Ask anyone in the Pentagon for their opinion of new White House chief of staff John Kelly, and the answer is nearly unanimous: “Kelly is one of the most fundamentally decent people I’ve ever met,” a senior Pentagon civilian says. “He’s not only smart, articulate and politically savvy, he’s just a hell of a nice guy.”
The description might come as a surprise, particularly considering Kelly’s hard-nosed combat background—and his first two weeks as Donald Trump’s new chief of staff. After replacing Reince Preibus, Kelly has imposed what one of his colleagues who served with him as a senior officer in the Marine Corps describes as “a good old-fashioned respect for the chain-of-command.” Staff meetings are closed to all except those invited, access to the Oval Office is tightly controlled, NSC director H.R. McMaster has been given the green light to pick his own staff (and fire those he doesn’t want), and the administration’s messaging seems at least marginally better.
Although Washington’s commentariat is relieved—Kelly’s ascent, it is said, shows that “an axis of adults” is finally in charge—no one should be surprised. For Marines, the phrase “stay in your lane” is as liturgical as the Nicene Creed is for believing Christians, while saying that someone has gotten out of his lane signals that an officer needs to be reined in. Kelly is the past master of this catechism, having spent 40 years climbing the Marine Corps command ladder. In those years, the Boston native not only served ably, and even brilliantly, in every command slot assigned him, he served as the Marine Corps liaison on Capitol Hill, which was followed by a stint as the military assistant to defense secretaries Bob Gates and Leon Panetta. In all of this, there was nary a misstep.
Some of this might be refreshing, especially for Donald Trump—whose experience of generals is reportedly based on watching and rewatching George C. Scott’s rendition of “Patton,” who was brilliant on the battlefield and a blockhead nearly everywhere else. There are, of course, those few who wave this off, most especially senior military officers for whom the military is the quintessential testing ground. Also, Kelly, Mattis, McMaster and J.C.S. Chairman Dunford are “experienced and worldly without being partisan or political.” Put simply, Trump might have lousy instincts when it comes to Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, and New Hampshire, but when it comes to the military, he’s got it exactly right.
Not surprisingly, that view is held by military officers themselves, including retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who told Politico last year that the reason Trump connects to the generals is because he sees in them “people who are very experienced, knowledgeable, confident, non-arrogant and straightforward.” One retired senior Army officer, and Keane colleague, has derisively dismissed this assessment by arguing that Keane was “exactly right, so long as you only count Washington, Grant, Marshall and Eisenhower.” He thought for a moment, then added: “All the rest? Well, not so much.”
There are other dissenting voices. “Putting a group of former generals in charge of American foreign policy is just a bad idea,” Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress says. “It’s like putting Jesuits in charge of a woman’s right to choose.”
Korb, who has written extensively on the military and whose book The Joint Chiefs of Staff: First Twenty-Five Years is considered a classic, points out that although other high-profile military officers have served in key civilian positions, each of them had extensive experience out of uniform. “I count Brent Scowcroft as one of the best national security advisers to have served in the last 40 years,” he says, “but he’d been out of uniform for a long time before he was in the White House. Hell, H.R. McMaster is still in the service. Do we really think he’s going to view what the military says with any skepticism? You know, that’s his job. Listen, we can all admire all of these guys for their service, but what this administration needs is a George Shultz or Caspar Weinberger—civilians who are politically savvy. They’re just not there.”
Since the appointment of Kelly, these rumblings extend into the Pentagon itself—even though, and predictably, no currently serving or senior retired officer is comfortable putting such comments on the record. Then too, these reservations about Kelly are complicated by the admiration for his service as assistant division commander for James Mattis during Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as the loss of his oldest son (29-year-old 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly), who was killed in Afghanistan. “No one can take his combat experience away from him,” a recently retired and senior Army officer told me, “and I know from personal experience that he’s a nice guy. All of that is right. But Kelly is a climber, and he’s known for that. He’s politically ambitious, and some of us [senior officers] have problems with that. So despite what you hear, he’s not universally admired. All you have to do is take a look at who came to his retirement ceremony. It was all people from Capitol Hill. They outnumbered the military guys. That says a lot.”
