There has always been an historical wariness from the time of the Founding Fathers that the country should be led by civilians and a President ought not be surrounded by too many military or former military personages. There have been a number of Presidents who made their reputation and career in the military prior to entering politics; Washington, Jackson, Grant, Eisenhower, among others. Since the Defense Department was created in 1949 to replace the War Department, leadership also has generally been in the hands of civilians. Under the statute military leaders who had been in the service as recently as seven years prior to being nominated to head the Pentagon, are required to receive special dispensation to assume this position from the Senate; see for example George C. Marshall.
There this is reason to be concerned that Trump already has appointed two recently retired military generals to serve in his Cabinet or White House. Leaving aside for the moment any of their positions or their hawkish personal histories, Trump’s decision suggests his predisposition to surround himself with hardline military types. Trump has appointed General Michael Flynn to head the National Security Council and be his National Security Advisor and now has nominated General James Mattis to head the Defense Department. There is also serious talk that rather than picking Romney or Giuliani–who have engender such raw nerves among factions within the Republican Party–Trump will select former General David Patreus as Secretary of State.
The issue here is not any single individual, although all have considerable records and baggage. It is, rather, the fact that Trump appears determined to surround himself with hardline military people to guide him through the international and security maze over the next four years. Meanwhile, the Homeland Security head position still remains to be filled and also could end up being led by a former military officer.
The president-elect’s task of building a Cabinet is not only one of the most important tasks he faces, but one to which the Senate historically has tended to defer to the incoming President. The withdrawal of Ted Sorensen’s as Carter’s nominee to head the CIA in 1977 and the Senate’s rejection of John Tower as Bush’s nominee to head the DOD in 1989 constitute rare examples where presidential cabinet appointees are not confirmed. While Mattis and whomever else Trump might nominate are likely to be confirmed, the ideological drift–especially with an incoming president with such limited exposure of national security issues–suggests the likelihood of a policy direction which will be highly driven by military hardliners without any countervailing force.
The situation is totally dissimilar to Trump’s stacking the entire economic team with Wall Street types. In this field he has background and ideas with he can confront or challenge his team, should he so desire. Trump has no foreign policy of national security experience. He is making a statement that he will be relying for guidance here on a group of leaders all of whom come from the same place with the same outlook. Specifically in this field Trump ought to be seeking a broader base of input from those who can interact and debate policy options for him much more effectively.