Trump and his generals: Militarising US foreign policy

Trump and his generals: Militarising US foreign policy
Comment: Trump's cabinet is filling up with ex-military men, reflecting the growing centrality of the military to US foreign policy, writes Robert Springborg
6 min read
19 Dec, 2016
President-elect Trump and US Marine Corps General James Mattis, nominated for Defense Secretary [Getty]
President-elect Trump has nominated three retired generals for top positions in his administration. 

Michael Flynn will be his National Security Advisor, James Mattis his Secretary of Defense (if Congress provides the necessary waiver, as seems likely), and John Kelly his Secretary of Homeland Security.

While another retired general, David Petraeus, was not picked to be Secretary of State, even without his presence in the Trump administration, it will be the most general top heavy of any since WWII, begging the questions of why and with what consequences.

Trump's fondness for generals is due in part to the lack of civilian foreign policy experts to whom he could turn. Other than General Flynn, he had no one on his campaign team who could lay the slightest claim to foreign policy expertise.

As a Republican Party outsider, he has not had relations with its established spokespersons on foreign policy. In any case there are few of them. The neo-cons who led President George W. Bush into his ill-fated war in Iraq are too discredited, while those who served with his father, such as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker III, are too old.

Tellingly the only foreign policy veteran with whom Trump has met since his election, is 93-year-old Henry Kissinger, who served under Presidents Nixon and Ford. John McCain is 80 and in any case, the insults he exchanged with candidate Trump would render a working relationship between the two men difficult to establish.

The lack of suitable civilian personnel for the key foreign policy posts also reflects structural changes in the American government. The global "War on Terror" declared by George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 is the longest running war in American history, despite its name having been dropped by President Obama, who has nevertheless sustained its substance.

Wars necessarily project generals into the political arena, as the cases of George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur attest.

Wars necessarily project generals into the political arena

Even prior to the War on Terror, however, presidents began to rely more heavily on the National Security Council (NSC) than the Department of State to formulate and even implement foreign policies, this being part of the expansion of the president-centered national security state.

The NSC, which has grown from fewer than 100 members to some 300, is situated in the White House and directly under the president. It has traditionally included considerable numbers of former military officers, whereas State has not.

It is the Department of Defense (DOD), however, that has become the elephant in the West Wing as well as in virtually every other room in Washington in which foreign policies are made.

If a date has to be put on the rise of the DOD at the expense of State, it is 1986 with the passing of the Goldwater-Nichols DOD Reorganization Act. It created so-called "COCOMS," meaning decentralised military commands for each of the world's major regions, CENTCOM being the one for much of the Middle East.

It is the Department of Defense, however, that has become the elephant in the West Wing

Whether intended or not, this put the military in the business of conducting relations with governments in those regions, creating a parallel channel of communication between those capitals and Washington, one widely believed to be superior to that provided by State because the DOD was deemed to have greater influence in the White House.

So by default, military officers - an ever larger proportion being given relevant language and other training appropriate to their new role - started to assume responsibilities that formerly had been performed by diplomats.

The growing disproportion of the DOD's as compared to State's annual budget, with the former receiving some $650 billion annually and the latter around $50 billion, has accentuated this trend. Trump has promised to raise the former by 10 percent, a larger amount than the entire budget of the State Department.

With the growing centrality of the military to US foreign policy, generals have necessarily become more prominent public figures. Like the military as an institution compared to say Congress, generals are thought of more positively by the public than are civilian politicians.

Military officers started to assume responsibilities that formerly had been performed by diplomats

Trump, like his recent predecessors, keeps their company out of the calculation that the popularity of heroes in uniform will rub off on them. President George W. Bush's use of General Petraeus in this regard is a case in point.

For their part, generals are susceptible to political power going to their heads, as was the case with General Douglas MacArthur and, more recently, General Stanley McChrystal.

Just as MacArthur viewed himself as the veritable Pro Consul of the Philippines, so did McChrystal see himself in a similar role vis-a-vis Afghanistan, until his criticism of the White House caused Obama to unceremoniously dump him for insubordination in 2010.

The general-president relationship has thus become increasingly politicised as the War on Terror has dragged on. Both sides use the other to enhance their standing.

This mutual political dependence has its perils, especially in the case of Trump. For a president to really benefit from rubbing shoulder boards with generals, it helps to have some military action. Petraeus gave Bush "the surge" in Iraq in 2007, for example. It provided a huge PR boost for both.

Generals are thought of more positively by the public than are civilian politicians

Since then Petraeus, assisted by none other than the just nominated Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, have drafted a new counterinsurgency doctrine, at least some components of which are presently being trialed in the assault on Mosul.

The key to this doctrine is that US forces, when properly trained, equipped and integrated into a host's army, can stiffen the military capacities of just about any state or non-state actor with which they partner.

So, just as the US has toughened up Baghdad, so can it do the same with say General Haftar in Libya.

The new doctrine, in short, is that of the US serving as a mercenary force for hire, empowering local actors while seeming to serve in a subordinate capacity. This is counterinsurgency that goes beyond drone strikes, but not so far as to make US "boots on the ground" an issue where they are, or back in America.

Since Vietnam, the military has sought this type of counterinsurgency capacity. Now it, or at least some of its retired generals, think they have perfected it.

The temptation for President Trump to try to cash in yet more on the popularity of his generals by unleashing the new counterinsurgency doctrine will be considerable. Trump talks a no-nonsense game replete with visceral condemnations of Islamists and Iranian-backed "terrorists".

At some point he may well want to convert his words into actions. It would not be at all surprising if he were to give his generals scope to try out their new doctrine, most likely in some theatre where they can deal with Iranian surrogate forces.

The generals concerned better hope that their doctrine lives up to the promise, as Trump is hardly likely to appreciate becoming bogged down in yet another Middle East conflict, or losing it.   

Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.