By Victor Davis Hanson
There is a larger context concerning the recent controversies among the architects of Trump’s national security team and agenda, and the criticism of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Recall first that the foreign policy of Barack Obama, Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice, and Hillary Clinton could be best termed “provocative appeasement,” and it logically led to the present tensions around the world.
The approach combined the most unfortunate traits of carrying a twig while speaking loudly: vociferous remonstrations about human rights, occasional bombings, and drone-targeted assassinations, lots of sermonizing and faux red lines, deadlines, and step-over lines—all without either real consequences or accountability.
The result by January 2017 was that our foreign policy could be summarized as a complete inverse of the Roman general Sulla’s ancient admonition: the United States was seen by neutrals, rivals, and opponents as no worse friend, and no better enemy.
An Iranian deal was kept alive by stealthy side agreements and a blind eye to Tehran’s provocations. North Korea offered a new existential threat to the U.S. mainland. China redefined navigation in the South China Sea and assumed commercial cheating was its birthright. Syria became a genocidal wasteland. Allies like Israel, Egypt, and the Gulf States were scorned; enemies like Cuba and Iran were courted. A reset and provocative Putin (both appeased and talked down to at the same time) was now invited into the Middle East. Europe was flooded with mostly young, male Muslim “refugees.” A medieval ISIS was on its way to carve out an unhinged caliphate of sorts.
The list of failures could go on.
In the short-term, appeasement always wins praise for its pacifism and good intentions, and in the long term it ensures crises for those asked to clean up its messes (e.g., Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were not in power during Dunkirk, though it was the natural reification of both men’s earlier appeasement). Deterrence is easily shed and only with danger and time reestablished.
Into this labyrinth of appeasement came Trump and his advisors.
When Trump picked James Mattis and H.R. McMaster respectively as his Defense Secretary and National Security Advisor, along with notables like Rex Tillerson at the State Department, Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security (and now chief of staff), and Mike Pompeo as CIA director, he apparently preferred soldiers and businessmen to Washington establishmentarians. Trump also understood that the prior eight-year status quo could not continue without a likely war.
Weaker states abroad would inevitably try something stupid on the theory that the United States would not react (we forget that less powerful nations often start wars, as they wrongly conclude that the appeasing stronger powers are acting foolishly because they must be without military capability). We see the wages of the last eight years, most notably with North Korea’s decision to test missiles that soon may reach the West Coast, a dare that has forced redefinition of some 70 years of U.S. strategy on the Korean peninsula.
Yet Trump also ran as populist. He understood that the instincts like those of Steve Bannon were critical in destroying the blue wall—and for not draining U.S. resources abroad in cul de sacs while a revolutionary economic and social agenda was needed at home.
Thus Trump was loud about ending optional wars and interventions that did not serve perceived U.S. interests—and whose costs often, in a tragic sense, came at the expense of a working class that was both a loser in the new globalization and yet asked to fight and pay for a globalized United States.
But paradoxes naturally arose. Not starting new optional wars (cf. the disaster in Libya) was not quite the same thing as getting out of them without doing more damage (cf. the catastrophe following the Obama pullout from Iraq).
Trump seems to be trying to square that circle of restoring deterrence without a major cost in blood and treasure. In the current controversies at the National Security Agency and the attacks aimed at McMaster—along with debate and acrimony over how best to salvage some sort of stable government from a 16-year long war in Afghanistan—we are now entering a weird and suicidal internecine administration war. Oddly, the acrimony comes at the very moment when the Trump economic, national security, and immigration agendas are working and paying real dividends. Obviously, the last thing needed now is another Sessions-like threatened firing.
Jacksonians like McMaster and occasionally Mattis (and I speak of them in concert not because they are predictably in agreement, but only because their long careers were similarly unconventional) are somehow this week caricatured as being protectors of the Deep State Beltway. Perhaps such mischaracterization is because they are, in Augustus’s words, “making haste slowly”—or trying to prepare the world for post-Obama changes without either turning inward or starting a war. Such cautiousness can be, of course, naturally viewed as obstructionism by a populist base.
Yet if Trump wanted iconoclastic generals, both outspoken, and sometimes abrasive, who nonetheless put a high priority on loyalty, he could not have picked two better representatives. McMaster was often unfairly passed over for generalship because he was a bother to hierarchies. Mattis was sidetracked by Obama because he had a rare habit of speaking the truth, sometimes bluntly, and identifying with the warriors under his command rather than with his superiors in Washington.
So the idea, to take one example, that McMaster is soft on Islamism or is anti-Israel is absurd. I cannot think of a more obdurate opponent of the Iranian regime, perhaps because so many of those he served with in Iraq were killed by shaped charges brought into Iraq by Iranians, who subverted the U.S. effort with impunity. Nor was McMaster a neoconservative in matters of post-9/11 interventions, but instead he served an agenda that he likely would have preferred was more punitive and realist than inspired by idealistic nation-building.
One can have legitimate arguments over bad and worse choices concerning Afghanistan and Syria. Or how best to dismantle North Korea’s new missile arsenal. Or the most effective way to coax or force Putin away from Russia’s new hostility.
