Why is there angst over Trump’s appointments?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 15, 2016
Donald Trump's domestic military build-up has aroused great consternation. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Donald Trump’s domestic military build-up has aroused great consternation. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

It was Claire McCaskill, a Democratic senator from Missouri, who created a catchy name for the American administration taking shape in president-elect Donald Trump’s hands. In what sounded a little like a well-known luxury Italian fashion label, Ms MacCaskill branded the Trump line-up as “the G& G cabinet.” It does seem, she said dryly, “to be fairly limited to Goldman Sachs and generals.”

Though Tuesday’s announcement of Rex Tillerson as Mr Trump’s nominee for secretary of state appeared to take the incoming cabinet a notch away from Goldman Sachs, the G& G branding remains apt. America’s 45th president will lead a team dominated by big business and military brass. Mr Tillerson is chief executive of ExxonMobil. And a glitter of generals have been picked to serve in crucial positions, making the incoming administration the most military-heavy for more than a century.

Mr Trump’s domestic military build-up has aroused great consternation. But should it really? Barack Obama had his generals in civvies — Eric Shinseki at the department of veterans affairs, David Petraeus as CIA head, Jim Jones as national security adviser, and later, James Clapper as director of national intelligence. George W Bush picked former general Colin Powell as his secretary of state. Retired general Alexander Haig performed the same function for president Ronald Reagan, as well as previously serving as chief of staff in both the Nixon and Ford White House.

So why the angst over the appointments?

There are two reasons. Mr Trump has picked military officers who retired relatively recently. And he has chosen more of them to serve than anyone can remember gracing an American administration since president Ulysses S Grant in the 1870s.

Even so, surely it is no bad thing to have military spit and polish in an administration? By its very nature, military leadership is distinguished by rapid decision making, the willingness to bark orders (and to follow them) and an intense desire to win. And yet, there is a reason civilian governments aren’t staffed by significant numbers of army men. First, there is the matter of civilian control and the proper distance between the military and the executive branch. Then there is the matter of perspective, especially if a soldier has been only recently “separated”, in the term used by the US military to describe leaving active duty.

As one retired US general, who hasn’t been tapped for the Trump administration, put it, a significant number of recently separated military men in a cabinet “brings into some question whether you actually are maintaining full civil control of a nation”.

But the real question is how military officers’ perspective would drive the actions of the Trump administration. Key decisions are bound to be affected, considering that generals John Kelly, James Mattis and Mike Flynn have been named to head the departments of homeland security, defence and national security, respectively. As military leaders, they have spent the past 15 years at war, focusing on America’s enervating fight against terrorism. It may be all but impossible, then, for Mr Trump’s generals in cabinet not to see the world through a military prism and to discount diplomacy and other softer arts of engagement.

That said, the generals could, as men of war, prove to be very pacifist because they have already seen the horrors of death and destruction. At least one retired major general, Charles Dunlap, who was an air force lawyer and now teaches at Duke University, has argued that military men are typically not hawkish and want “all other avenues to be exhausted before turning to force”.

But even if they are cautious about intervention, chances are the generals’ professional experiences and training are likely to feed into and off president Trump’s oft-stated campaign promises of a hard-edged American posture of might is right.

Consider what Mr Trump’s generals are known to believe. They are all, to varying degrees, exercised about two threats: Iran and radical Islam. In his recent book The Field of Fight, Gen Flynn wrote: “We’re in a world war, but very few Americans recognise it, and fewer still have any idea how to win it.” On Twitter, he declared that “fear of Muslims is rational”, capitalising the whole of the last word to stress the good sense that informed Islamophobia.

Gen Mattis and Gen Kelly, meanwhile, are deeply worried about Iran. As my fellow columnist Hussein Ibish recently wrote on these pages, Gen Mattis criticised the Obama administration for being too passive about Iranian aggression. In April, he said the Iran deal was one that was “drawn up with the expectation that Iran will cheat …[there may be] a fight at some point in the future … We’re going to have to plan for the worst.”

These pronouncements suggest the generals see threats in apocalyptic terms, an unnerving prospect for everyone but their new commander-in-chief, who has a stated fondness for aggressive leadership and displays of brute strength.