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McMastering Trumpian Foreign Policy

According some segments of the conservative media, one of those “deep state” “establishment” “globalist” types threatening President Donald Trump is his own national security advisor. Highly decorated combat veteran and former three star Army general H.R. McMaster stands accused of various heresies against the “nationalist” and “populist” and “alt-right” strains of conservatism, and it’s a more consequential story that the rest of all the palace intrigue that’s been going on at the White House.
McMaster is well-regarded by some other segments of the conservative media as one of the administration grown-ups needed to restrain Trump’s worst tendencies, and enjoys the begrudging respect of the Democrats on Capitol Hill, but such establishmentarian respect is all the more reason for the burn-it-down sorts of conservatives to revile him. They’re livid that he renewed a national security clearance for President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, persuaded Trump to sign off on a statement that Iran has thus far been in compliance with a deal struck with Obama regarding its nuclear weapons program, once worked at a British think-tank partly funded by the hated progressive billionaire George Soros, and has generally been an impediment to the isolationist and Russia-friendly bomb-all-the-Muslims-and-take-their-oil foreign policy they prefer.
Worse yet, McMaster seems to have gained influence in the administration since former four-star Marine general John Kelly took over as chief staff. Kelly has a reputation as someone who doesn’t suffer fools and idiots lightly, so his first order of business was to get rid of a White House communications officer who had proved spectacularly incompetent after a week on the job, and his second was to help McMaster defenestrate three members of the national security council. Each were allies of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, and if you’ve been binge-watching the Trump show you should already know that he’s the administration’s true keeper of the “nationalist” and “populist” and “alt-right” faith.
Bannon had already lost his seat on the council after bi-partisan complaints that he had no qualifications whatsoever for the job, and his ideological ally Mike Flynn had resigned the national security advisor post in record time after it was revealed he had lied about about his dealings with Russia and talk about all sorts of other foreign intrigues started to surface, and for the moment the Bannonite vision seems to be fading. The former four-star Marine general James Mattis is still Secretary of Defense, and despite his “Mad Dog” nickname he’s also considered one of the restraining grown-ups that the establishment Republicans praise and the Democrats begrudgingly respect.
Not that you’d notice, but Rex Tillerson is still the titular Secretary of State, and the former top Exxon boss has surprisingly proved a stalwart defender of the post-war global order. You can’t help but have noticed United Nations ambassador Nikki Halley after her fine work winning an international agreement to impose sanctions on North Korea for its recent belligerence, but you might not recall she’s also often stood in opposition to a Bannonite foreign policy. With so many foreign policy positions still unfilled, largely due to the administration;s failure to find nominees with the requisite credentials who haven’t publicly expressed previous doubts about Trump’s foreign policy campaign rhetoric, Trump is pretty much stuck with the establishment he promised to burn down.
Hence the recent assault on McMaster in certain segments of the conservative media. One of the most vociferous critics has been BreitbartNews.com, which was formerly run by Bannon as a self-described “platform for the alt-right,” and others are the internet conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Michael Cernovich, but several of the talk radio hosts and more mainstream conservative outlets such as the Daily Caller have also been piling on, as has the Jerusalem Post’s usually reliable Caroline Glick. They all combine for a relatively small and already-on-board audience, but that audience does include Trump, so it will be interesting to see what effect they have.
Meanwhile pretty much all the mainstream press and certain segments of the conservative media will argue that McMaster is one of the much-needed grownups in the administration, and we’ll go right ahead and pile on ourselves. We’re no fans of Rice, but security clearances have always been granted as a routine courtesy to past national security advisors, and we’d like to see that tradition continue to benefit McMaster some day, and we can’t see what damage she’s likely to do at this point. That deal Obama struck with Iran was every bit as awful as Trump said it was back on the campaign trail, but if the Iranians are shrewd enough to be complying at this point then denying it would only undermine our nation’s credibility when Trump at long last gets around to his promised so-great-your-head-will-spin re-negotiation. Except for the fact some money came from the admittedly noxious Soros, there’s nothing we can find in any of the stories about that British think-tank that make us think worse of McMaster.
