The next administration “will be in desperate need” of foreign policy advice, Gen. John Kelly told Foreign Policy magazine in July. Is he prepared to offer that advice?
General Kelly looks set to join President-elect Donald Trump’s list of Cabinet nominees as secretary for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a senior transition official told CNN. Kelly is a retired four-star Marine general, the third recently retired general to be tapped for a Cabinet role. He would bring years of experience leading the US Southern Command – which handles military operations relating to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America – to the role.
For some, the pick has raised concerns about military voices dominating on national security and defense issues. As Trump’s stances on hot-button homeland security issues continue to evolve, choosing Kelly may also be a way for the president-elect to delegate some of the decisions to an experienced individual who has elaborated his own vision for homeland security over many years, but agrees with the president-elect's general direction.
Nevertheless, experts caution against reading too much into the choice.
“In general, Cabinet appointments are over-interpreted,” William Mayer, professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston, told news@Northeastern. “There’s a great deal of uncertainty about every newly elected president as to what he will do and how he will reconcile conflicting elements within his campaign platform or within his party,” he added.
On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to secure the borders. He pledged to build a border wall paid for by Mexico, crack down on undocumented immigration, and carry out background checks on visitors from Muslim-majority countries. Since taking office, he has begun to roll these much-publicized pledges back, indicating that some of the wall with Mexico might be a fence, and perhaps softening his stance on so-called 'Dreamers,' undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States by their parents.
As Trump hones his stances on a variety of issues from climate change to immigration, he may hand these contentious issues over to appropriate policy experts with substantial experience. This would both maintain his credibility and get things done, The Atlantic suggested. Kelly, who advocated for Guantánamo Bay to remain open and worked on threats like crime and drugs, is seen as someone who understands homeland security issues and could take meaningful action.
Kelly’s “military expertise and experience fighting the influx of illegal drugs from Latin America gives him unique insight into the challenges faced by the nation’s immigration enforcement agents, as well as practical knowledge of border deterrents,” Dan Stein, head of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that advocates for reducing legal immigration levels, told the Los Angeles Times.
Some have expressed concern that Trump’s cabinet is too heavy on the military perspective. Not since Ulysses S. Grant, in the wake of the Civil War, have so many generals been part of the executive branch, The Atlantic reported.
But Trump repeatedly pledged to "drain the swamp," namely the political establishment, while on the campaign trail. That may have made established political figures like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was reportedly considered for DHS secretary, less attractive.
The military is also technically part of the establishment, yet it retains substantial popular approval, noted Phillip Carter and Loren DeJonge Schulman, former members of the military now with the Center for a New American Security, in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post. A June Gallup poll found that Americans had more confidence in the military than in any other institution, including the presidency, business, and the media.
Some of Trump's other military appointees have been criticized for possibly not having the ability to stand up to the president-elect, potentially creating a Cabinet of "yes-men." Kelly, by contrast, has shown himself to be a free-thinker, willing to criticize political leadership and pursue his own vision. He pushed against the Obama administration’s plan to close Guantánamo Bay and recently criticized Trump’s proposed wall, telling Foreign Policy magazine, “no wall will work by itself.”
“General Kelly ... may have ideas of his own, and he may actually develop a fair amount of influence,” Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth University, in Hanover, N.H., who formerly served as the State Department’s coordinator on counterterrorism, tells the Monitor in a phone interview.
But what he will actually be able to do remains unclear, says Mr. Benjamin, noting that DHS is “an enormous agency” that completely lacks the structure of the military. More than that, it “continues to have the lowest morale in the government [and] an incredible retention problem.”
To make headway, whether pursuing his own agenda or one mandated by the president-elect, Kelly will have to address those issues, which is, according to Benjamin, a “really challenging task.”
And Kelly, who “has a reputation as a strong actor,” may have trouble with the international diplomacy aspect of the job, which includes aviation, privacy, and information-sharing issues that the former general may not have come across.
“I think a lot of our partners [other world leaders] are going to have some real issues with the Trump agenda,” Benjamin concludes.