By the end of last week, even President Donald Trump had apparently had enough of the self-inflicted chaos swirling around his White House. And the person he turned to fix it—instinctively, it seems—was a retired Marine Corps general.
John Kelly, out of uniform for just a year after retiring as head of U.S. Southern Command, has been running the Department of Homeland Security since January. He’s a straight-talking and sometimes blunt man whose accent suggests his working-class Boston roots, and he enjoys a salty joke. Sources say Trump was already in the habit of asking him for advice on how to make the White House run more smoothly.
Not since the early days of the Ford administration has a general served as White House chief of staff—and arguably not since the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a retired general, have senior military officers wielded such influence at the top levels of an administration. Kelly forms a nexus of power with three other generals: Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a retired Marine general; Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Marine general; and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, still a uniformed lieutenant general in the Army — and a replacement for retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, who was fired after less than a month in the job.
As the administration first took shape, the heavy military makeup of the administration’s national security and foreign affairs team — of its senior leadership, only Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a civilian — raised serious questions about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. These concerns were exacerbated in February when Trump bragged his budget contained “one of the largest defense-spending increases in history,” and later when he handed a series of important new wartime authorities to the Pentagon, while proposing to slash the State Department budget by 30 percent.
But during the first seven months of his administration, the generals have emerged as a fairly coherent bloc of foreign-policy thinkers whose views have put at least the most extreme fears of critics to rest. Through both experience and military education, the generals are pragmatic realists and internationalists, committed to the United States’ leadership role in the world. Internally, they’ve been a strong counterweight to the nationalist/populist faction in the White House led by chief strategist Steve Bannon, which was behind controversial Trump policies like the initial immigration ban, the rejection of the Paris Climate Change Accords, and potential steel tariffs that could yet spark a global trade war.
Taken as a group, Trump’s generals have tended to see their mission as twofold: The first job is to correct what senior military officers see as the mistakes of the Obama administration, a hesitancy to use force or commit troops that many allies perceived as a retreat from traditional U.S. commitments in the world.
The second job—and the far riskier one—is to mitigate the damage caused by their boss.
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