As much as we respect the formidable Ms. Glick there’s nothing we can find in McMaster’s history that suggests he’s insufficiently committed to America’s alliance with Israel, and even if he’s not a bomb-all-Muslims-and-take-their-oil kind of guy we figure that’s because he has better ideas about how to deal with the problems that certain segments of the Islamic world undeniably pose. According to all sorts of leaks he was one of the people who pressured Trump into belatedly affirming America’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and otherwise counseled the same unfriendly posture toward Russia’s expansionist ambitions that the Republican party had maintained since the dawn of the Cold War, but that’s fine by us.
Trump has thus far publicly “tweeted” his support for McMaster, but there are leaks that he’s privately fuming to friends that he wishes Flynn was still on the job, and on the campaign trail he boasted that he knows more the generals, adding his usual “believe me,” and he hates to disappoint the loyal fans who listen to Jones and Cernovich and the radio talkers. Getting rid of McMaster would surely fuel all the mainstream media talk about the “Russia” thing, but the fans won’t believe a word of that anyway, and Trump has proved entirely unpredictable about everything, so we’ll not venture any guesses how McMaster comes out at the end of this story.
We hope he’ll come out ahead, though, and will at least get his security clearance approved by the next Democratic administration’s national security advisor. During the first Iraq War Captain McMaster led nine American tanks into battle against 28 Iraqi Revolutionary Guard tanks and won by a score of 28-to-zero, was a fellow at the Hoover Institute while rising to his three-star general rank through a series of challenging commands, and despite such establishment credentials he strikes us a very serious man. Trump’s bone spurs prevented him from serving heroically, alas, and he later said his personal Vietnam was avoiding venereal disease on the New York City dating scene of the ’70s, and all his campaign rhetoric about NATO’s obsolescence and Russia’s moral equivalence with the United States and taking the Muslim’s oil struck us as similarly unserious, so we think he could us some establishmentarian grown-ups around him.
That will disappoint the fans, but they’ll surely get over it, and we think that for now they’re outnumbered by the liberals and certain segments of the conservatives and pretty much everybody else.

— Bud Norman

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A Quick Response to a Quick Response

Just as we were sitting down to write about the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, the news came across the internet that President Donald Trump had ordered a launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base. The wisdom of America fighting in World War I is still a matter of heated debate a century later, so of course it’s far too soon to say how that missile strike will play out.
The potential consequences of such military actions are as numerous as the trillions of possible moves in a chess game, and finding the most promising line among them requires far more serious contemplation, but the decision was apparently made with some haste. On Tuesday the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on a village caught up in the country’s seven-year-old civil war and killed scores of innocent men, women, and children, and the Trump administration immediately condemned the atrocity and blamed in the past inaction of the administration of President Barack Obama. On Wednesday Trump told the press that he was personally affected by the footage of the gassed children, and that “It is now my responsibility.” On Thursday afternoon, the 59 or so missiles were launched against the same air base where the chemical attack originated. There are time pressures in both chess and geopolitics that sometimes force players to act quickly and intuitively, but at this point there’s no apparent reason those missiles had to be launched on Thursday.
That horrific Syrian civil war has been dragging on for more than seven years, after all, and Tuesday’s atrocity was by no means the first time that Assad has used chemical weapons. The Syrian air base and all those Tomahawk missiles would have still been there on Monday morning after a weekend of careful thought, which the situation seems to require. Trump was quite right that Obama’s failure to enforce the “red line” he had carelessly drawn over a previous chemical attack on innocents had emboldened Assad to do it again, even if Trump was “tweeting” advice not to do anything at the time, but that’s as much an argument for not drawing red lines as it for enforcing them. Trump is also quite right to regard the chemical attack as a humanitarian outrage and clear violation of international law, but so were the previous chemical attacks that Trump didn’t want to respond to and a Republican Congress eventually declined to authorize the use of military force to punish. There’s also an argument to made, and naturally some people are making it, that Trump’s announcement that the United States no longer sought regime change in Syria also emboldened Assad to undertake his latest atrocity.
