The Generals In Trump’s Cabinet Aren’t “Adults In the Room”—They’re Hungry for War

We can expect an even more aggressive foreign policy under Trump’s mix of military men and ideologues.

William D. Hartung March 7, 2017

Trump announced Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as his national security advisor in Palm Beach, Florida on February 20. McMaster is replacing Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

A ver­sion of this piece first appeared at TomDis­patch.

We shouldn’t forget that Mattis and McMaster were at the center of one of the most disastrous and unsuccessful wars in American history, the invasion, occupation and insurgency in Iraq.

In the splurge of news,” media-bash­ing and Ban­non­ism that’s been Don­ald Trump’s domes­tic ver­sion of a shock-and-awe cam­paign, it’s easy to for­get just how much of what the new pres­i­dent and his admin­is­tra­tion have done so far is sim­ply an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of trends long under­way. Those who already pine for the age of Oba­ma — a pres­i­dent who was smart, well read and not a glob­al embar­rass­ment — need to acknowl­edge the ways in which, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the mil­i­tary are­na, Obama’s years helped set the stage for our cur­rent predicament.

As a start, Nobel Prize or not, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma sus­tained, and in some cas­es accel­er­at­ed, the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy that has been steadi­ly increas­ing for the past three decades. In sig­nif­i­cant parts of the world, the U.S. mil­i­tary has become Washington’s first and often only tool — and the result has been dis­as­trous wars, fail­ing states and spread­ing ter­ror move­ments (as well as stag­ger­ing arms sales) across the Greater Mid­dle East and sig­nif­i­cant parts of Africa. Indi­ca­tors of how mil­i­tar­i­ly depen­dent Obama’s for­eign pol­i­cy became include the launch­ing of a record num­ber of drone strikes (10 times as many as in the Bush years), unde­clared wars in at least six coun­tries, the annu­al deploy­ment of Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces to well over half of the coun­tries on the plan­et, record arms sales to the Mid­dle East, and a pletho­ra of new Pen­ta­gon arms and train­ing pro­grams.

Nonethe­less, from the New START treaty (which Trump has called anoth­er bad deal,” as he does any deal the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion con­clud­ed) to the Iran nuclear deal to the open­ing with Cuba, Oba­ma had gen­uine suc­cess­es of a sort that our present nar­cis­sist-in-chief, with his empha­sis on look­ing tough” or tweet­ing at the drop of a hat, is unlike­ly to achieve. In addi­tion, Oba­ma did try to build on the nuclear arms con­trol agree­ments and insti­tu­tions cre­at­ed over the pre­vi­ous five decades, while Trump seems intent on dis­man­tling them.

Still, no one can doubt that our last pres­i­dent did not behave like a Nobel Peace Prize win­ner, not even in the nuclear are­na where he over­saw the launch­ing of a tril­lion dol­lar mod­ern­iza­tion” of the U.S. nuclear arse­nal (includ­ing the devel­op­ment of new weapons and new deliv­ery sys­tems). And one thing is already clear enough: Pres­i­dent Trump will prove no non-inter­ven­tion­ist. He is going to build on Obama’s mil­i­ta­riza­tion of for­eign pol­i­cy and most like­ly dra­mat­i­cal­ly accel­er­ate it.

A Mil­i­tary First Administration

It’s no secret that our new pres­i­dent loves gen­er­als. He’s cer­tain­ly assem­bled the most mil­i­tary-heavy for­eign pol­i­cy team in mem­o­ry, if not in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, includ­ing retired Gen­er­al James Mat­tis at the Pen­ta­gon; retired Gen­er­al John Kel­ly at Home­land Secu­ri­ty; Lieu­tenant Gen­er­al H.R. McMas­ter as nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er (a replace­ment for Lieu­tenant Gen­er­al Michael Fly­nn who left that post after 24 days); and as chief of staff of the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, retired Lieu­tenant Gen­er­al Kei­th Kel­logg.

In addi­tion, CIA Direc­tor Mike Pom­peo is a West Point grad­u­ate and for­mer Cold War-era Army tank offi­cer. Even White House advis­er Steve Ban­non has done mil­i­tary ser­vice of a sort. The mil­i­tary back­ground of Trump’s ide­o­logue-in-chief was empha­sized by White House spokesman Sean Spicer in his defense of seat­ing him on the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil (NSC). Bannon’s near-brush with fame as a naval offi­cer came when he pilot­ed a destroy­er in the Gulf of Oman trail­ing the air­craft car­ri­er USS Nimitz that car­ried the heli­copters used in the Carter administration’s botched 1980 attempt to res­cue U.S. hostages held by Iran’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment. As it hap­pened, Bannon’s ship was ordered back to Pearl Har­bor before the raid was launched, so he learned of its fail­ure from thou­sands of miles away.

