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What US National Security Policy Should We Expect from Trump and his Generals?

President Donald Trump has turned to a group of seasoned military officers to staff his national security team at the White House, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. Unlike any recent President, Donald Trump has turned his back on traditional civilian national security professionals, and has almost exclusively turned outside the Washington think tank community to appoint career military officers to top civilian posts. In a similar vein, he has turned to the corporate sector to staff his economic team, even appointing the former CEO of Exxon-Mobil as his Secretary of State—at the personal recommendation of former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

This turning to military professionals and corporate leaders stands in particularly stark contrast to President Barack Obama, who shunned military advisers, and removed three Defense Secretaries, when he feared they were becoming too close to their top uniformed military personnel. Robert Gates resigned in protest over the decision to intervene in Libya, Leon Panetta left and wrote a tell-all book attacking the incompetence of the White House national security team, and Chuck Hagel was fired after he publicly criticized National Security Adviser Susan Rice for failing to develop a coherent strategy for Syria. In all three cases, Obama got furious that civilian defense secretaries were siding with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and regional military commanders, in opposition to policies developed by his civilian-dominated White House national security advisers and embraced by him.

General James Mattis, President Trump’s choice to be Secretary of Defense, who headed the Central Command and earlier headed the Joint Forces Command, is a retired Four Star Marine General. General John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security, is another retired Marine Four Star General. Mattis and Kelly served together on several occasions during their long career as active duty officers, and both men also served with General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and another Four Star Marine General. It was General Mattis who urged President-elect Trump to interview General Kelly for the vital Homeland Security post. Kelly had served up through 2016 as head of the Southern Command, and had developed a deep conviction that the refugee crisis in Mexico and Central America was the result of the takeover of three Central American countries by murderous drug cartels.

President-elect Trump named another retired General, Three Star Army General Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), former head of the Defense Intelligence Board, and former Deputy Director of National Intelligence as his National Security Adviser, a post that does not require Senate confirmation. General Flynn was fired by President Obama in 2014, after his DIA produced a series of reports, warning about the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and disputing the White House account of the September 11, 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American officials were killed by affiliates of Al Qaeda. General Flynn was an early Trump supporter and served as his chief intelligence adviser throughout the 2015-2016 presidential campaign.

These four Generals—Flynn, Mattis, Kelly and Dunford—will be dominant voices on national security policy. And while there were disputes between General Mattis and the Trump Transition Team over some key Pentagon appointments, the now-confirmed Secretary of Defense has ultimately been given wide latitude to pick his key staff. He wasted no time. After being confirmed by the US Senate by an overwhelming 98-1 vote on Friday, January 13, Mattis announced on Monday morning that he had appointed Rear Admiral Craig Faller as his senior military adviser and Rear Admiral Kevin Sweeney as his chief of staff. Admiral Faller served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was the assistant to both the Pacific Command and Central Command chiefs.

As CENTCOM Commander, Mattis had also come under fire from President Obama (and was ultimately retired a year ahead of schedule) for pushing stronger military response to Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf. His choice of the two retired Navy Admirals as his key aides suggests that he continues to believe that the United States should be prepared to directly challenge adversaries like Iran and China, when they challenge freedom of navigation, as Iran has been accused in the Gulf, and China has been accused in the South China Sea.

Under General Flynn, the NSC and White House staff will also be top-heavy with military veterans, many who served with Flynn in intelligence units.  Vice President.

Mike Pence will name Colonel Andrea Thompson, a 28-year Army intelligence veteran as his national security adviser. She was the top intelligence officer for the 101st Airborne Division, later serving on the staff of the US Army Chief of Staff and as military adviser to the Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. She was with the McChrystal Group, founded by General Stanley McChrystal, at the time of her White House appointment. 

David Horan, a retired Army intelligence officer, will serve as chief strategist for the National Security Council. Retired Marine intelligence officer Robin Townley will be senior NSC director for Africa. Marine intelligence officer Matt Pottinger, who co-authored a paper on upgrading military field intelligence in Afghanistan with General Flynn, will be senior National Security Council director for Asia. And Lieutenant General Keith Kellog will be the NSC chief of staff. Many of these appointees served with General Flynn in combat assignments.

Foreign policy priority number one for the incoming Trump Administration will be fulfilling the President’s campaign promise to wipe out the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, paradoxically, the President has insisted that he will end the permanent wars that have characterized the past two administrations, and end the draining of American resources in those costly operations.

While other Cabinet confirmation hearings have been slowed down by lengthy vetting of appointees, who have long resumes in the business world but no prior government experience, the Senate has clearly heard the message from the new Administration and pushed through the confirmation of Generals Mattis and Kelly and CIA Director Michael Pompeo. Pompeo, a West Point graduate and former Army officer-turned Republican Member of Congress, was confirmed by the full Senate on January 23. He is expected to work closely with Mattis, Flynn and Kelly on devising an immediate action plan for the war on the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and allied jihadist groups.  

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