Trump's general-filled Cabinet — a 'team of allies' — risks groupthink
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It was 1783 and the Continental Army’s officers were set on mutiny over pay and military resources. A meeting was held at the Army camp at Newburgh to decide whether a military takeover was necessary. As the meeting of conspirators commenced, Gen. George Washington spoke.

In his Newburgh Address Washington implored his fellow officers to abandon plans for mutiny and support the Congress. He chastised the conspiracists for “plotting the ruin of both, by sowing the seeds of discord & separation between the Civil & Military powers of the Continent.”

His remarks were so moving that many of the would-be mutinous officers openly wept. In this moment General Washington saved our fledgling country from military takeover and set the precedent for the U.S. tradition of civilian control of the military.


Fast-forward to today and President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWhat blue wave? A close look at Texas today tells of a different story Democrats go down to the wire with Manchin Trump's former bodyguard investigated in NY prosectors' probe: report MORE is nominating an historic number of former generals to Cabinet level positions — Gen. Flynn for national security advisor, Gen. Mattis as secretary of the Department of Defense, and Gen. Kelly to lead Homeland Security. It’s rumored that Trump is also considering Admiral Rogers as the director of National Intelligence.


This occasion may not necessitate a George Washington speech, but it’s a problem for both civil military relations and uniformity of opinion.

While some have argued the necessity for civilian control of the military is as outdated as Washington’s wig, especially given that retired generals might actually be less inclined to military interventions than civilians, there’s growing concern amongst the foreign policy establishment that Trump’s Cabinet picks would undermine civilian control of an apolitical military.

This in not to say that president’s shouldn’t have ex-generals in their Cabinets. Indeed, many presidents have and, while not all the former generals have excelled, many have done quite well, including former Marine Corps Commandant James Jones serving as national security advisor to President Obama.

Civilian control is one problem, diversity of views may be more serious.

In the Obama administration, the Jones appointment was part of President Obama’s initial plan to create a “team of rivals,” much as President Abraham Lincoln did to counter divisions prior to the Civil War. Dissimilarities of experience, beliefs, and even partisanship were sought, not avoided. And these teams of rivals helped Lincoln through the Civil War and Obama through the Great Recession.

On national security, Trump’s Cabinet can be best described as a team of allies.

They’ve all populated the same government institution for decades. They have similar experiences, worldviews, and skill-sets.

Mattis and Kelly actually served together for years in the Marine Corps. In fact, one of the stars Kelly wore on his military uniform was actually pinned on him by Mattis during the Iraq War in 2003. Moreover, both men served alongside Gen. Dunford in Iraq, who is currently the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The danger is that these appointments do not provide Donald Trump with the intellectual diversity needed to best manage all of the foreign affairs of the U.S. And as we saw in the last Republican administration, group think led to a mistaken war in Iraq.

That is just one blind-spot that could escape these proposed national security leaders. Others include homeland security and diplomatic mis-steps (like calling the president of Taiwan).

For this reason, the Senate can’t sit by idly and put a rubber-stamp on these confirmations. Senators can start by calling for a hearing prior to granting Mattis a waiver to serve as secretary of Defense. This can be conducted during the five day window the recently passed Continuing Resolution affords the Senate Armed Services Committees before the waiver heads directly to the Senate floor for a vote.

Given that Mattis will be the first general to hold the office of secretary of Defense in more than 60 years, Senators should have the opportunity to discuss civil-military relations with him before granting the waiver.

Similarly, since the House also has to vote on the waiver, House members should also have the opportunity to hear from Mattis before his confirmation.

Second, assuming that Mattis is granted the waiver, both he and Kelly should be asked to address the concerns expressed here during their confirmation hearings.

How does their nomination contribute to diversity of thought, experience, and qualifications in Trump’s national security Cabinet? What, if any, reservations do they have about a Cabinet filled with so many former generals? What can be done to mitigate those reservations?

This isn’t about partisanship or delaying Trump’s transition. It’s about ensuring that the Trump administration has the best team in place to advise a president who has appeared woefully ignorant on foreign affairs.

Ben Freeman, Ph.D, is Third Way’s deputy director of the National Security Program. Contact Ben on Twitter @BenFreemanDC.

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