When it comes to nation­al secu­ri­ty posts of any sort, it’s clear that choos­ing a gen­er­al is now Trump’s default mode. Three of the four can­di­dates he con­sid­ered for Flynn’s spot were cur­rent or retired gen­er­als. And that’s not even count­ing retired Vice Admi­ral Robert Har­ward, who declined an offer to take Flynn’s post, in part evi­dent­ly because he wasn’t pre­pared to bat­tle Ban­non over the staffing and run­ning of the NSC. The only civil­ian con­sid­ered for that role was one of the more bel­li­cose guys in town, that ide­o­logue, Ira­nophobe, for­mer U.N. ambas­sador, and neo­con extra­or­di­naire John Bolton. The bad news: Trump was evi­dent­ly impressed by Bolton, who may still get a slot along­side Ban­non and his mot­ley crew of extrem­ists in the White House.

Anoth­er ear­ly indi­ca­tor of the mil­i­tary drift of future admin­is­tra­tion actions is the mar­gin­al­iza­tion of Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son and the State Depart­ment, which appears to be com­plete­ly out of the pol­i­cy-mak­ing loop at the moment. It is under­staffed, under­uti­lized, slat­ed to have its fund­ing slashed by as much as 30% to 40% and rarely even asked to pro­vide Trump with basic knowl­edge about the coun­tries and lead­ers he’s deal­ing with. (As a result, White House state­ments have, on sev­er­al occa­sions, mis­spelled the names of for­eign heads of state and the pres­i­dent mis­tak­en­ly addressed the Japan­ese Prime Min­is­ter as Shin­zo,” his first name, not Abe.”) The State Depart­ment isn’t even giv­ing reg­u­lar press brief­in­gs, a prac­tice rou­tine­ly fol­lowed in pri­or admin­is­tra­tions. Tillerson’s main job so far has been trav­el­ing the plan­et to reas­sure for­eign lead­ers that the new pres­i­dent isn’t as crazy as he seems to be.

Although Sec­re­taries of State Hillary Clin­ton and John Ker­ry were far more involved in the craft­ing of for­eign pol­i­cy than Tiller­son is like­ly to be, the State Depart­ment has long been the junior part­ner to its ever bet­ter resourced coun­ter­part. The Pentagon’s bud­get is cur­rent­ly 12 times larg­er than the State Department’s (and that’s before the impend­ing Trump mil­i­tary build-up even begins). As for­mer Sec­re­tary of Defense Robert Gates once not­ed, there are more per­son­nel in a sin­gle air­craft car­ri­er task force than there are trained diplo­mats in the U.S. For­eign Service.

Giv­en the way Pres­i­dent Trump has out­fit­ted his admin­is­tra­tion with gen­er­als, the already mil­i­ta­rized nature of for­eign pol­i­cy is only like­ly to become more so. As for­mer White House bud­get offi­cial and defense expert Gor­don Adams has point­ed out, his mil­i­tary-dom­i­nat­ed for­eign pol­i­cy team should be cause for seri­ous con­cern. Pol­i­cy-by-gen­er­al is sure to cre­ate a skewed view of pol­i­cy-mak­ing, since every­thing is like­ly to be viewed ini­tial­ly through a mil­i­tary lens by men trained in war, not diplo­ma­cy or peace.

For the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex, how­ev­er, many of Trump’s nation­al secu­ri­ty picks are the best of news. They’re twofers,” hav­ing worked in both the mil­i­tary and the arms indus­try. Defense Sec­re­tary Mat­tis, for instance, joined the admin­is­tra­tion from the board of Gen­er­al Dynam­ics, which gets about $10 bil­lion in Pen­ta­gon con­tracts annu­al­ly and makes tanks and bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­marines, among many oth­er weapons sys­tems. Trump’s pick for Sec­re­tary of the Air Force, for­mer New Mex­i­co rep­re­sen­ta­tive Heather Wil­son, is an Air Force vet­er­an who went to work as a lob­by­ist for Lock­heed Martin’s nuclear weapons unit when she left Con­gress. Deputy Nation­al Secu­ri­ty advis­er Kei­th Kel­logg has worked for a series of defense con­trac­tors includ­ing Cubic and CACI. (You may remem­ber CACI as one of the pri­vate com­pa­nies that sup­plied inter­roga­tors impli­cat­ed in the Abu Ghraib prison tor­ture scan­dal dur­ing the U.S. occu­pa­tion of Iraq.) This prac­tice is rife with the poten­tial for con­flicts of inter­est, as such offi­cials are in a posi­tion to make deci­sions that could ben­e­fit their for­mer employ­ers to the tune of bil­lions of dollars.

