President Trump Is Relying On James Mattis, H.R. McMaster and John Kelly to counsel him. President Trump relies on a group of current and former generals to run national security. Does that increase the chances that he'll order military action?
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100 Days In, Trump's Generals Seen As A Moderating Force

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100 Days In, Trump's Generals Seen As A Moderating Force

100 Days In, Trump's Generals Seen As A Moderating Force

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tomorrow is President Donald Trump's hundredth day in office, and we have been taking stock of his early days in the White House. Today we turn to the generals. Donald Trump is clearly enamored with the military. He went to a military high school. He said he always wanted a Purple Heart. Some of his first trips as president were to military installations. And of course, he turned to generals to fill some senior positions in his administration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: General James Mad Dog Mattis.

That General H.R. McMaster will become the national security adviser.

I said, find General John Kelly. I want to meet him.

GREENE: Let's turn to someone who has covered generals for a very long time. It's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So there was some fear or concern early on that Donald Trump was hiring too many generals, that he might be almost militarizing a civilian government. I mean, what can you say about that? What impact are they having?

BOWMAN: Well, David, I think there's a pretty widespread sense in Washington that it's a good thing these generals are on the job. They're all serious, experienced, well-thought-of on Capitol Hill by both parties. And I think they've moderated President Trump on some issues - you know, pushing him away from his support of torture, having him embrace NATO as a necessary partner. But there is some concern that if you go with generals, that they'll maybe favor military action over other kinds of actions - diplomacy, for example. It's the old, if you choose a hammer, everything's a nail.

Now, some see these generals as a mixed bag. And I spoke with Mieke Eoyang. She worked on defense and intelligence issues in Congress and is now at the think tank the Third Way. And this is what she said.

MIEKE EOYANG: On the one hand, they bring a real pragmatism and thoroughness to a policy discussion on the military side. But on the other side, they are very familiar with a certain set of tools and some of the other things that you need - diplomacy, sanctions - you might not have these people putting that forward.

GREENE: Well, Tom, what have we seen? I mean, has there been an overreliance on the military hammer as the tool of choice?

BOWMAN: Well, there has been a robust effort against the Islamic State. And you're also seeing expanded military action in Yemen and Somalia. And there's a possibility also of sending a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan. General McMaster, the national security adviser, said in a visit to Kabul that if the Taliban don't lay down their arms, they'll be defeated on the battlefields. Now that's something the Afghans haven't been able to do and the U.S. was unable to do, David, with 100,000 troops there years ago, let alone the current 8,500.

GREENE: Well, when you talk about the conflicts, like in Afghanistan and others, I mean, has there been - looking at this in a different way - a reluctance to look at diplomacy, to look at political solutions as a real possibility?

BOWMAN: You know, I don't think so. General Mattis has talked about the need for a political solution in Yemen, for example. And he also said you really need to fully fund the State Department, but that's something the Trump budget is not putting forward. He's actually cutting the State Department pretty heavily.

GREENE: The country that is on a lot of minds right now is North Korea. We've seen the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson steam toward the region. Is this an example of the Trump administration maybe turning to military threats sooner than some would like?

BOWMAN: This appears to be different. I'm told the Pentagon is taking a back seat to the State Department on North Korea. The main thrust is a diplomatic one now, pressuring China in particular. Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have forged a very strong relationship. And those military moves we've been seeing - this is all about sending a message.

GREENE: All right. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David.

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