The generals likely to hold top positions in the incoming Trump administration share a common trait: They are combat veterans highly attuned to looming threats. While it’s raised eyebrows in terms of traditional civil-military relations, president-elect Donald Trump’s decision to lean heavily on generals in building his national security team has been received with sighs of relief by many foreign policy and national security experts. By the nature of their profession, senior military leaders tend to be pragmatic internationalists who know how to run large organizations. They understand from experience how the world works. They are generally disciplined and well-read. Having come of age on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, these generals are also intimately familiar with the horrors of war, and the second- and third-order consequences of firing the first shot.
Part 2: Jim Mattis vs. Iran
When General Mattis served as the commander of US Central Command in 2013, he took responsibility for a region on fire. The Taliban and Al Qaeda continued to use sanctuaries in Pakistan to destabilize neighboring Afghanistan, where US troops were still fighting. The Syrian civil war was destabilizing its neighbors such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey with unprecedented flows of refugees, and attracting like moths to a flame Islamist extremist groups such as ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. The sectarian rule of Iraqi Prime Minister and Shiite Nouri al-Maliki was threatening to reignite a Shiite versus Sunni civil war there. Libya had descended into chaos after the NATO intervention that toppled the government of Muammar Gaddafi. Yemen was teetering towards all out civil war following its own Arab Spring revolution that ousted its strongman ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, a US ally. And yet when he woke up each morning, Mattis recently said that the first three questions he confronted centered on Iran, Iran and Iran.
Part 3: Mike Flynn vs. Al-Qaeda
“Know your enemy and know yourself, and you will not be defeated in 100 battles.” But what if you try to understand your enemy and he’s as firm a believer in his skewed moral universe as you are in yours? That’s the dilemma that Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn faced as director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Flynn spent countless hours interrogating senior commanders for Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Iraq, which would later morph into ISIS. He could understand their hatred of American soldiers, but Flynn was perplexed by the fact that the vast majority of their tens of thousands of victims were fellow Muslims.
Part 4: John Kelly vs. The Narco-Terrorists
As chief of US Southern Command, General John Kelly spent much of his time worrying about the nexus of violent drug cartels, transnational smuggling organizations, and terrorist groups in Latin America. The threats range from narco-Marxists like Colombia’s FARC and Shining Path in Peru all the way to Hezbollah, which has a presence in the region due to a large Lebanese diaspora. All of those groups ply their trade near a porous US southern border.