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National Opinions

Trump and his generals

  • Author: Victor Davis Hanson
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 22, 2017
  • Published June 21, 2017

From left: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and President Donald Trump during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., May 29, 2017. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

Donald Trump earned respect from the Washington establishment for appointing three of the nation's most accomplished generals to direct his national security policy: James Mattis (secretary of defense), H.R. McMaster (national security adviser) and John Kelly (secretary of homeland security).

In the first five months of the Trump administration, the three generals — along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO — have already recalibrated America's defenses.

At home, illegal immigration is down by some 70 percent. Abroad, a new policy of principled realism seeks to re-establish deterrence through credible threats of retaliation. The generals are repairing old friendships with allies and neutrals while warning traditional enemies not to press their luck.

Trump has turned over most of the details of military operations to his generals. According to his critics, Trump is improperly outsourcing to his generals both strategic decision-making and its tactical implementation.

But is Trump really doing that?

In his campaign, Trump vowed to avoid new ground wars while not losing those he inherited. He pledged to wipe out ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism without invading Middle Eastern countries to turn them into democracies.

Those are wide but nonetheless unmistakable parameters.

Within them, the U.S. military can drop a huge bomb on the Taliban, strike the chemical weapons depots of Syria's Bashar Assad, or choose the sort of ships it will use to deter North Korean aggression — without Trump poring over a map, or hectoring Mattis or McMaster about what particular move is politically appropriate or might poll well.

Other presidents have done the same.

A wartime President Abraham Lincoln — up for re-election in 1864 — wanted the tottering Confederacy invaded and humiliated. But he had no idea Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman would interpret that vague wish as nearly destroying Atlanta, and then cutting his supply lines to march across Georgia to the sea at Savannah.

When Sherman pulled off the March to the Sea, Lincoln confessed he had been wrongly skeptical of, totally surprised and utterly delighted with Sherman's victories. He then left it to Sherman and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to plan the final campaign of the war.

Had Sherman lost his army in the wilds of Georgia, no doubt Lincoln would have relieved him, as he did so many of his other failed generals.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanded a cross-channel invasion of France by mid-1944. He did not worry much about how it was to be implemented.

The generals and admirals of his Joint Chiefs handled Roosevelt's wish by delegating the job to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Anglo-American staff.

Had Eisenhower failed on the Normandy beaches, Roosevelt likely would have fired him and others.

Other critics complain that decorated heroes such as Mattis, McMaster and Kelly should not stoop to work for a firebrand like Trump.

The very opposite is true.

Anti-New Dealers such as Republicans Henry Stimson and Frank Knox served in the Roosevelt administration to ensure national unity and expertise during World War II — in much the same manner that old George W. Bush hand Robert Gates stayed on as secretary of defense to advise President Barack Obama, foreign policy novice.

Trump entered office with no formal political or military experience. That does not mean his business skills and innate cunning are not critical in setting national security policy — only that he benefits from the wise counsel of veterans.

The patriotic duty for men the caliber of these three generals was to step forward and serve their commander in chief — and thereby ensure the country would have proven professionals carrying out the president's recalibrations.

Of course, there must be tensions between the Trump administration, its Democratic opponents and the largely apolitical Mattis, McMaster and Kelly, who have enjoyed high commands under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Liberals want the generals to leak to the press and hint that Trump is a dunce whose blunders force wise men like themselves to clean up the mess.

Republicans prefer the three to get onboard the Trump team and appoint only conservatives who will resonate administration values.

In truth, Trump and his generals share a quid pro quo relationship that so far has worked.

Mattis, McMaster and Kelly must know few other presidents would have taken the heat to entrust three military men to guide national security policy. And even if another president did, he might not empower them with anything like their present latitude.

In that regard, the three generals are beholden to Trump for a historic opportunity to shape America's security posture in ways impossible during the last half-century.

On the other hand, Trump must recognize that such generals lend credibility to his role as commander in chief and signal he is wise enough to value merit over politics.

At least for now, it is a win-win-win solution for Trump, the generals — and the country.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of "The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won," to appear in October from Basic Books; email him at authorvdh@gmail.com.

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