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Trump Has Appointed More Generals to His Cabinet Than Any President Since World War II

The hosts look at Donald Trump and his military generals.

We turn now to look at Donald Trump and his military generals. Trump has nominated retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis as defense secretary. The Obama administration cut short his tour over concerns Mattis was too hawkish on Iran. Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly has been nominated homeland security secretary, and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has been appointed national security adviser. Flynn is well known for his anti-Muslim worldview, having called Islam a “cancer” and saying “fear of Muslims is rational.” For more, we speak with Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran. His latest book is titled America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. He is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at Donald Trump and his military generals.

DONALD TRUMP: I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Donald Trump on the campaign trail. It was just one of several times where he publicly criticized the actions of US generals. But now that he’s become president-elect, Trump has taken a different tack, by picking generals for several key posts. Trump has nominated retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as defense secretary. The Obama adminstration cut short his tour over concerns Mattis was too hawkish on Iran. Retired Marine General John Kelly has been nominated homeland security secretary, and retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn has been appointed national security adviser. Flynn is well known for his anti-Muslim worldview, having called Islam a “cancer” and saying, quote, “fear of Muslims is rational.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran. His latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. He’s professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University and joins us in our studio here in New York.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts? This is the highest concentration of generals proposed for a Cabinet — is it ever?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, there certainly are precedents for retired generals serving in senior positions. I suppose the most notable of them, the one we remember most, would be George C. Marshall, who after World War II was Harry Truman’s secretary of state and then also served a brief period of time as secretary of defense. Well, why did Marshall get those appointments? Because Marshall played a very substantial role in winning World War II. He was a general who won a war. And it seems to me that the common characteristic of the senior generals being appointed by Mr. Trump — and we could add to the list, by the way, Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg, who was just announced to be the chief of staff to Lieutenant General Flynn, so there’s at least four now, generals. The common characteristic is that none of them have won a war. I mean, the country, we, are in a state of permanent war. And we certainly have a large cadre of generals with enormous experience in managing wars. We have yet to find a general who can actually bring one of these wars to a successful conclusion. So you have to ask yourself, you know: Well, what then are the particular aptitudes or qualities that these people are going to bring to their offices that we could not have found in — among the civilian world? And the answer is, I don’t know. I mean, the clip you played about Trump expressing contempt for generals, suddenly we have a romance, an infatuation, with generals. And perhaps that’s simply one more indication of the consistency of Trump being inconsistent. I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Doesn’t he often get offensive about his — things he’s defensive about? Like, didn’t he get something like five deferments?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Oh, yes, indeed. I mean, so we have a commander-in-chief, or a commander-in-chief-to-be, who now has suddenly discovered that — his affinity for generals. He, himself, Trump himself, his military experience was limited to his time as a teenager at a New York Military Academy. And he — obviously, not he alone, but when he had an opportunity to serve in the military back during the Vietnam era, he chose to find a different route that would make it unnecessary for him to do so.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the appointment that’s gotten perhaps the most concern or controversy, is Lieutenant General Michael Flynn —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — for national security adviser. Your thoughts on him?

ANDREW BACEVICH: He’s an Islamophobe. He’s an ideologue. He’s a fanatic. Temperamentally — and this actually may be the most troubling thing — temperamentally, he does seem to be like Trump himself. You know, he — I suppose you could say he speaks with great candor, or you could say that he speaks without thinking about the implications of what he has to say. So I think it’s a deeply troubling appointment.

One could contrast him with Mattis — Mattis certainly highly respected throughout the military establishment, as far as I can tell, and I suspect was a very, very good Marine general. Why we need a Marine general running the Pentagon is another question. But one might entertain some amount of hope that Mattis will serve as something of a check with regard to Flynn’s more radical inclinations, particularly, for example, on issues like Iran. Mattis has said that he believes that we should retain the Iran nuclear deal, and I personally would hope that that counsel prevails.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of Mike Flynn, he was fired by Obama as head of the DIA. In 2010, he, what, shared classified information in Afghanistan without authorization, but was not brought up on any charges around that. His son recently was involved with a fake news scandal, putting out — and he, his son, Mike Flynn, was his chief of staff of transition, putting out information this pizzeria was the site of a child sex ring in Washington, DC, and so a man went it with a gun to deal with this fake news. He was fired. Your thoughts further on Mike Flynn and what he means to head up national security?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, you know, my sense is that the way presidential politics works, I mean, the politics of the inner circle, is that when a new president takes office, that taking office initiates a competition. It initiates a competition among his senior appointees to determine who’s really going to have the ear of the president. For example, if we take the George W. Bush time, we had, you know, Cheney as vice president, Colin Powell as secretary of state — another general — and Donald Rumsfeld. And it rather quickly, particularly after 9/11, became clear that Cheney and Rumsfeld forged an alliance and basically squeezed Colin Powell out. One of the results, of course, I think, is the Iraq War. So, it very much remains to be seen, I think, in the new administration as to how much clout and influence a guy like Flynn is really going to be able to exercise, because we’re going to have a secretary of state, we’re going to have a defense secretary, who may well see things differently. And the three of them, as the big three, in national security terms, will compete with one another to see who can then exercise influence over Donald Trump. Of course, with Trump, we have the additional question, and that is: Can anybody really influence him? To what degree is he is a person who will be amenable to taking counsel of advisers? We were pretty sure previous presidents were willing to do that. We can’t be certain about this president.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — you wrote an article recently in The Nation headlined “Barack Obama’s Crash Course in Foreign Policy.” Your thoughts about how Obama used military force around the world and how a Trump presidency might approach the use of military force differently?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, the gist of the article really is to say that with regard to the use of force, President Obama has been quite ineffective. I mean, he inherited two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. He will bequeath two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the expanse of US military involvement has increased over his eight years in office. But, that said, I think when we look beyond his management of wars at other issues — for example, the Paris climate change accords, the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba — in a variety of other ways, I think President Obama doesn’t get the credit that he deserves. And I speculate that, over time, that he may rate higher. You know, it’s just so difficult to speculate on Trump. I just learned, coming in this morning, that his appointee to be the ambassador to Israel is, to put it mildly, a hard-liner, is a provocateur.

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