Nature abhors a vacuum, and the military nature abhors a power vacuum, as the convulsions of the Trump administration in the first week in August show. While the president grows weaker in terms of public support, party loyalty and vulnerability to investigation, the military officers around him are growing stronger.
In the early 1960s, a popular Washington thriller (and movie) called "Seven Days in May" depicted an incipient coup by right-wing generals against a liberal president seeking peace with the Soviet Union. Today’s version is Seven Days in August, featuring conservative military officers encroaching on a disorganized commander in chief seeking to stabilize his flailing presidency.
On July 31, the president named Gen. John Kelly, former secretary of Homeland Security, as White House chief of staff, the first general to hold the position since Alexander Haig served presidents Nixon and Ford in the mid-1970s.
Haig, NPR's Ron Elving noted, became a "de facto president" in 1973-'74 as Nixon was swamped by the Watergate scandal.
Then National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster fired two staffers brought to the White House by nationalist adviser Steve Bannon. When Breitbart News attacked McMaster, charging correctly that he is more hostile to Israel and more accommodating of Iran than his boss, Trump responded with a tweet endorsing McMaster.
Finally, Secretary of Defense James Mattis signaled via memo that the armed forces will slow-walk Trump’s tweet banning transgender people from serving in the military.
“An extrapolation of Mattis’ memo suggests that he is not uncomfortable with trans servicemembers getting a lawyer and preparing to fight the ban coming from Trump’s White House," says the Los Angeles Blade.
In each case, military man skilled in the arts of bureaucratic maneuvering secured personal advantage while pledging fealty to a clueless president.
Trouble with adults
As the so-called adults in the room, the three generals bring an unprecedented level of military influence to the top of the U.S. government, at a time when civilian control of the armed forces has been growing ever weaker. While pundits praise the professionalism of Kelly et al., they overlook the practical consequences. With U.S. military operations underway in 140 countries, the hard-power of militarism defines the American presence in the world as much as the soft power of popular culture or trade.
Even Eliot Cohen, a neoconservative advocate of the invasion of Iraq, thinks Trump has gone too far.
[I]t is inappropriate to have so many generals in policy-making positions; it is profoundly wrong to have a president regard the military as a constituency, and corrupting to have the Republican Party, such as it is, act as though generals have if not a monopoly then at least dominant market share in the qualities of executive ability and patriotism.
The executive ability of military officers in government is overrated, notes Mel Goodman, a former CIA analyst.
“Generals have an operational and tactical sense of how the military works,” Goodman said in a phone interview. “What they don’t have is real strategic knowledge or mastery of regional issues. McMaster is considered an intellectual because he published his PhD thesis as a book. So what?”
Deep state politics
Glenn Greenwald’s argument that the ascendant generals are out to subvert Trump’s nationalistic foreign policy — an analysis shared by Breitbart News — gives Trump more credit for policy coherence than he deserves.
To be sure, there is a powerful Washington faction led by the former CIA director John Brennan that is waging political war on Trump and his policies via op-ed columns and leaks. This so-called deep-state faction welcomes the ascendancy of Kelly et al., but that hardly means that what might be called the generals' faction shares the Clintonian politics of Brennan or that they seek to subvert Trump.
In fact, both factions are trying to take advantage of Trump’s shrinking presidency to achieve their own goals, but with an important difference. The Brennan faction (including former intelligence chiefs James Clapper, Michael Hayden and Mike Morrell) seeks to discredit and delegitimize Trump’s presidency. The generals' faction seeks to rehabilitate and rescue it.
The proof is in the policymaking.
McMaster has delivered a Syria policy that cut off funding for the CIA-funded “moderate” rebels and relies on closer coordination with the Russians; exactly what Trump advocated during the campaign (and exactly what Brennan and the Clintons' foreign policy team opposed).
Mattis is proposing re-escalation in Afghanistan while Trump is undecided, hamstrung between his contradictory impulses to avoid foreign entanglements and to score a quick “win.” The president is less undermined by the national security state (which defaults to perpetual war no matter how unsuccessful) than by his own inability to decide.
On Iran, McMaster and Mattis differ with Trump, but more over tactics than strategy. The president wants to provoke a fight over the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program. Mattis and McMaster think the agreement secures an American advantage. They prefer to provoke a fight with Iran on more favorable terrain. The generals seek to perfect Trump’s policy impulses, not stifle them.
In Europe, the Pentagon is stepping up preparations for military conflict in Eastern Europe, which would seem to contradict Trump’s yearning for better relations with Russia. But if the commander in chief has a problem with these exercises, he has yet to express it. The fact is, Trump probably isn’t well enough briefed to know what U.S. armed forces are doing in Europe. The president's anti-elitist rhetoric sometimes skews toward anti-interventionism, but often his practical position is ignorance. Sometimes, Trump has no policy to subvert.
In the absence of strong presidential leadership, the danger is not merely Trump's policies, but the military mindset that seeks absolute obedience. In a war zone, that approach makes sense. In democratic politics, it is a formula for tyranny.
“If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws,” Kelly said about immigration in April. “Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.’’
Behold a trifecta of militarism: impatience with elected government, equation of dissent with disloyalty and expectation of deference. These are the real perils of Trump’s militarized presidency.