Trump's Defense Department Pick Threatens Civilian Control Of Military
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Donald Trump said during his campaign for president that he knew more than the generals, but he sure included a lot of generals in his Cabinet-level appointments - General James Mattis for secretary of defense, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn for national security adviser and he's considering General David Petraeus for the State Department. Tom Ricks wrote a book called "The Generals." He is the national security adviser at the New America foundation and joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.
TOM RICKS: You're welcome.
SIMON: Generals often know a lot, don't they? Why not make use of that?
RICKS: They do know a lot, but I think it's important to make a distinction here that Trump is not just randomly picking generals. He's picking a particular subclass of generals, which is those who got in hot water with the Obama administration. Mattis, Petraeus and Flynn all were ousted from their positions by the administration for various reasons.
SIMON: And you think as a generalization they might be bad ideas for positions now.
RICKS: No. I think that their getting crosswise with Obama effectively became a recommendation for Trump to talk to them. He sees them as distinguished because they stood up to the Obama administration. But they're a very different group of people - different personalities, different backgrounds, different approaches. I actually think General Mattis will make a good secretary of defense. I have some qualms about having a former general in that position. We've only had one, but of all the people out there, I think Mattis is a very good choice for that position running the Pentagon.
SIMON: What are your qualms about a general in that position?
RICKS: It's against the American tradition to have a general running our military. It is seen as a threat to civilian control of the military. That said, I think Donald Trump is a far bigger threat to this country than James Mattis ever would be. I think Trump acts on impulse, on what pleases the crowd and on his gut feelings and doesn't know much about the big world out there. And that's a very dangerous combination to have as president. By contrast, Jim Mattis is a thoughtful, well-read, well-educated, disciplined, strategic thinker who knows a lot about the world and especially about the Middle East where he spent several years fighting and serving as a military commander.
SIMON: General Mattis would need to be confirmed by Congress, of course, and they would have to waive the rule that requires the secretary of defense to be out of active duty for seven years.
RICKS: That's right. Remember, it's not an outright ban on having former generals become secretary of defense. It's more a hurdle put in the way, I think, by Congress back in the 1940s just to say, hold on a second, think about this. Let's not make it quite so easy for a fresh general, newly retired, to become secretary of defense. But they didn't say don't do it at all. They just said here's something that's going to make you think about it before you do it.
SIMON: What about the fact that Donald Trump seemed to campaign on a foreign policy platform of disengagement from the world, if you please, and General Mattis has talked about what he calls continued American engagement in the world?
RICKS: Mattis does believe in American engagement and American leadership. But I think you're pointing to a fundamental contradiction in the Trump administration. There are people around him with views on, say, example, Russia, everything from embracing Putin to believing that Russia is an aggressive and dangerous country. These people are really going to have some initial problems in sorting out what their policy is. I think it's going to be interesting to watch. I think it's going to be a very unstable and unsettling time. Again, that's a reason I think that somebody like Mattis who knows this stuff and is willing to speak clearly about it will be a good person to have talking to the president and educating probably the most ignorant president we've ever had, at least in modern times.
SIMON: Tom Ricks of the New America foundation, thanks so much for being with us.
RICKS: You're welcome.
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