Aging fanboys who yearn to hang out with professional athletes are sometimes known by the unflattering term of “jock sniffers.” President Trump would have to be described as a brass rubber. As his appointments have shown, he can’t resist military men.
There was the ill-fated choice of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at NSC. Gen. James Mattis at Defense, which is supposed to be a civilian job, had to get a waiver for not having been retired for the necessary seven years.
Trump also had Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security until moving him to chief of staff. There’s Adm. Mike Rogers at NSA and Gen. H.R. McMaster at NSC. There are surely several more I’m overlooking.
Retired or active duty generals and admirals serving in the White House or in executive branch positions is hardly unprecedented. We have elected several generals president, of course. And one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century, Gen. George Marshall, served as both Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State after being “the organizer of victory” in World War II, according to no less an eyewitness than Winston Churchill.
There have been lots of brass in charge of various parts of the defense and security apparatus of the county, especially the National Security Council and the eavesdropping cyberspooks at NSA, which makes sense. They have included Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Gen. Michael Hayden, Gen. Jim Jones and Gen. Colin Powell. Powell, of course, went on to become Secretary of State. And Gen. Al Haig was chief of staff for Nixon before also serving as Secretary of State for Reagan.
Some of these men were great public servants, others less so. Most were hired for their security or geopolitical expertise, for their discipline and dedication to service. That’s fine, but is there a downside to having military men in governmental positions of great consequence?
When a president is weak, embattled, or nefarious, perhaps. It is widely believed that Al Haig was, in fact, the acting president as Nixon became more isolated and erratic the closer the Watergate denouement approached. Haig is credited with helping to keep the train on the rails which was necessary. But Haig may also have been an enabler. He apparently advised the president to destroy the incriminating tapes, for example.
Military officers are schooled to respect the chain of command without question, to salute those above them and say, yessir. They do not answer to voters or constituents. That may not make them the ideal people to be at a president’s elbow when he starts issuing illegal or lunatic commands.
It is not far-fetched to suppose that it is just this kind of unswerving, unquestioning loyalty that appeals to Trump, a man who sees enemies everywhere, believes in alternative realities, and can’t bear to be questioned or contradicted.
The case of Colin Powell is instructive. When the White House of George W. Bush needed someone to make the case for the invasion of Iraq after 9/11, Powell was sent out to vouch for a narrative concocted using questionable evidence produced by George Tenet’s CIA acting under immense pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney and his acolytes .
As we all know to our sorrow, the connection of Islamic terrorists to secular tyrant Saddam Hussein was fanciful, and the WMD that provided the casus belli did not exist. The good soldier, Powell, saluted and did his duty. He lent his sterling reputation to this faulty case, but he wound up tarnishing himself and enabling the Bush administration to commit a colossal historical blunder whose price we are still paying.
Have Mattis, Kelly, McMaster and the rest of Trump’s brass taken this lesson to heart? When Commander-In-Chief Queeg sets off on a witch hunt to find the missing strawberries, will they salute smartly and say yessir? Or do their duty to follow the law and not the man, despite the chain of command?