By Arab News
By Joyce Karam
It is no secret by now that US President-elect Donald Trump has a special fondness for the military, tapping a third retired general, John Kelly, to his cabinet to run the Department of Homeland Security, the third-largest department in the US government (250,000 employees).
Kelly, 66, a four-star Marine general, has more than 40 years service and is known throughout his career for a blunt and hawkish record on border security and counterterrorism. While leading the US Southern Command, Kelly spoke out strongly against what he saw as increasing Iranian and Russian influence in Latin America, and disagreed with his former boss US President Barack Obama on the issue.
Mixed praise, concerns
The Kelly nomination is the third high-level military pick by Trump following the appointment of Gen. Mike Flynn as his National Security adviser, and the nomination of Gen. James Mattis for Secretary of Defense. “It might raise some eyebrows,” says Matt Levitt, director of the Stein Counterterrorism Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Across Twitter and social media forums, commentators such as Michael Cohen of The New York Times described the pick and what they see as the “militarization” of US politics as “very concerning.” Others, such as Nicholas Thompson of The New Yorker, asked: “How many generals do you need in government before you technically become a junta?”
Yet Kelly, who lost a young son fighting with the Marines in Afghanistan in 2010, earned high praise even from Trump’s critics such as Max Boot, who described the pick as “another great choice… a straight shooter. Highly respected general.”
Levitt tells Arab News that Kelly is seen among the US political class as a “highly respected professional who is attractive to Trump for being a hawk and strong on border security,” and as someone “who can help the president-elect in leveraging the implementation of some of his plans, such as a partial wall with Mexico.”
Outspoken on Iran, Russia
Throughout his tenure as commander of the US Southern Command (2012-2016), Levitt describes Kelly as an “outspoken voice about concerns of Iran and Russia expanding influence in the southern hemisphere.”
Kelly told the US Congress last spring: “As the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, Iran’s involvement in the region and these cultural centers is a matter for concern, and its diplomatic, economic and political engagement is closely monitored.”
In that same testimony at the Armed Services Committee, Kelly also warned of the return of Russia’s Cold War tactics in the US’ backyard. He said: “Periodically since 2008, Russia has pursued an increased presence in Latin America through propaganda, military arms and equipment sales, counterdrug agreements, and trade. Under President Putin, however, we have seen a clear return to Cold War tactics.”
This position on Russia, and Kelly’s requests for increasing US efforts to counter its influence, will be interesting to watch in the new administration, according to Levitt. Trump maintained a friendlier tone in addressing Moscow during the campaign, and it remains to be seen what kind of policy he would implement on these challenges as president.
But Kelly, who criticized Obama’s position on closing Guantanamo, and not doing enough to push against Iran, is expected — if confirmed by Congress — to be vocal and hold an independent streak in the next administration.
On the large scale, the Kelly nomination as the third general potentially in office would tip the balance in favor of civilian appointments for other cabinet positions.
This is now seen at the State Department consultations, where US outlets MSNBC and CBS have reported that retired Gen. David Petraeus is no longer being considered for the position.