Donald J. Trump isn’t acting on his own. Following his ‘fire and fury’ threats to North Korea, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders addressed reporters on Wednesday and said in part: “Gen. Kelly and others on the NSC team were well aware of the tone of the statement of the President prior to delivery. The words were his own. The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand.” I for one am not surprised.
If we were to go by earlier news reports, political commentary and pundit insight, Gen. John Kelly was the greatest thing to happen to the White House since Election Day. He would reign in the chaos, get Trump to stop tweeting and acting out, bring order and lay down the law. While the current White House clearly needs some structure, blindly supporting yet another general in the executive branch is not the answer. In the midst of nonstop breaking news and self-inflicted antics, this White House has somehow made people from all ends of the political spectrum forget that further militarization of the West Wing should make us all pause – if not, object.
“What I do is, I authorize my military,” said Trump after the U.S. dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ (MOAB) in Afghanistan earlier this year. He went on to say that he’s given the military “total authorization”. Hardly anyone blinked. Gen. Kelly serving as Chief of Staff to this President is just the latest empowerment of the military industrial complex into our civilian government. Kelly joins national security adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense ‘mad dog’ Mattis (a retired Marine general) and Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Marine general. The last time we saw this many generals in the cabinet was probably right after World War II.
Prior to becoming the ‘savior’ of a dysfunctional White House, Kelly had a brief stint as Secretary of Homeland Security (thanks to Trump as well). Kelly has not only worked to carry out Trump’s desire to tighten visa screenings and implement tougher deportation policies, but he has been an open supporter of the travel ban (aka Muslim ban), calling it “lawful and constitutional”. But in order to fully understand Kelly and what his military background truly means for this nation (and the world for that matter), those of us who object to draconian measures, nativism, torture of prisoners and endless war must speak out.
When Barack Obama was campaigning for the Presidency in ’08, one of his most ardent pledges was to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After eight years in office, that campaign promise never came to fruition largely because of fierce opposition from folks like Kelly and others. In fact, the last four years of Kelly’s extensive military career were spent in charge of the U.S. Southern Command which oversaw Latin America and the Caribbean – including Gitmo.
One of the biggest stains on modern U.S. history is the enduring catastrophe that is the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. Following the horrific 9/11 attacks, hundreds were rounded up, detained and sent to Gitmo where they had no due process (in many cases for years) and suffered from harsh interrogation techniques - aka torture. The legacy of that place went on to serve as a tremendous recruitment tool by terrorists for years and still does to some extent. Kelly once said that he’s never been more proud of any troops under his command than of those who serve in Guantanamo. He also told the Washington Post in 2014 that criticism of the treatment of detainees at the facility was “foolishness”.
The Obama Administration pushed a new plan to close Gitmo in 2013 that focused extensively on the transfer of detainees to other countries. Many in the Administration accused the Pentagon of purposefully slowing down the transfer process by refusing to provide medical records, etc. and making it difficult for foreign officials to visit the facility. Obama and Kelly had a very public feud over Guantanamo, and the Administration accused the general of undermining the President’s plans to close the prison. Though there are far fewer inmates today (as of March of this year, some 41 people are still imprisoned there), the mere fact that the facility remains open and is able to hold more prisoners again is what has many human rights advocates worried.
There’s a great saying that applies to virtually any situation: what’s past is prologue. In assessing Kelly’s 40+ years in the military, coupled with his brief tenure as Secretary of Homeland Security, it’s clear that he is a strong proponent of (or at least ok with) tough immigration enforcement tactics, military might, bans on specific groups of people, increased intervention, detention facilities with no legal oversight, harsh interrogation techniques (including torture) and most importantly perhaps, military rule above all else when it comes down to it. Is that really what we want more of in the White House?
While Trump may be unpredictable and thrive on chaos, more generals and military control isn’t the answer. Just ask citizens of countries where the military has seized power either through coups, or where it just wields more power than the civilian government. If we as a society care about democracy, free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement and much more, then we should not be ok with someone serving as Chief of Staff to the President of the United States who is fine with torture, suspension of due process when deemed necessary and endless military excursions that make us less safe as opposed to actually solving the problem of terrorism - or North Korea.
So the next time you hear someone praise Kelly and the ‘law and order’ he’ll bring to this Administration, keep in mind what that could conceivably mean. Civilian oversight of our government and power structures isn’t only necessary – it’s our duty.