Donald Trump's choice of generals for top posts 'extremely unusual'

The procession of former military officers nominated for top jobs in Donald Trump’s administration is raising concerns over whether the appointments could defy an American constitutional tenet: civilian oversight of government.

Ex-officers may actually restrain a hawkish leader, experts say, but management styles could be complicated

Donald Trump has already tapped a trio of retired generals to fill cabinet-level positions in his incoming administration. More could be on the way and that's raising concerns about a constitutional tenet: civilian oversight of government. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Hup, two, three … heck, maybe even four.

The procession of former military officers nominated for top jobs in Donald Trump's administration is raising concerns over whether the appointments could defy an American constitutional tenet: civilian oversight of government.

The U.S. president-elect has tapped a trio of retired generals — marine John Kelly for secretary of Homeland Security, marine James Mattis for defence, and soldier Michael Flynn for national security adviser — to fill cabinet-level positions.

More could be on the way. Retired army general David Petraeus and retired navy admiral James Stavridis remain in the running for secretary of state.

Taken individually, there are some wise picks there, say military and national security analysts. Taken collectively, though, military historian Richard Kohn isn't so sure.

"This is a big deal. These are civilian jobs," he says. 

Trump has already given the nod to the following military officers (from left to right): James Mattis, Michael Flynn and John Kelly. (Associated Press)

A niggling question, Kohn says, is whether the U.S. government will be able to maintain civilian control over military affairs — or whether that doctrine gets "diluted" by having "the three generals in three extremely key positions."

The democratic principle of civilian control over the military assures that strategic policy-making rests in the hands of private elected citizens, while the armed forces take a subordinate role. The dynamic is meant to protect against a possible coup or military dictatorship.

But the lines can blur.

President Barack Obama appointed retired marine general James Jones in 2008 to be his national security advisor, for example. That parallels Trump's selection of Flynn for the same role, though Flynn has emerged as a controversial choice owing to his Islamophobic and conspiratorial beliefs.

Chain-of-command culture

Kohn worries that a preponderance of military brass in Trump's administration limits the breadth of advice that could otherwise avail him.

"When the president is sitting down in a crisis, looking for alternatives, looking for advice, who's in the room?"

If Trump's company includes current U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he might have counsel from at least three four-star generals.

When the president is sitting down in a crisis, looking for alternatives, looking for advice, who's in the room?- Richard Kohn, military historian

As former assistant secretary of homeland security Juliette Kayyem told CNN, stacking a cabinet with generals "means a white male over a certain age."

Marine generals, for instance, "haven't dealt very often with women in their jobs," Kohn notes.

That, compounded with the military's chain-of-command culture, might make for a prickly management style after years working in the armed forces, an organization Kohn calls "the most undemocratic institution in American society."

"They're taught certain approaches to solving problems. They're used to issuing orders, they're used to obeying, they're used to trying to control events."

'Trump's cup is full'

When it comes to generals in Trump's inner circle, Kohn adds, "Trump's cup is full." He says filling the secretary of state slot with another would be an "enormous error." 

Previous governments have confirmed generals for key cabinet positions, but what's different this time is how many could end up serving together at the same time.

"The optics are extremely unusual," says retired army general Barry McCaffrey, who served as drug czar under former president Bill Clinton.

The sheer number of generals might, at first blush, seem to reaffirm the hawkish tendencies of a president-elect who once boasted he would "bomb the shit out of" ISIS.

But former secretary of state Colin Powell, a decorated army general, was known as a cautious voice in former president George W. Bush's administration and he often hesitated to recommend use of force.

Despite being a decorated army general, former secretary of state Colin Powell (second left) was known as a cautious voice in the George W. Bush administration. (Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

In considering Trump's nominees, McCaffrey says he places greater value on judgment and character — attributes that give him confidence in Mattis, whom he describes as "a safeguard on security interests," and Kelly, who he calls "among the finest people I've ever met in my life."

He holds Flynn with less regard, calling out his trafficking in conspiracy theories as "demented."

Less cavalier about use of force?

Critics who fear a prominent ex-military presence in the new administration might push Trump toward armed conflict may also have the wrong idea, McCaffrey says.

He points to a "heartbreaking" video of Kelly eulogizing his son, Robert, who was killed in action six years ago.

"You think they want to go to war? Of course they don't," McCaffrey says. "The old guys have been out there; they know war is the least useful, most uncertain tool of all."

Mattis, lionized by the U.S. Marine Corps, likely comprehends the full ugliness of the battlefield, having buried many of his own. But he would also understand when it's time to shoot, as reflected in his motto for marines in Iraq: "No better friend, no worse enemy."

Although Mattis's nomination has been praised across political aisles, his confirmation would be the most complicated, requiring a congressional waiver as he only retired in 2013. (That's four years shy of the out-of-the-military eligibility to take the defence secretary job.)

The White House may become more hawkish in general, says Austin Long, an expert on military operations who teaches at Columbia University. But if that's the case, he says it likely won't be because of the generals.

"Many generals have been a lot closer to war than some civilian policy-makers, who are a lot more cavalier about use of force, not having been out there," Long says.

Long is reluctant to put a number to the "too many generals" question. A better question, he says, is whether the diversity of backgrounds and experiences goes between and within departments.


  • An earlier version of this story said James Jones was an army general. In fact, he was a marine general.
    Dec 09, 2016 8:45 AM ET


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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