I have known Kelly for several years and have had the privilege of working with him and having him speak on several occasions at my day job.
General John Kelly is the right pick for Homeland Security and is part of a pattern of excellent choices for what is shaping up to be a great cabinet under President-elect Donald Trump. I have known Kelly for several years and have had the privilege of working with him and having him speak on several occasions at my day job. Kelly brings global experience to the job, leadership experience, and a keen understanding of many of the threats that the U.S. faces. I also took away from my interactions with him that his staff at Southern Command genuinely admired and respected him and that he inspired enthusiasm from his staff. I say this after interfacing with several dozen members of his team over an 18-month period. I have not been in touch with him in a few months nor have I been in touch with anyone in the Trump transition to discuss my thoughts below.
I met Kelly when he was the four-star general in charge of Southern Command covering the Western Hemisphere at the Halifax Security Conference in the fall of 2014. At that conference, the topic of the unaccompanied minor crisis from the Northern Triangle came up. I mentioned we were doing work on the “push” factors and I opined (as have others) that we needed a “Plan Colombia for the Northern Triangle” to confront the root causes. Kelly agreed. He asked me to come to a conference he was convening on the Northern Triangle in early 2015 to deal with these exact issues. I was not sure what to expect. It turns out that the head of Southern Command has unique convening power and unique credibility in the region. The four-star general in charge of Southern Command not only interfaces with military counterparts but also deals directly with heads of state, diplomats and business and civil society leaders all over the region. Kelly was not afraid to use that to help with issues that had direct impact on U.S. national security and U.S. homeland security for example trying to get at the “push” factors leading to 75,000 young people showing up at our doorstep in 2014.
When I showed up in early 2015 at “Southcom,” he had convened senior government and business leaders from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. He also had senior leaders from the U.S. foreign assistance agency, the United States Agency for International Development , and senior diplomats from the State Department, including Ambassador Tom Shannon, a very respected senior diplomat with long standing ties to the Western Hemisphere. Some of the more junior diplomats groused that Kelly was “out of his lane” by convening this meeting. The meeting was quite useful and unusual in my experience in that it brought together folks who would typically not meet with each other. For example, he was able to bring the Salvadoran business community together with officials from the (kind of sort of) former communist FMLN government.
In the case of immigration from the Northern Triangle, what are the “push” factors? Kelly would say that much of it is the corruption, gangs and security situation fueled by illegal drug consumption in the United States. Kelly would also likely say that one of the other factors contributing to people leaving the Northern Triangle is the explosion of gangs in those countries. He would say that much of those gang activities have been exported from the United States to Central America when we deported gang members to Central America. Again, he is not the kind of person who would say, “and therefore we need to stop deporting illegal immigrants who are committing crimes,” but rather I think he would be in favor of deportation of undocumented immigrants breaking laws. I recently directed a report for my day job that gets at the same points. You can read that report here.
Kelly is someone who also has a very clear-eyed view about the threat we face from radical Islam. He lost a son in Afghanistan. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan himself. I know he sees the challenge that we have in front of us with terrorism as a generational problem. Kelly also knows that we will not win this war with “kinetic” solutions nor with better intelligence. He clearly sees the role of changing the facts on the ground. He handed out the book “War Front to Store Front” by Paul Brinkley to all of his offices and has praised it on many occasions in public.
Kelly understands that our national security and our homeland security is not just about “playing defense” or “playing threat whack a mole.” Rather, he seems to understands that we must use national power and work with allies to try to change the facts on the ground. He spoke to some of these issues in an essay he wrote. The essay can be found here (scroll down to page 10 to find it).
He was kind enough to do an “exit interview” with me at the think tank where I work when he was concluding his time in the Marine Corps. The following are quotes of his that I found particularly interesting and relevant:
On the “push” factors leading to immigration from the Northern Triangle:
- “After meeting with government officials from the Northern Triangle, it is clear that what they need is educational opportunities and a reason to stay home and stay out of the drug gangs.”
- “Honduras is better now, but still the most violent country on the planet. There are 91 deaths per 100,000 people. I think the U.S. is about five deaths per 100,000.”
- “The real bright shining example in all this is Colombia. Colombia was as bad off 15, 17 years ago as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are today.”
On the “long war” on terrorism:
- “At the general officer or senior officer colonel level, it’s how do you change the society, how do you make the economy better, so I think it is a hugely important book. If you are at certain government agencies, you will be angry, and that’s a good thing because if you’re angry, then you ought to change the way you do business.”
- “Every time I am speaking, I bring up Paul Brinkley’s book (War Front to Store Front) because so much of what we do today and what we will do in the future has to do with not shooting and killing people.”
On human rights:
- “Any conversation that I have with a leader in the region, and frankly this extends to my time in Iraq as well, begins and ends with a discussion of human rights.”
- “Other human rights issues that are big in my line of work are violence against women.”
- “As I say to these generals down in the region that I work with, you have a decision when you find out about something like this [a “bad” kill]. You can do what I did which is investigate, hold them accountable and if necessary, punish them. Or you can cover it up. If you cover it up, A, it’s going to be eventually uncovered and B your credibility will be horrible.”
- “Increasingly, the network of Islamic extremism, I’ll say terrorism, is growing, is very well developed, very intricate in obviously the Middle East, South Asia, getting more developed in the Philippines and Indonesia, but it’s also growing in the Western Hemisphere.”
- “The nightmare would be if these two networks [drug trafficking and terrorism] touched. They are touching certainly in South Asia, Middle East. You have common cause between cartels that have the advantage of unbelievable amounts of money and terrorist organizations.”
On the illegal drug trade:
- “…all the cocaine consumed in the U.S. comes from Latin America, Colombia really”
- “All of the heroin [consumed in the United States] comes from Central America, Mexico”
- “The result in our country is 40,000 dead year after year after year from another form of terrorism, narcoterrorism”
- “It [drug trade] costs the American people $250 billion a year”