President Donald Trump has tapped a number of active-duty and retired generals to serve in his administration and seeks to bolster his own reputation by surrounding himself with them, knowing how popular an institution the military is with the American public.
He selected retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as his first national security adviser and picked retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg to serve as the National Security Council chief of staff. Retired Gen. Jim Mattis and retired Gen. John Kelly were made cabinet secretaries. Then, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who’s on active duty, replaced Flynn. And now, Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, has been nominated to serve as ambassador to Australia. While Trump’s number of flag officers in high-level civilian positions goes beyond the norm, his administration is not the only one who’s sought to take advantage of the unique influence military officers have on American political life.
When I worked on the Obama and Clinton presidential campaigns, I always coveted the endorsement of senior military officials, because their support was viewed as a source of instant legitimacy for a candidate on issues of national security. While this practice has been accepted in the political arena, it works to undermine the legitimacy and independence of the military and translates military rank into political authority in a dangerous way.