Too many generals?

Democrats and their many pals in the mainstream media have been able to find a hook through which to criticize nearly every nominee presented by president-elect Trump. For Sen. Jeff Sessions, it’s bogus allegations of bigotry. For Dr. Ben Carson, it’s lack of subject matter expertise and administrative experience (a fair, though not dispositive objection, I think). For Scott Pruitt, it’s that he’s had the audacity to sue the EPA.

Now, with nothing to find fault with in Gen. John Kelly, the complaint is that Trump is selecting too many generals. In lodging this complaint, the Washington Post quotes liberal Senator Chris Murphy. He says:

I’m concerned. Each of these individuals may have great merit in their own right, but what we’ve learned over the past 15 years is that when we view problems in the world through a military lens, we make big mistakes.

This is nonsense at two levels at least. First, Murphy assumes that there is a distinctively “military lens.” But there has been disagreement within the military on many of the key decisions of the past 15 years — e.g., the decision to invade Iraq, how deeply to get involved in the Syrian civil war, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” women in combat.

The three generals Trump has selected — Flynn, Mattis, and now Kelly — all have dissented from some of the views that seem to have held sway at the highest levels of the military in recent years. Admittedly, though, it’s not always easy to know whether a view prevails at top military levels on its merits or because the brass bends to administration pressure.

Second, what big mistakes resulted from allegedly viewing the world through a supposed military lens? Murphy probably is referring to the Iraq invasion. But this was decision pushed by Vice President Cheney and backed by a Secretary of Defense who was not a career military man. Liberals say it was foisted on the country by “chicken hawks” who, by definition, aren’t military people.

Thus, assuming that this decision was a “big mistake,” it wasn’t the product of a military lens.

The Iraq surge was. But this was a success, not a mistake.

Leaving Iraq was a big mistake. But it was the product of a manifestly non-military lens — that of President Obama.

Our slow reaction to the rise of ISIS was a big mistake. Again, though, this was not the military’s fault. It was President Obama who thought ISIS was “the jayvee.” Even Obama doesn’t blame the military. He’s trying to pin it on the intelligence community.

Daniel Benjamin, a former counterterrorism official at the State Department under Obama and now a professor at Dartmouth College, has also expressed concern about too many generals in top positions:

Generals as a rule believe in hierarchies and taking orders, and if the president gives them an order you have to wonder how likely they are to push back against it. Generals have one set of skills, and diplomacy is not in the top drawer of that tool kit.

This is an odd complaint. The traditional argument against generals in top civilian positions is a supposed threat to civilian control. Benjamin seems to be worrying about just the opposite.

Moreover, William Galston, a Democrat who served in President Clinton’s administration, believes that concerns about generals “charging ahead” with no regard for legal or constitutional constraints — or without a willingness to challenge the president’s decisions — are misplaced. Generals are “schooled to believe that if they or any subordinates receive an unlawful order, it’s not to be obeyed,” Galston says.

In my view, government officials — whether they are former generals or not — should obey orders from the president or else resign. There’s no good reason to think that ex-generals are less (or more) likely than other officials to follow this approach.

When it comes to advising the president, “pushing back” is sometimes in order. In this regard, Generals Flynn and Mattis both seem like good choices. Neither was highly deferential to the judgments of the current president.

Here’s the key point, though. A president won’t be receptive to pushback unless he holds the guy doing the pushing in high regard. Trump seems to have a high regard for Flynn and Kelly, and certainly does for Mattis.

Maybe he’s into tough, can-do generals; maybe he respects the generals in question based on individual merit; maybe — probably — both factors are in play.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the three generals Trump has selected are well qualified for the job and whether Trump trusts them. Even liberals seem satisfied with the individual merit of Mattis and Kelly. Flynn, they don’t get to vote on.

Finally, what about Benjamin’s complaint that “diplomacy is not in the top drawer” of most generals’ “tool kit?” The obvious answer is that neither Mattis, Kelly, nor Flynn has been tabbed for a diplomatic job.

Gen. David Petraeus reportedly is still in the running for Secretary of State. If Trump picks Petraeus for this position (I hope he doesn’t), we can consider the extent of Petraeus’ diplomatic skills. We should not assume they are poor just because he was a general.

For readers who make it to the end of the Post’s article, Galston, the Democrat, has this take:

If you asked me, would I prefer a government of generals or a government of lawyers, that’s not an easy choice. We’ve experimented with a government of lawyers, and that hasn’t been so fantastic, has it? Maybe it’s time to give the generals a chance.

In my opinion, it’s certainly time to give James Mattis and John Kelly a chance.


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