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Don't count on leaving war and peace to the generals

Although it might have escaped some readers' attention, with the firing Tuesday of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his proposed replacement by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, five of the nation's senior defense and foreign policy positions soon will be in the hands of current or former professional military officers.

Taken individually, none of those appointments is unprecedented. Active and retired military officers have at one time or another served with distinction in each of them, from White House chief of staff Gen. Alexander Haig and national security adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft to secretaries of state and defense Gens. George Marshall and Colin Powell.

What is unprecedented, however, is the concentration of so many professional military officers in a single administration. Past presidents from George Washington to Dwight D. Eisenhower, themselves celebrated soldiers as well as revered statesmen, would be astonished  and very likely appalled  at the extent of the current administration's reliance on active and former military officers to manage the nation's foreign policy machinery.

Actually, they probably would be overreacting. Mr. Trump has pointed out more than once that the adviser whose counsel he values the most is himself. Recent foreign policy decisions, arrived at with little or no input from those nominally charged to provide it  indeed, more often than not contrary to that input  merely confirm his attitude.

Accordingly, relegated they are merely to applauding and executing presidential decisions that they have had little or no part in formulating, the current and former military officers surrounding Mr. Trump scarcely can be held responsible for a foreign policy that become more erratic and bellicose with each passing day.

Which doesn't mean that their presence in positions traditionally occupied by civilians has no policy consequence. By acquiescing without demur in the president's volatility, belligerence, and disdain for both international norms and the views of America's longtime allies, "his" generals implicitly grant Mr. Trump's foreign policy decisions the imprimatur of military respectability.

In an America entering its 17th successive year of largely self-inflicted wars, unable to muster the will to end them, guilty that their burdens fall on only few of our citizens, and wracked with domestic political discord, that implied military approval carries a weight that in a more sensible political environment might seem excessive and even dangerous.

It helps not at all that Congress, the branch of government in which, constitutionally, the people ultimately manifest their will, has been and continues to be AWOL on matters of war and diplomacy. 

Following the fatal ambush of four U.S. servicemen in Niger last October, for example, senior U.S. legislators including perennial hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) admitted that they didn't even know that the U.S. had troops in Niger, let alone the scale of our military commitment.

Given that degree of legislative indifference, successive efforts to reassert Congress's war power unsurprisingly have gone nowhere, especially in the face of military leaders' opposition to anything that would restrict their freedom of action. 

Thus on Wednesday, responding to efforts by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-CT) to curtail U.S. support of Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen's brutal civil war, Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote to congressional leaders opposing any such restriction.

His objections almost certainly will prevail. Former 4-star general Mattis is widely viewed as one of the few "grown-ups" in the administration, alone able to moderate if not curb altogether the president's quixotic impulses. 

Noted a recent Vox article, "Everyone in Washington is more or less convinced that his presence in the Pentagon is the only thing standing between us and possible nuclear Armageddon."

In fact, that's a weak reed, even were it not a disturbing commentary on both the Trump administration and the current state of America's civil-military relations. 

It's very likely soon to become even weaker if, as current rumor has it, Mr. Trump is preparing to replace national security advisor H.R. McMaster, himself no pacifist, with former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, best known for urging preemptive war against both Iran and North Korea.

With the U.S. still mired in inconclusive fights from Syria to Afghanistan, with special operations forces scattered across the globe, and courting confrontations with both Russia and China, plunging into two more potentially disastrous wars would seem to be the last thing in the world that America needs.

On recent evidence, however, anyone counting on Mr. Trump's generals to deflect that unhappy possibility probably is betting on the come.

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