The Adults in the Room?

While rule by gen­er­als and weapons com­pa­ny offi­cials may be prob­lem­at­ic, an even more dis­turb­ing devel­op­ment is the ten­den­cy of Pres­i­dent Trump to rely on a small cir­cle of White House advis­ers led by white nation­al­ist Steve Ban­non in craft­ing basic deci­sions, often with min­i­mal input from rel­e­vant cab­i­net offi­cers and in-house experts. A case in point is Trump’s dis­as­trous roll­out of his Mus­lim ban. Home­land Secu­ri­ty head John Kel­ly asserts that he was con­sult­ed, but Ban­non dis­re­gard­ed his advice to exclude green card hold­ers from the ini­tial ban. Kel­ly lat­er issued a waiv­er for them.

Mat­tis was evi­dent­ly only informed about the con­tents of the exec­u­tive order at the last minute. Among the issues he lat­er raised: the ban was so expan­sive­ly drawn it could exclude Iraqi trans­la­tors who had worked along­side Amer­i­can troops in Iraq from enter­ing the Unit­ed States. After the courts blocked the orig­i­nal plan, the Trump team came out with a new ver­sion almost as bad as the orig­i­nal. The fin­ger­prints of Ban­non and his anti-immi­grant side­kick Stephen Miller remain all over it.

Numer­ous com­men­ta­tors have wel­comed the appoint­ments of Mat­tis and McMas­ter, hop­ing that they will be the expe­ri­enced adults in the room” who will help keep Ban­non and com­pa­ny in check. For­mer Oba­ma Pen­ta­gon offi­cial Derek Chol­let, a mem­ber of For­eign Pol­i­cy magazine’s shad­ow cab­i­net,” put it this way: Oth­er than the dark fig­ures in the White House cabal, Trump’s nation­al secu­ri­ty team is led by non­ide­o­log­i­cal, lev­el-head­ed pol­i­cy tech­nocrats from the mil­i­tary or indus­try.” Pres­i­dent (and also Gen­er­al) Dwight D. Eisen­how­er, who intro­duced the term mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al com­plex” in his farewell address to the nation, is prob­a­bly rolling over in his grave at the thought that a gov­ern­ment packed with ex-mil­i­tary men and for­mer arms indus­try offi­cials is in many quar­ters con­sid­ered the best any­one could hope for under the Trump régime.

Let’s think for a moment about what such a best case” sce­nario might look like. Imag­ine that, in the bat­tle for Trump’s brain, Mat­tis, McMas­ter and Kel­ly wrest con­trol of it from Ban­non and his min­ions when it comes to for­eign pol­i­cy deci­sion-mak­ing. The assump­tion here is that the gen­er­als have a far san­er per­spec­tive than an extreme ide­o­logue (and Islam­o­phobe), among oth­er things because they’ve seen war up close and per­son­al and so pre­sum­ably bet­ter under­stand what’s at stake. But we shouldn’t for­get that Mat­tis and McMas­ter were at the cen­ter of one of the most dis­as­trous and unsuc­cess­ful wars in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, the inva­sion, occu­pa­tion and insur­gency in Iraq — and it appears that they may not have learned what would seem to be the log­i­cal lessons from that failure. 

In fact, as late as 2011, over­see­ing Washington’s wars in the Greater Mid­dle East as the head of Cen­tral Com­mand (CENT­COM), Mat­tis actu­al­ly pro­posed a rad­i­cal esca­la­tion, an expan­sion of the con­flict via a direct strike inside Iran. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion would, in fact, remove him as CENT­COM com­man­der five months ear­ly in part because the pres­i­dent dis­ap­proved of his pro­pos­al to launch mis­sile strikes to take out either an Iran­ian pow­er plant or an oil refin­ery in retal­i­a­tion for the killings of U.S. sol­diers by Iran­ian-backed mili­tias. In August 2010, short­ly after tak­ing con­trol of Cen­tral Com­mand, Mat­tis was asked by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma what he thought were the top three threats in his area of respon­si­bil­i­ty, which stretched from Egypt to the for­mer Sovi­et repub­lic of Kaza­khstan and includ­ed the active war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. His clas­sic (and chill­ing) response, accord­ing to a senior U.S. offi­cial” who wit­nessed it: Num­ber one: Iran. Num­ber two: Iran. Num­ber three: Iran.” He will now have a major hand in shap­ing Washington’s Iran policy.

