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The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”

Photo by edward stojakovic | CC BY 2.0

The leading myth of the mainstream media over the past year has been the idea that there were “adults in the room” in the Oval Office of the White House.  These so-called adults were for the most part general officers, both active duty and retired, who were going to restrain the excesses of Donald Trump by providing moderate and authoritative advice that he couldn’t get anywhere else.

Thus far, we have witnessed two Army generals who have served as the national security adviser, and two Marine generals who have served as Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of Defense, and even chief of staff to the president.  The past two weeks have been two of the most immoderate weeks in the brief history of the Trump administration, demonstrating that the adults are either AWOL (Absent without Leave) or unable to broadcast on Trump’s frequency.

It was fatuous to assume that general officers could provide the kind of support that such an inexperienced president required.  The example of Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State George C. Marshall in the Truman administration was singular because he was an unusual soldier-statesman.  The examples of Generals Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell are not particularly useful because they had high-level civilian mentors such as Henry A. Kissinger, Frank Carlucci, and James Baker.  Generals H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, Michael Flynn, and James Mattis lacked civilian guidance in the White House; they had no background for offering the sophisticated guidance needed on the geopolitical issues that bedevil our president.

The appointment of these generals to central national security positions made little sense to begin with.  If Donald Trump were seriously interested in improving relations with Russia, for example, why would he surround himself with general officers who are trained and indoctrinated on the basis of their opposition to Russia?  If Donald Trump were seriously interested in arms control and disarmament, why would he surround himself with general officers who have little knowledge of disarmament and represent an institution that fought every disarmament measure ever since President John F. Kennedy’s courageous Partial Test Ban Treaty in the 1960s?

Trump’s generals have certainly not distinguished themselves in any event.  General Flynn has been indicted, and General Kelly has embarrassed himself and his president on a brace of serious domestic issues.  General McMaster, the author of “Dereliction of Duty,” has been derelict in his handling of the National Security Council, where there has been no serious discussion of policy toward Russia or the Middle East.  But there are more serious limitations of the professional military that I encountered during my 18 years on the faculty of the National War College, the military’s senior educational institution.

As far back as 1997, senior Defense Department officials, including then secretary of defense William Cohen, warned about a “chasm developing between the military and civilian worlds, where…the military doesn’t understand…why criticism [of the military] is so quick and unrelenting.”  Others have noted a “gap” in values between the armed forces and civilian society, which could threaten civil-military cooperation as well as the military’s loyalty to civilian authority.  Currently the all-volunteer military has drifted far away from the norms of American society, is inordinately right-wing politically, and is much more religious (and fundamentalist) than America as a whole.  The “Republicanization” of the officer corps is well established.

Too many career officers believe that their moral code is superior to civilian norms, and there has been constant criticism within senior ranks about the moral health of civilian society.  In their private moments, senior officers are extremely critical of liberal politicians and the mainstream media.  At the same time, these senior officers ignore their own opposition to change over the years, particularly opposition to the service of African Americans, women, and homosexuals in their ranks.

In the national security arena, the military has either been obstructionist in responding to presidential policy or simply unable to develop options for dealing with geopolitical challenge.  Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had to deal carefully with the military to get their reluctant support for serious arms control ventures, including the SALT and ABM agreements of 1972.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff dragged their heels when President Bill Clinton wanted military options for dealing with international terrorism and Afghanistan in the 1990s; when President Barack Obama wanted plans for troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan; and even when President Donald Trump signaled an interest in reducing the American commitment in Afghanistan.  The Pentagon had nothing to offer President George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which provided an opening for CIA director George Tenet to propose an immediate and successful response to dealing with the Taliban and al Qaeda with a small number of special forces and operatives.

Unfortunately, the service academies and the war colleges devote insufficient time to a coherent understanding of U.S. society and culture as well as the tradition of civil-military relations in the United States.  Indeed, there is no more important task in political governance than making sure that civilian control of the military is not compromised and that the military remains subordinate to political authority.  Presidents Clinton and Obama demonstrated too much deference to the military, and President Trump has placed too many generals in positions that should be occupied by civilians.  As a result, the Pentagon’s budget has been increased at a time when the civilian economy is facing restraint.

We are on the verge of a constitutional crisis in this country with Donald Trump surrounded by general officers who lack the skill set for compromise and conciliation.  The generals have been unable to exercise any influence over the erratic and unpredictable style of our current president.  The sad reality is that we are faced with an untethered president who cannot be counseled or moderated.  As a result, there is probably no team of civilians who could have ensured better results than Trump’s generals.