flynn and Kelly — were bound up with those debacles. If General Petraeus were nominated as secretary of state, that would make four.
It is important for the president to surround himself with senior cabinet-level advisers who are not military men. The president will need that balance, as well as the capabilities of all America’s foreign policy institutions. The challenges he will encounter are broader than the military view can encompass. And most solutions are not military.
Putting military officers in charge of the entire architecture of national security reinforces the trend toward militarizing policy and risks cementing in place “the military-industrial complex” that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of. To borrow the psychologist Abraham H. Maslow’s words, if all the men around President Trump are hammers, the temptation will be “to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
The New York Times