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Trump’s selection of former generals for Cabinet posts draws mixed reactions

President-elect Donald Trump greets retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, left, as he announces him as his Defense Secretary at a rally at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President-elect Donald Trump has selected retired generals for three top Cabinet posts, with other former military leaders still under consideration for other roles, sparking concerns over military authority creeping into civilian government.

Transition sources told multiple media outlets Wednesday that Trump will nominate retired Gen. John Kelly as secretary of homeland security, joining previously announced Department of Defense nominee Gen. James Mattis and designated National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

On Thursday, Trump met with retired Adm. James Stavridis, reportedly one of his finalists for secretary of state, at Trump Tower. Retired Gen. David Petraeus is also under consideration for the job. Adm. Michael Rogers is in the running for director of national intelligence.

Assuming Kelly and Mattis are confirmed by the Senate, Trump, who has no military experience himself, will enter the White House with at least three former generals in his top national security positions.

Experts have proffered many possible explanations for Trump’s apparent desire to stack his Cabinet with generals after blasting modern military leadership frequently on the campaign trail. Trump has in the past claimed he knows more about ISIS than the generals do and alleged that President Obama reduced military leaders to “rubble,” but many of the former military men he has considered hiring were involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations he criticized.

Given Trump’s general ideological inconsistency, Claude Welch Jr., professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo, dismissed the relevance of his anti-military campaign rhetoric.

“Let’s face it,” said Welch, editor of “Civilian Control of the Military: Theory and Cases from Developing Countries.” “He’s been all over the place. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.”

Opinions vary on the effect that having this many military voices at the table could have on the Trump administration. Antiwar advocates fear the former generals will be drawn to military solutions to every problem, but some experts say those who know the cost of war are less likely to recommend military force unless it is necessary.

“Research on former military officers in U.S. presidential administrations suggests that in decisions regarding the use of force, on average, former military officers are actually more reluctant to use force to solve foreign policy problems,” said Peter White, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland. “However, they may favor escalating to higher levels of force once conflict has started.”

Top-level military officials receive an incredible amount of professional education and understand strategy and management better than most. Ideally, according to Welch, they could provide a “moderating influence” on Trump.

“The big ‘if’ is, will he listen to them? Number two, will he act upon what they suggest?” he said.

An unprecedented number of prominent Republican national security experts denounced Trump during the campaign, leaving him with a smaller pool of willing qualified candidates to draw from to fill his Cabinet. Recently-retired military officials who have strived to remain apolitical throughout their careers may represent appealing options.

Flynn, Kelly, and Mattis had rocky relationships with the Obama administration. In some cases, their views were simply out of line with Obama’s priorities, but others clashed personally with the chain of command. Petraeus faced prosecution for mishandling classified information.

According to Tom Whalen, a presidential historian and professor of social sciences at Boston University, presidents often seek a balance of experience and viewpoints in their Cabinets, but Trump does not appear to be striving for that.

“The problem is that the more that you put retired military officials at top positions, are you creating a kind of policy groupthink at the top of the administration?” he said.

Some conservatives have rejected fears that Trump is gathering a “military junta.”

Transition spokesman Sean Spicer downplayed the military influence on the president-elect in an interview with “PBS Newshour” Wednesday. He insisted these are only three of the 4,000+ jobs Trump needs to fill in his administration and noted that Trump has chosen numerous successful businesspeople as well.

“This is a very, very broad group, diverse group of high-quality, high-caliber people who, in their own respective fields, whether it’s academia, business, or government, have shown that they know how to get the job done,” Spicer said.

While the potential preponderance of military figures in Trump’s Cabinet is inherently troubling to some, it is the specific men he has chosen that set off alarm bells for other critics.

Even Democratic leaders who praised Mattis have balked at waiving a requirement that the secretary of defense be a civilian who has been out of the military for at least seven years. They say the principle of civilian control of the military should not be set aside lightly.

“New presidents are typically allowed latitude to appoint their cabinet members,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said in a New York Times op-ed. “But President-elect Trump is not entitled to ignore our laws and change the fundamental government constructs that have enabled our country’s success.”

“Waivers are a slippery slope,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) at a press conference Thursday.

Some liberals have expressed concerns about Kelly’s stance on immigration, border security, and civil liberties. He has defended the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, for example.

Flynn, a vocal Trump supporter throughout the campaign, has generated some of the strongest criticism, but his position is not subject to Senate confirmation.

In an interview with NewsChannel8 Wednesday, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) blasted Flynn for spreading false stories and conspiracy theories on social media.

“Why is he either so gullible or so consumed with malice that he is spreading stories a fourth-grader would know are inaccurate?” Kaine said.

There is a case to be made for these generals providing a perspective not represented by any of Trump’s other advisers, and a widely-respected official like Mattis may temper Flynn’s influence.

“The generals bring unique expertise and knowledge that Trump and many in his inner circle lack,” White said. “There is also an argument that others have made that General Mattis--who is universally respected in civilian and military circles--brings a unique authority to national security deliberations that can serve as a counter-balance to some of the more aggressive members of his team, such as General Flynn."

President Obama came into office in 2009 with two retired generals and a retired admiral in his Cabinet, but the response then was more muted. In some cases, he was even praised for building bridges to the military establishment.

Welch suggested that was a different situation. Obama planned to close Guantanamo Bay and cut back military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, whereas Trump has often claimed he is “the most militaristic person there is.”

“His rhetoric during the campaign and since has been bellicose,” Welch said.

Obama had a holdover from the Bush administration, Robert Gates, staying on as his secretary of defense at first, providing some continuity of leadership.

Also, the retired generals Obama appointed included Eric Shinseki as head up the Department of Veterans Affairs, a job typically filled by a veteran and generally unrelated to setting national defense policy.

“The types of positions going to generals is important…These are extremely large departments with a predominant role in the formation and implementation of defense and national security policy,” White said of the distinction between Obama and Trump’s Cabinets.

For some, Shinseki’s failure to wrangle the bureaucracy of the VA demonstrates the potential risks of assuming military prowess will translate to civilian leadership. However, the last secretary of defense that Congress waived the waiting period over in 1950 was George Marshall, who was extremely successful.

Trump has signaled willingness to listen to the former generals he has chosen, in some cases with results his critics would applaud. In an interview with the New York Times, Trump said Mattis had convinced him to rethink his stance on waterboarding, which he often claimed was effective and justified during his campaign.

“General Mattis is a strong, highly dignified man,” Trump said. “I met with him at length and I asked him that question. I said, what do you think of waterboarding? He said — I was surprised — he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’ He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’ And I was very impressed by that answer.”

The discomfort experts have expressed with Trump’s choices goes well beyond the president-elect’s temperament or the qualifications of these specific generals.

“It goes back to our Constitution,” Welch said. He pointed to language in the Second Amendment referring to a “well-regulated militia” and the reticence of the founders to establish a standing army.

“It is one of the bedrocks of democracy,” White said. It represents a shared belief that the military should stay out of politics and focus on national defense rather than governing.

White noted that Mattis himself has written about the importance of respecting civilian control of the military in the past, and there is no indication that the generals Trump has nominated do not respect that principle.

“There is a valid and important concern that over time the installation of former generals in traditionally civilian posts by incoming presidents could become normalized, politicizing the military, and gradually eroding civilian control,” White said.

Whalen said the founders’ fear of military control of government is grounded in history, with republics falling to military dictators since Caesar took charge of Rome. Trump is displaying apparent disregard for that tradition.

“This is kind of a nightmare scenario that many of them had worried about, and I just wish Trump had shown a little bit more balance,” he said.

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