But is that precedent being threatened by President-elect Donald Trump? And does Trump's proclivity for considering and appointing retired generals for top national security jobs risk leading to military control over civilian government?
Certainly, the number of retired generals set to be named to the Trump administration
is unprecedented -- James Mattis at Defense, Michael Flynn as national security adviser, John Kelly at Homeland Security and the possibility of Adm. Mike Rogers as director of nationaI intelligence and David Petraeus at State. But while the issue is certainly worthy of serious debate, these appointments as a whole do not appear to pose a threat to the republic.
First, the issue should not be so much the occupation of a prospective nominee, but the judgment, experience and character of the person nominated. By and large, previous appointments drawn from the ranks of the military have been sound, if not excellent choices. Consider George Marshall as Harry Truman's secretary of state and defense, Colin Powell as Ronald Reagan's national security adviser and George W. Bush's secretary of state, or Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under George H.W. Bush. What you want in these positions are individuals who have leadership skills, the capacity to master their briefs and the required management skills to handle large and complicated systems. Appointments should be judged by these standards, not whether they are generals, doctors, lawyers -- or butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.
Second, the idea that military leaders are by definition hawks and prone to use force casually and recklessly, while civilians are not, just isn't borne out by the historical record. There's no magic formula that guarantees that civilians in key national security positions will make the wisest decisions. After all, just consider the Lyndon Johnson administration's escalation of the Vietnam War, or the George W. Bush administration's decision to launch the Iraq War. On the contrary, those who know firsthand the terrible costs and consequences of war can be particularly cautious about resorting to military force.
Third, given this President-elect's lack of experience in national security matters, it seems logical to appoint individuals who have such experience and who can serve not just as rote implementers of a president's policies, but educators of that president as well.
Trump has already admitted
that a conversation with Mattis has given him another view on the efficacy of waterboarding. And who better to educate a president on national security matters than individuals who have weathered America's wars in the past two decades, and who have had to grapple with the tough choices those wars have posed. Why not gravitate toward advisers who understand strategy, asymmetrical warfare, counterterrorism, and who believe in sound analysis and good intelligence before making decisions? With the exception of reports of an intemperate and ideological Flynn
, Trump's appointments -- and those he's reportedly considering -- seem to fit this model.
Fourth, given what appears to be the President-elect's operating style -- strong and willful -- what may well be required are individuals whom he respects, and whom he cannot intimidate.
Of course, generals are typically conditioned to respect hierarchy and to follow orders. That is why it would probably be a good idea for Trump to have the kind of general in key positions who are independent-minded, and who will stand up to him if they feel it is necessary -- men and women who will speak truth no matter what the consequences. Mattis appears to be someone in that mold.
Trump presumably is drawing heavily on the military -- not just because he seems to like strong leaders, but because, at a time when Americans are questioning their institutions, the military remains one of the few that enjoys widespread credibility and respect. In this regard -- and perhaps despite some of Trump's broad campaign criticism
of US generals involved in drawing up plans against ISIS -- generals have the authority and legitimacy to serve as a counterbalance to imprudent action. If Trump is likely to listen to anyone outside of his family, it could be the military.
Finally, fears that US foreign policy will be militarized should be tempered by the reality of recent American history. Today, in Iraq and Afghanistan, America is still involved in the two longest and yet arguably least productive wars in its history. This has underscored for lawmakers and members of the public that militarily intervention, particularly the large-scale deployment of ground forces, no longer seems like a solution to the tricky issues confronting the United States.
The problems America faces -- whether it's how to deal with Russia, what to do about Syria and Iraq, or fighting ISIS -- are challenges that are not just military, but highly political in nature. Ultimately, military power is simply a means to an end, and if that end is not a set of sustainable political goals, then there's a reluctance to exercise it. Without thinking through this correlation, America could find itself bogged down in unwinnable wars, something of which the generals are well aware.
The key to a president making the right decisions is assembling people around him who are wise, prudent, curious and experienced, regardless of their background. In turn, we must hope that the president displays similar qualities in addition to an ability to listen. And of course, if the latter isn't the case, then it won't matter who a president picks as advisers -- and the republic will be in for one wild and dangerous ride.