In late July, President Donald Trump appointed retired Marine Gen. John Kelly as his chief of staff, suddenly making Kelly the most potent — and political — of the generals serving in the administration. Since then, Kelly has instilled some measure of order and discipline in a White House that had descended into factionalism and chaos. But by elevating a recently retired general to what is arguably the second most powerful position in the West Wing, the influence of military men in senior administration jobs is no longer confined to the realm of national security — it now extends into the realm of politics and partisanship as well. Kelly’s new role poses grave dangers to civil-military relations by injecting him directly into the divisive and bitter politics of our times.
Since moving from leading the Department of Homeland Security to filling the White House’s corner office, Kelly has successfully imposed a streamlined and formal policymaking process within the executive branch. Gone are the days when anyone could wander into the president’s office unannounced or slip him an article to read. Kelly is now the single gate keeper for the president, controlling access to his boss (even Ivanka needs an appointment to talk policy issues) and vetting all the information he receives from aides. In his first weeks on the job, he fired some of the administration’s most strident ideologues and empowered the national security advisor, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, to clean house within his staff too. Perhaps his most remarkable achievement to date was the rollout of the new Afghanistan policy, which was announced without any significant leaks ahead of time, and featured Trump speaking to the nation in prime time in a way that was clear, concise, on message, and even (dare we say it) downright presidential. Few would dispute Kelly’s direct influence on every one of these striking shifts.
What’s not to like about these changes? As notable as these successes are, they obscure a far deeper problem with Kelly’s service as the White House chief of staff. Kelly was already one of three generals serving in the highest levels of the administration, alongside McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Together, their appointments raised important civil-military issues. Many have argued that civilian voices and civilian concerns could be overwhelmed by advice with a military cant, and that the very similar backgrounds of these men makes them even more susceptible to the dangers of groupthink. Yet at least these generals were all serving in roles directly related to national security, their career-long area of expertise. There was an identifiable (if not entirely comfortable) logic to Trump’s selection of career military men to fill senior positions essential to the nation’s safety and security.
Kelly’s new position, by contrast, is unremittingly political. As the White House chief of staff, he sits beside the president during every meeting or phone call that covers any issue, policy, or political problem serious enough to make it into the Oval Office — from policy decisions like ending the DACA program, to cutting deals with congressional leaders on the debt ceiling, to helping craft his boss’ 2020 re-election campaign. Kelly’s new job lacks any guardrails between bitter partisan politics and public policy formulation — and that exacerbates the civil-military challenges that were already facing this administration in three particularly dangerous ways.
First, having a retired general serve in such an unabashedly partisan role further blurs the boundaries between the military and politics, and erodes the long-standing reputation of the U.S. military as an apolitical institution. If politicians begin to see generals as political figures (or even future political opponents), the vital trust that exists between the nation’s elected leadership and its uniformed military will be lost. As a result, future presidents and other elected leaders may well keep suspect military leaders out of the room when major decisions are made, even on military issues. Such an outcome would deprive presidents of some of their most valuable and arguably objective advice — disastrous for not only for civil-military relations, but for the achievement of sound policy outcomes of all types.
Second, Kelly’s appointment promotes the myth that military leaders are superior to civilian leaders. Healthy civil-military relations cannot rest upon a belief that when the nation is in trouble, calling upon military leaders to “take charge” in senior civilian roles is the best or only answer. If Kelly can continue to nudge his boss towards becoming a more traditional and less volatile commander-in-chief, both the nation and the world may breathe a collective sigh of relief. Politicians, members of the military, and the American public may all come to view Kelly (and perhaps to a lesser degree, the other administration generals) as a savior of the republic, protecting the nation and the world from the worst impulses of an inexperienced and temperamental president. They may come to judge calling in the generals as the key takeaway for improving American governance. And that would be an extremely serious problem indeed. As Rosa Brooks argues,
If your only functioning government institution is the military, everything looks like a war, and “war rules” appear to apply everywhere, displacing peacetime laws and norms. When everything looks like war, everything looks like a military mission, displacing civilian institutions and undermining their credibility while overloading the military.
Clearly, this growing trend creates major civil-military problems for a healthy democracy.
The final danger of having Kelly (or any military leader) serve as White House chief of staff is that any major policy failure occurring on his watch would undermine the standing of the military, rightly or wrongly. Any such failure would inevitably lead to questions about Kelly’s judgment and fitness to serve. That could easily erode the strong confidence that Americans have in their military, which rests upon perceptions of competence and professionalism. But the consequences would be far worse after a foreign policy or national security debacle — such as a sudden war with North Korea, a lethal naval confrontation with China over disputed islands, or a bloody confrontation with Russia in defense of the Baltics. A plunge into a major war with heavy U.S. casualties would unquestionably cause many Americans to point to Kelly and the other administration generals as the proximate cause, justifiably or not. Politicians and the public might quickly conclude that military options crowded out more peaceful ones because of the dense number of generals involved in the administration’s decision making, culminating with Kelly. A belief that Kelly and the administration’s other generals had exceeded either their bounds or their competence could sour civil-military relations for decades.
Kelly is not the first general to serve as White House chief of staff and he may not be the last, but he should be. Appointing active or retired generals to serve in this powerful and inherently political position deeply undermines the longstanding apolitical nature of general officer corps and the well-founded separation in the United States between military and political leadership roles. The nation relies on the non-partisan nature of the military as an institution to uphold and buttress the norms of proper civil-military behavior upon which democratic power rests. But in the hyper-partisan world of today’s politics, generals must recognize the additional demands of preserving a scrupulously apolitical military. They must do more to preserve the apolitical essence of their profession, and protect the nation from far too much military influence in our civil-military relations. Kelly’s appointment suggests that today’s generals may be failing that test.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks monthly. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.