Op-ed: It’s not a junta

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Wednesday, December 14, 2016 5:40pm
  • Opinion

President-elect Donald Trump has already committed a grave offense against our system of government by forming a “junta,” according to his critics.

The Trump junta consists of three former generals whom the president-elect has tapped for top national-security positions, with others still under consideration. Like much of what Trump does, the military selections have inflamed people who pride themselves on their knowledge and discernment into flights of self-discrediting outrage.

There are only a few problems with the charge Trump is creating a junta, a term associated with Latin America and which the Cambridge dictionary defines as “a small group, especially of military officers, that rules a country after taking power by force.”

Namely, Trump didn’t seize the government by force; he himself is not a general (although he went to the New York Military Academy for high school); and the three generals he has tapped for top posts are all retired and therefore civilians. (Michael Flynn will be national-security adviser, and Trump has nominated James Mattis as defense secretary and John Kelly as homeland-security secretary.)

The Trump cabinet, in other words, bears about as much resemblance to a junta as the Supreme Court does to the College of Cardinals because it has five justices who are Catholic and wear robes. To call the connection superficial is to understate how absurdly inapposite it is.

If the presence of three retired military leaders is enough to tip an otherwise duly-elected, civilian-led government into quasi-military rule, we already experienced it at the outset of the Obama administration. As the Washington Examiner pointed out, President Barack Obama had three military leaders as part of his initial team, a retired Marine general (Jim Jones as national-security adviser), an Army general (Eric Shinseki at Veterans Affairs) and a Navy admiral (Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence). The republic survived.

Worse, the United States has repeatedly had retired generals not merely as cabinet secretaries, but as commander in chiefs, from George Washington, to Andrew Jackson, to U.S. Grant, to Dwight Eisenhower. No one seriously considered their presidencies affronts to the principle of civilian rule.

None of this will dissuade the journalists and analysts who have been throwing around the “junta” charge, though. Much of the left and the press has taken Trump’s election as a license to suspend rational thought. They like the delegitimizing sound of the word “junta,” and that’s enough for them to use it, never mind that it renders the term meaningless.

The fact is that Trump is a civilian leader who is impressed by people who once served at the top levels of the military. This is understandable, given how the stereotype of the general as the thoughtless, buzz-cut warmonger is — if it ever applied — less relevant than ever. The best generals are worldly, capable, and tend to be realistic about the limits of military power.

Despite the nickname “mad dog,” which he dislikes, Gen. James Mattis is hardly Gen. Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping Air Force general who notoriously talked of bombing the North Vietnamese “back into the Stone Age.” Mattis is noted for his bookishness and traveling with a 6,000-book library.

It was important that, after his election, Trump reach outside his inner circle (Michael Flynn is firmly ensconced within it) to impressive public servants, and Mattis and John Kelly both fit the bill. They are more likely to be restraining influences rather than enablers. Trump has credited Mattis with changing his view of waterboarding, which Trump casually endorsed throughout the election campaign.

If there are legitimate worries about how Trump will govern, the alleged junta is more of a commentary on his detractors than on his choices for his cabinet. But don’t worry. As soon as this charge is dropped, another equally over-the-top one will take its place, in this, the season of the left losing its mind.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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