The Generals Step into Politics
The seeds of this reassessment were planted in July 2016 when retired Marine Gen. John Allen issued a full-throated endorsement of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic Party convention. For a large number of senior military officers, Allen’s endorsement crossed the line, undermining what the military’s most senior officers view as their commitment to strict political neutrality. In Marine terms, Allen was not only out of his lane, he acted like it didn’t exist. The negative response to Allen’s appearance, and Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s support for Trump, included an unusual commentary from retired J.C.S. Chairman Martin Dempsey, who penned a high-profile letter about it for The Washington Post. “The military is not a political prize,” Dempsey wrote, two weeks after Allen’s appearance. “Politicians should take the advice of senior military leaders, but keep them off the stage.”
Dempsey singled out Allen and Flynn (later dumped by Trump as national security adviser), for criticism, but he was also careful to blame the political establishment. “Retired Marine Gen. John Allen and retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn weren’t introduced at the Democratic and Republican convention, respectively, as ‘John’ and ‘Mike.’ They were introduced as generals,” Dempsey wrote. “As generals, they have an obligation to uphold apolitical traditions. They have just made the task of their successors—who continue to serve in uniform and are accountable for our security—more complicated.”
Kelly never issued a public dissent from Dempsey’s views, but his position is well known among senior military officers. Although Allen was shunned in many circles after the Dempsey slap-down—“it’s almost like he’s contagious,” one of his good friends told me—Kelly went out of his way to defend him, denouncing Allen’s critics during a meeting of senior retired officers at a defense think tank prior to Trump’s inauguration. According to an officer who was in attendance, Kelly told his fellow generals that Allen was simply exercising a right enjoyed by every American. Kelly’s remarks were not a complete surprise since, despite their obvious political differences, Kelly and Allen have been the best of friends for many years. But others came away from the meeting convinced that Kelly was actually defending himself. That is to say, if John Allen could openly audition for a role on Hillary Clinton’s stage, then John Kelly could seek the limelight with Donald Trump.
Focus on Latin America
In fact, however, Kelly’s willingness to serve had less to do with his belief that military officers should exercise their rights as it did with his views of immigration—the result of the command he held just before he retired. After serving as a military assistant to Gates and Panetta (who remain pro-Kelly partisans and regularly extol his virtues in the mainstream media), Kelly was named to head up the U.S. Southern Command, which provides military “contingency planning, operations and security cooperation” for Central and South America. Kelly’s four-year experience as Southcom commander (from November 2012 to January 2016) had a more profound impact on him than his time as a combat commander in Iraq, according to those who know him best. This experience, it turns out, also propelled him into the White House.
In testimony before the Senate Arms Service Committee in March 2015, Kelly painted a picture of Central and South America that rivaled anything his colleagues were saying about the Middle East. His experience, Kelly told the committee, showed the “relative ease with which human smugglers moved tens of thousands of people to our nation’s doorstep.” The networks, he claimed, could “facilitate the movement of terrorist operatives or weapons of mass destruction toward our borders, potentially undetected and almost completely unrestricted”—with Russia, China, Iran, criminal organizations, transnational drug trafficking networks, and terrorist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Lebanese Hezbollah taking advantage of the lawlessness. Kelly even repeated a mantra reprised since the mid-1980s about South America’s “Muslim Triangle” (the tri-border region of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay) as a “potential attack venue against Israeli or other western targets” that could be exploited by Lebanese Hezbollah—the Marine Corps nemesis.
The problem with the Kelly testimony is not simply that it contained sotto voce caveats—the networks “could facilitate,” criminal gangs were operating “towards our borders” and they are “potentiallyundetected” —but reiterated what many journalists believe is one of the war-on-terrorisms urban myths: that Latin America’s tri-border area is fertile ground for al-Qaeda, IS, and, especially “Lebanese Hezbollah.” The Paraguayan government regularly denies the claim, the people of the region laugh at it, and, in 2012, journalists working for the North American Congress on Latin America visited the region and came away puzzled. “What’s missing from the pieces painting the Tri-Border Area as a hotbed of terrorism is evidence,” they wrote. In truth, the tri-border myth is of a piece with CIA Director George Tenet’s 2003 claim that Hezbollah is operating twelve terrorist cells in the U.S.
