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The danger of too many generals in the Cabinet

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly arrives for

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly arrives for a meeting at the U.S. Capitol last month. Credit: Getty Images / Win McNamee

Don’t get me wrong: Some of the better appointments President Donald Trump has made are generals or lieutenant generals (for example, H.R. McMaster). In part, that’s because other picks suffer from egregious inexperience and ideological extremism. But the lesson here should not be that generals make good civilian leaders.

To the contrary, we are seeing that a record number of generals in Cabinet-level ranks has downsides. Generals are accustomed to barking commands and seeing subordinates salute and carry out orders. Once a decision is made, they are used to unwavering and enthusiastic compliance. Civilian government and democracy do not work that way.

This culture clash was on full display when Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said, “If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.” That insult came in a speech in which he lashed out at a number of critics.

Kelly should know better than to bite the hands that appropriate funds to his agency and conduct oversight. His public tantrum underscores the Trump administration’s anti-democratic disdain for dissent, a tenor that flows from the president.

One might dismiss as sour grapes the complaints of lawmakers from the opposition party who say Kelly is unresponsive. (“This is not boot camp,” Rep. Joseph Crowley, a Queens Democrat, said after a contentious private meeting with Kelly. “This is not newly inducted members of the Marine Corps. These are experienced lawmakers who understand the law.”)

But the same kind of criticism has been raised even by Republicans when it comes to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Politico has reported that in a dispute over Mattis’ desire to hire former ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, his highhandedness with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) made matters worse: “Kevin Sweeney, Mattis’ chief of staff, kept the Cotton staffers waiting and declined to invite them into his office, instead meeting with them briefly in an anteroom. He showed only a heavily redacted staff list and spent the meeting ‘barking’ at the staffers before ‘storming out,’ ” according to a national security source.

Like it or not, Congress, the news media, outside experts and even those pesky voters will criticize Cabinet officials. If the latter react with contempt and arrogance, they will only increase criticism and undermine support for their departments. A former State Department official who thinks highly of Mattis and Kelly told Right Turn, “It’s part of the broader problem we’re going to have from having a bunch of generals — good guys though they may be — in the positions they’re in.”

The greater danger, however, is an imbalance in our national security posture. Trump’s preference for showy displays of hard power cannot be the sum total of our foreign-policy approach. We still lack a comprehensive policy for Syria. Trump has made a mess of our attempt to keep Turkey within the camp of Western democratic governments. Our North Korea policy consists of big talk, a lie (about the direction of the USS Carl Vinson) and the faint hope that China will “do something” about North Korea (something three presidents tried to achieve, without success). In short, a military plan is not a foreign policy.

To be fair, Mattis and McMaster have helped steer Trump back to a more “normal” national security approach (although Trump remains a Vladimir Putin fanboy in an administration of Russia hawks). That said, it is incumbent upon generals to recognize they are in civilian roles in which criticism and oversight go with the territory. They must adapt to new ground rules and become part of a comprehensive national security policy, of which hard power is only one element.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post.

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