international analysis and commentary

Generals and businesspeople at the heart of the US administration: why this is a problem


One of the defining features of the Trump’s administration is its heavy reliance on figures from business and the military. While this approach feeds into the president’s self-directed “outsider” narrative, cutting out civilian public sector expertise does not just weaken the government in the long term – it also creates problems for the current administration.

Of the competing power centers in the Cabinet, the generals have thus far developed into the most coherent and successful bloc. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff (and former Department of Homeland Security Secretary (DHS)) John Kelly, both retired Marine generals, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, a serving Army lieutenant general, effectively run the bulk of the US national security establishment. It is fair to say that no American administration in modern history has had as many flag-rank military officers in senior civilian leadership posts.

Trump’s other choices for high-ranking appointments have also demonstrated a strong preference for private sector expertise over civilian government service. The Secretaries of State, the Treasury, Education, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development all started their jobs with no government experience. And those who do have some experience, such as Energy Secretary Rick Perry or Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, tend to not have direct expertise in the area of their department’s responsibility.

There are a few others in the administration who have taken a relatively conventional route into service, and whose reputations have remained strong over a tumultuous 2017 – Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Brock Long come to mind. But their remits tend to be much more limited and more disparate – when foreign policy analysts talk about the “axis of adults” in the Trump administration, they tend to refer to the perceived alliance between the former generals rather than between the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs or the DHS head office and FEMA.

While this may change, the generals have also been the most successful in navigating the turbulence of 2017 with their reputations largely intact. Mattis has received the least amount of criticism, and where he has been criticized it has been either on specific policies or on the grounds that he is insufficiently removed from his military career to provide meaningful civilian oversight of the Pentagon. McMaster has received a fair share of criticism, not least for a Wall Street Journal op-ed he and top economic aide Gary Cohn drafted to justify Trump’s nationalistic foreign policy. However, he also benefits by comparison to his short-lived and wildly controversial predecessor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. Kelly, the current Chief of Staff, has been the most controversial, especially his short-lived management of Homeland Security during a time when it was at the forefront of Trump’s deportation and immigration policies. At the same time, he is also seen as having imposed at least some measure of discipline on Trump’s core West Wing staff.

The impact of the business-military emphasis in Trump’s hiring has not touched only on the cabinet-level appointees. Combined with the President’s belief – shared by much of his circle – that the federal government is simply too large and many of its functions are illegitimate, the chilling effect of this strategy has reached downwards to career civil servants, who have been departing the government in droves – though their resignations only intermittently make headlines. This is further reinforced by incidents like the aftermath of the Russian expulsion of American diplomats in August, which was greeted by the President with the bizarre claim that it would simply save the American taxpayer money on their salaries.

Of course, the drain of qualified federal workers is not a problem that generals alone can, or should, fix. Military experience is very valuable in some respects, and military leadership can set the stage for successful public service careers outside the military – Dwight Eisenhower being probably the most prominent example. However, there are numerous fields of expertise that neither the military nor the private sector prioritize: management of public lands for the public good; provision of social services to the needy; or carrying out complex and sensitive diplomatic negotiations. These are all crucial government functions according to our 21st century social contract, and they are all exclusively the domain of civil service.

A government where only military and private sector experience is valued will lose the capacity to manage those issues. And what happens at that stage? One hint can be seen in the Trump administration’s debate over American policy in Afghanistan. Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, proposed a plan to hand Afghanistan over to an American “viceroy” at the head of an army of mercenaries. Prince, who had fallen out of favor in Washington after a number of scandals (including an  incident in which his company’s operatives were accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians), also advertised the idea on the pages of The New York Times. The generals in the administration, led by National Security Advisor McMaster, quickly killed the idea – but their preferred approach, in the form of an escalation of troops in the 16-year conflict, is also unlikely to do more than maintain the violent status quo. In short, to deal with complex and seemingly intractable public policy issues, the only available options seem to be privatization and the status quo.

Not every public policy issue is like Afghanistan, of course, but none benefits from a limited menu of options and a narrow perspective. Effective government means not just the effective marshalling of resources, but being able to approach problems from a range of perspectives. And that means, ultimately, maintaining a healthy and diversified federal workforce from which those perspectives can be drawn – for this administration and its successors.