Of course, it’s not the job of military commanders to tell Congress the good news. It’s to assess and warn of threats. Although parts of Kelly’s testimony seemed over the top, one member of the Senate Armed Services Committee at least was consistently impressed by what the Southcom commander had to say. Tom Cotton (R-AR)— a veteran of the Iraq fight, where he served with the 101st Airborne Division —became a Kelly partisan, and recommended him to Donald Trump. On the basis of that recommendation, Trump met with Kelly, was as impressed with him as Cotton, and nominated him as secretary of Homeland Security. Kelly told reporters he was surprised by the nomination, and, considering what he planned for his retirement, that seems to be true. Prior to his Trump meeting, Kelly had been in the midst of establishing a non-governmental organization to counter the influence of drug traffickers in the northern triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador). The effort focused on providing monetary inducements to Central American coffee growers to take back plantations taken over by criminal gangs.
If anything, Kelly’s NGO initiative enhanced his reputation as both a “decent” and “apolitical” citizen, more intent on attacking problems than gaining praise for them. But, in fact, Kelly is anything but non-partisan or apolitical, and is known by many of his fellow officers for his decidedly conservative views. For Kelly, the United States is endangered not only by foreign enemies but by domestic forces that either purposely, or unwittingly, support them. Nor are these simply private opinions. On November 13, 2010 (just four days after his son was killed in Afghanistan), Kelly gave a speech at the Hyatt Under the Arch in St. Louis celebrating the birth of the Marine Corps. Impassioned and intense, Kelly’s remarks are still circulated in Marine Corps circles as a foundational defense of the war on terrorism—and, as it happened, an attack on anyone with a different opinion.
“As we sit here right now,” Kelly intoned, “we should not lose sight of the fact that America is at risk in a way it has never been before. Our enemy fights for an ideology based on an irrational hatred of who we are. Make no mistake about that, no matter what certain elements of the ‘chattering class’ relentlessly churn out.” Kelly never detailed what he meant by the “chattering class,” or what it was they were churning out, but it was hard to miss. “Yes, we are at war, and we are winning,” he said, “but you wouldn’t know it because successes go unreported, and only when something…is sufficiently controversial [is it] highlighted by the media elite that then sets up the ‘know it all’ chattering class to offer their endless criticism. These self-proclaimed experts always seem to know better—but have never themselves been in the arena.” This is fairly standard, alt-right stuff, but for a previous generation it is chilling: a labeling of a group of Americans, a fifth column of the citizenry once described as “fellow travelers” or “dupes”—citizens whose loyalty was doubtful at best, evil at worst.
Indeed, Kelly’s hunt for dupes and fellow travelers has become a central theme of his worldview, along with his fevered focus on the threats the U.S. faces. This was on grim display most recently during an April 18 speech he gave as secretary of homeland security at George Washington University. Kelly’s remarks were celebrated because of his statement that if members of Congress “do not like the laws they’ve passed” then they should change the laws or “shut up.” But, as columnist Michael Cohen detailed in the pages of the Boston Globe, Kelly’s comments on the Congress were actually of secondary importance when set against his emphasis on the “relentless” threats to “our way of life” from an innumerable host of enemies. “We are under attack from people who hate us, hate our freedoms, hate our laws, hate our values, hate the way we simply live our lives,” Kelly said. Cohen called it “one of the more unhinged speeches that you will ever hear from a Cabinet secretary” who had “jumped out of the crazy tree and hit every branch on the way down.”
The danger that Kelly’s language represents is not merely rhetorical or the stuff of college seminars on civil-military relations. It is fundamental and throws into doubt the idea that Donald Trump’s Marine Corps presidency is comprised of an “axis of adults” that is non-partisan or apolitical—or even adults. Instead, having replaced their uniforms with suits and ties, military officers like Kelly seem to believe that their experience qualifies them to lecture their fellow citizens on American “values”—or worse, that having been in uniform they are somehow more patriotic than the rest of us who haven’t. In a sense, and ironically, Gen. John Allen, got it right. One week after speaking at the Democratic Party convention, Allen told a reporter that the election of Donald Trump could spark a “civil military crisis, the like of which we’ve not seen in this country.”
Well, here it is.
Mark Perry’s next book, The Pentagon’s Wars, will be released in October. @markperrydc