As for McMas­ter, a war­rior-strate­gist wide­ly respect­ed in mil­i­tary cir­cles, his biggest poten­tial flaw is that he may be over­con­fi­dent about the val­ue of mil­i­tary force in address­ing Mid­dle East­ern con­flicts. Although his 1997 book Dere­lic­tion of Duty opens with a sear­ing indict­ment of the costs and con­se­quences of the failed U.S. inter­ven­tion in Viet­nam, he may draw a dif­fer­ent set of lessons from his expe­ri­ences in the Mid­dle East and Iraq in par­tic­u­lar. McMas­ter cut his teeth in the 1991 Per­sian Gulf War, a quick and dev­as­tat­ing defeat of Sad­dam Hussein’s over­matched mil­i­tary, a force notably short on morale and fight­ing spir­it. Along with Gen­er­al David Petraeus, McMas­ter was also a key play­er in craft­ing the much-over­rat­ed 2007 surge” in Iraq, a short-term tac­ti­cal vic­to­ry that did noth­ing to address the under­ly­ing polit­i­cal and sec­tar­i­an ten­sions still dri­ving the con­flict there. Mil­i­tary ana­lyst Andrew Bace­vich has apt­ly described it as the surge to nowhere.”

Boost­ers of the surge in Iraq fre­quent­ly refer to it as if it were par­tial redemp­tion for the dis­as­trous deci­sion to invade in the first place. At a stag­ger­ing cost in mon­ey and Iraqi and Amer­i­can lives, that inva­sion and occu­pa­tion opened the way for a sec­tar­i­an con­flict that would lead to the rise of ISIS. It can­not be redeemed. And the sug­ges­tion that things would have turned out bet­ter if only Pres­i­dent Oba­ma had kept sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of U.S. troops there longer — over­rid­ing both the will of the Iraqi par­lia­ment and a sta­tus of forces agree­ment nego­ti­at­ed with Iraq’s lead­ers by the Bush admin­is­tra­tion — is a pipe dream.

Log­i­cal­ly, the Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence in Iraq should make both Mat­tis and McMas­ter wary of once again using mil­i­tary force in the region. Both of them, how­ev­er, seem to be go big or go home” thinkers who are like­ly to push for surge-like actions in the war against ISIS and pos­si­bly in the Afghan war as well.

The true test of whether there will be any adults” in the room may come if Trump and Ban­non push for mil­i­tary action against Iran, an option to which Mat­tis has been open — as a long his­to­ry of state­ments and pro­pos­als urg­ing exact­ly that course of action indi­cates. Such a war would, of course, be bet­ter sold to Con­gress, the pub­lic and the media by the generals.

Ulti­mate­ly, anoth­er Mid­dle East­ern war planned and ini­ti­at­ed by gen­er­als is unlike­ly to be any more suc­cess­ful than one launched by the ide­o­logues. As Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the Inter­na­tion­al Cri­sis Group, not­ed after then-Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er Fly­nn declared that the admin­is­tra­tion was putting Iran on notice”: In an attempt to look strong, the admin­is­tra­tion could stum­ble into a war that would make the Afghan and Iraqi con­flicts look like a walk in the park.”

Trump’s gen­er­als should know bet­ter, but there’s no rea­son to believe that they will, espe­cial­ly giv­en Mattis’s his­to­ry of hawk­ish pro­pos­als and state­ments about the Iran­ian threat.” Even if he and McMas­ter do prove to be the adults in the room, as we all know, adults, too, can make dis­as­trous mis­cal­cu­la­tions. So we may want to hold off on the sighs of relief that greet­ed both of their appoint­ments. Wash­ing­ton could go to war in Iran (and surge in both Iraq and Afghanistan), regard­less of who’s in charge.

William D. Har­tung is a senior fel­low at the World Pol­i­cy Insti­tute and the direc­tor of the Arms Trade Resource Center.
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