But what remains again inexplicable is the suggestion that anyone heading the Pentagon or the NSC is either disloyal to Trump, in thrall to the status quo, or too soft on our enemies. They are not.
So far the entire Trump foreign policy is naturally characterized by disagreements over how best to reflect both global realities and responsibilities and populist concerns—in the larger context of cleaning up the Obama mess. But on closer examination, almost all internecine fighting in the Trump administration has to do with the Middle East, no doubt because it is hard to swear off engagement where we are already deeply engaged—in contrast to likely unanimity in approaches toward North Korea or China. And it is problematic to tell veterans of the wars of the Middle East what wars of the Middle East are really about.
To take an example of disconnects: if it seems we are going too slow in refuting the Iran deal, the disagreement is probably over a matter of tactics: an Iran emboldened by appeasement will inevitably violate and doom its own sweetheart accords, rather than having us do it first and get into a kerfuffle with profit-mongering European opportunist allies. I don’t think anyone thinks the status quo has worked in Afghanistan. But the challenge is to come up with a comprehensive strategy first that “Afghanisizes” the war without losing it and millions of innocent Afghans à la Vietnam—and to do so without sending another surge of troops. In contrast, I would doubt there is much difference between Trump appointees regarding the best way to deal with North Korea.
Process and Temperament Matter
Whether we like it or not, Trump was not going to be able to implement Jacksonian changes in foreign policy with an array of firebrand Mike Flynns in all the major national security agencies. Flynn is an impressive and honorable American who was done a terrible disservice by a media lynch mob. But he was not the sort of pilot to ensure that Trump’s doctrine of “principled realism” was going to get enacted and implemented. Mattis and McMaster, by contrast, bring a sense of order and discipline to national security in the manner that the esteemed John Kelly does to the White House staff in general.
Doing so is not selling out or watering down the message, but allowing the very structures in which Trump can freelance and bring his needed unpredictably and, yes, even occasional volatility to foreign policy. The sober and judicious Dean Acheson established the proper structure in which the often brash, loud, buck-stops-here Harry Truman could create a credible policy of containment against the Soviet Union. Acheson was no more a sell-out than Truman was a buffoon. One could not have been successful without the other; neither felt that the other was either too crude or too refined; both saved us from a prior disastrously naïve approach—once embraced by themselves—to Soviet expansionism.
I think we, the uninformed of the general public, can still understand the ground rules of these three quite different mavericks: Mattis and McMaster have been given rare latitude by Trump to re-establish serious national strategies, and doing so requires using some levers of traditional U.S. power and influence. In exchange, as non-politicos and representatives of the military establishment, they remain loyal servants of presidential policy, and that means the advancement of Trump’s nationalist agenda—but also a 19th-century noble insistence on order, respect for chain of command, and obedience to the dictates of superiors.
No doubt a few NeverTrumpers and neoconservatives were associates of Mattis and McMaster. And they were not shy about expressing bewilderment at both the appointments and the acceptance of those two nominations, as if the two were “the adults in the room” and must be exasperated by Trump.
But such speculations are more the media’s self-serving efforts to advance an adversarial narrative of why supposedly serious thinkers went to work for a supposedly unserious Trump—and so cannot be taken as evidence that either general leaks to the press about the “real” story of their service.
It is understandable that Trump’s base grows irritated with the weekly D.C. swamp story written on spec about the “axis of adults” like Mattis and McMaster, who purportedly put up with Trump to “save” the country, without any mention that Trump’s political genius won the election and not only put them in positions in power but also allowed them to correct a disastrous foreign policy trajectory under Barack Obama. But that said, again it is more likely that Washington liberal journalists and NeverTrumpers who write such “inside” narratives are using the generals as referents for their own larger agendas of discrediting the entire Trump project—rather than any proof the generals are venting their frustrations in order to discredit their boss and provide an oiled pathway of escape with reputations intact if Trump is neutralized.
McMaster’s firings at the NSC were, as in the case of John Kelly’s firing of the talented but otherwise profane, erratic, disruptive, and often naïve Anthony Scaramucci, likely process-driven rather than ideological.
Could McMaster have been more sensitive that his dismissals of some Trump supporters would be interpreted as a deep-state sellout, or could Mattis be more attuned that some of his centrist appointees do not make good political optics and thus make it harder for Trump to reassure his base that he needs such pros to reverse both a disastrous past eight years and to cease major but optional ground interventions? Perhaps.
But, once more, these are matters of political strategy and public relations—not fundamental issues of restoring American power and influence in the world without resorting to either nation-building or endless interventions of choice.
So far this unconventional arrangement at the Pentagon and the NSC has worked to Trump’s advantage. It should be kept. If one were to pick the five most effective U.S. generals of the last generation, both Mattis and McMaster, with their respective lifetimes of experience in the world’s godforsaken hell holes, would be placed in such select company.
Trump is lucky to have the service of both men. And both men, in turn, are lucky to be chosen to serve Trump. Both are valuable strategists in peace—but indispensable, God forbid, if we ever get into a war.