On December 9th, the Washington Post covered Donald Trump's offhand, if long expected, announcement of the ousting of retired Marine General John Kelly from an embattled White House. Its report focused on the chief of staff's "rocky tenure" there with a nod to his many merits, among them that he "often talked the president out of his worst impulses." Buried deep in the piece, though, was a single line that caught my eye (and possibly that of no one else on this planet): "Kelly told others that among his biggest accomplishments was keeping the president from making rash military moves, such as removing troops from sensitive zones."
It was admittedly neither a direct quote, nor attributed to anyone, nor elaborated on in the rest of the piece. So that's all we know, not whether Kelly took particular pride in stopping the president from removing American troops from, say, Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or for that matter Niger. But however passing and non-specific that line may have been, it seemed to catch something striking about these last two years, a time when those in the mainstream opposition to the president have come to love so many of the retired generals and former heads of outfits like the National Security Agency and the CIA, and have turned them into the equivalent of security blankets for the rest of us. They were the men (because they were all men) intent on talking Donald Trump out of "his worst impulses" and so, in the phrase of the era, they were the "adults in the room."
Thanks to the wars and other shenanigans that those "adults" had already been so deeply involved in and the money -- more than $5 trillion of it -- squandered on them, they were also the men who helped generate the dissatisfaction that gave Donald Trump his opening in the first place. And now, having been part of the problem, they are in full chorus condemnation of Donald Trump's most recent solution: to withdraw American troops from Syria (and soon evidently from Afghanistan as well). We -- that is, the country whose actions were crucial in creating ISIS in the first place -- are now the only "bulwark" against its return. That goes without saying, of course, among Republicans, Democrats, the national security elite, America's generals, and that last "adult" in the room, Secretary of Defense James Mattis -- or at least it did until, days ago, he resigned in protest. And as U.S. Army major and TomDispatch regular Danny Sjursen suggests in his year-ending piece, as that one Washington Post line about Kelly indicates, they worked awfully hard to ensure that President Trump wouldn't withdraw from any part of the mess they made. With that thought in mind and withdrawals about to be under way on an increasingly grim planet, Happy New Year! Tom
The World According to the "Adults in the Room"
A Year of Forever War in Review
By Danny Sjursen
Leave it to liberals to pin their hopes on the oddest things. In particular, they seemed to find post-Trump solace in the strange combination of the two-year-old Mueller investigation and the good judgment of certain Trump appointees, the proverbial "adults in the room." Remember that crew? It once included Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, and a trio of active and retired generals -- so much for civilian control of the military -- including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Until his sudden resignation, Mattis was (just barely) the last man standing. Still, for all these months, many Americans had counted on them to all but save the nation from an unpredictable president. They were the ones supposedly responsible for helming (or perhaps hemming in) the wayward ship of state when it came to foreign and national security policy.
Too bad it was all such a fantasy. As Donald Trump wraps up his second year in the Oval Office, despite sudden moves in Syria and Afghanistan, the United States remains entrenched in a set of military interventions across significant parts of the world. Worse yet, what those adults guided the president toward was yet more bombing, the establishment of yet more bases, and the funding of yet more oversized Pentagon budgets. And here was the truly odd thing: every time The Donald tweeted negatively about any of those wars or uttered an offhand remark in opposition to the warfare state or the Pentagon budget, that triumvirate of generals and good old Rex went to work steering him back onto the well-worn track of Bush-Obama-style forever wars.- Advertisement -
All the while, a populace obsessed and distracted by the president's camera-grabbing persona seemed hardly to notice that this country continued to exist in a state of perpetual war. And here's the most curious part of all: Trump wasn't actually elected on an interventionist military platform. Sure, he threw the hawkish wing of his Republican base a few bones: bringing back waterboarding as well as even "worse" forms of torture, bombing "the sh*t" out of ISIS, and filling Guanta'namo with "some bad dudes." Still, with foreign policy an undercard issue in a domestically focused campaign to "Make America Great Again," most Trump supporters seemed to have little stomach for endless war in the Greater Middle East -- and The Donald knew it.
Common Sense on the Campaign Trail
Despite his coarse language and dubious policy positions, candidate Trump did seem to promise something new in foreign policy. To his credit, he called the 2003 Iraq War the "single worst decision ever made" (even if his own shifting position on that invasion was well-documented). He repeatedly tweeted his virulent opposition to continuing the war in Afghanistan and regularly urged President Obama to stay out of Syria. And to the horror of newly minted Cold War liberals, he even suggested a de'tente with Russia.
Like so much else in his campaign, none of this was from the standard 2016 bullet-point repertoire of seasoned politicians. Sure, Donald Trump lacked the requisite knowledge and ideological coherence usually considered mandatory for serious candidates, but from time to time he did -- let's admit it -- offer some tidbits of fresh thinking on foreign policy. However blasphemous that may sound, on certain international issues the guy had a point compared to Hillary, the hawk.
During his presidency, traces of his earthy commonsense still showed up from time to time. In August 2017, for instance, when announcing yet another escalation in the Afghan War, he felt obliged to admit that his original instinct had been to "pull out" of it, adding that he still sympathized with Americans who were "weary of war." He sounded like a man anything but confident of his chosen course of action -- or at least the one chosen for him by those "adults" of his. Then, last week, he surprised the whole business-as-usual Washington establishment by announcing an imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Whether he reverses himself, as he's been apt to do, remains unknown, but here was at least a flash of his campaign-style anti-interventionism.
How, then, to explain the way a seemingly confident candidate had morphed into a hesitant president -- until his recent set of decisions to pull troops out of parts of the Greater Middle East -- at least on matters of war and peace? Why those nearly two years of bowing to the long-stale foreign policy thinking that had infused the Bush-Obama years, the very thing he had been theoretically running against?- Advertisement -
Well, pin it on those adults in the room, especially the three generals. As mid-level and senior officers, they had, after all, cut their teeth on the war on terror. It and it alone defined their careers, their lives, and so their thinking. Long before Donald Trump came along, they and their peer commanders had already been taken hostage by the interventionist military playbook that went with that war and came to define the thinking of their generation. That was how you had to think, in fact, if you wanted to rise in the ranks.
The adults weren't, for the most part, political partisans. Then again, neither was the militarist playbook they were following. Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush had been selling exactly the same snake oil in 2016. Only Trump -- and to some extent Bernie Sanders -- had offered a genuine alternative. Nevertheless, the Trump administration sustained that same policy of forever war for almost two full years and the grown-ups in the room were the ones who made it so. Exhibit A was the Greater Middle East.
The Same Old Playbook