This time around the situation is even more complicated. The Syrian regime is hanging on because of support from Iran, who Obama was eager to reach a friendly deal with and Trump has promised to strike a far harsher deal with, as well as the dictatorship in Russia, which both Obama and Trump have seemed all too eager to get along with for probably very different reasons. One of the Syrian regime’s most formidable enemies is the equally abhorrent and potentially more troublesome Islamic State, which Obama infamously dismissed as the “jay-vee team” of terrorism and Trump has promised to destroy, so there’s a tricky problem of trying to harm one without helping the other. Much of Syria is now controlled by Kurdish forces, who about the closest thing to good guys that you’ll find in the Middle East, and have been of much help in America’s complicated dealings with Iraq, but the Kurds are a problem for Turkey, which is also a problem but nonetheless a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and an occasional ally, and Trump once infamously confused them with Iran’s Quds Forces. At this point any rebels remotely resembling modern and democratic types have been pretty much wiped out, thanks to years of inaction, but a few hundred American servicemen are currently in Syria and probably on heightened security at the moment.
There’s certainly a case to be made that Tuesday’s chemical attack was so horrific it demanded an immediate muscular response, and some people are naturally making that case, but events will surely muddy the argument. The initial reports say that the Russians were given a heads-up on the attack and that care was taken not to bomb the Russian parts of that air base, so some care has been taken not to widen the conflict, but given the extremely complicated state of Russo-American relations at the moment it’s hard to say how that will pan out. By now most Americans don’t care much what that awful government in Iran thinks of all this, but for the past 38 years they haven’t seemed to care what Americans think. Americans have never cared much what the rest of the world thinks, either, but that usually winds up making some difference.
Meanwhile, back in the States, there will be political consequences that no one can possibly predict. Trump ran on promises to beef up America’s military might and criticisms of Obama’s weak-kneed foreign policy, but he also explicitly promised an “America First” foreign policy that would avoid the interventionism of the war-mongering neocon establishment that had fallen out of favor with many Republican primary voters and the Rust Belt Democrats who didn’t like Hillary Clinton. He stressed his eagerness to get along with Russia, accused President George W. Bush of lying the country into a Middle East war, lied blatantly about his past support for intervention in Iraq and his more full-throated support for the ill-fated Libyan war, and promised to spend all that war money on re-building America. The comments section at all the Trump-friendly news sources are full of griping by Trump supporters who don’t much care about anyone in Syria and feel betrayed by the missile strike, and we expect that all those Trump-friendly talk radio show hosts wish he’d at least given them a weekend to come up with a justification. It’s hard to see any Democrats siding with Trump on the issue, although they’ll have to add the usual tsk-tsking about Assad gassing those innocents, and unless this missile strike yields unexpectedly quick positive results we don’t see the usual rally-round-the-president sentiment happening.
Fifty or so Tomahawk missiles will hinder Assad’s military capabilities for a while, and might just force him to use conventional bombs rather than chemical weapons in his ongoing war, but unless the missiles keep coming for a while that probably won’t last long. Perhaps Chinese President Xi Jiping will be a bit more wary of Trump during the negotiations at the Mar-a-Lago resort today, but we don’t expect he’s worried that Trump will be lobbing any missiles at his country in the near future, and the nutcase running his client state in North Korea might feel all the more threatened. The strike might also prove to a masterstroke of geo-political 3-D chess playing, as Trump’s more smitten supporters always claim, even when talking about such obvious failures as the recent demise of his health care reform bill, but we’d be mighty impressed if he calculated all those possible combinations in such a short time.
Even after a hundred years people are still sorting out that whole World War I thing. Although we’re no fans of President Woodrow Wilson, and hate the way he used the war to suppress free speech and expand the administrative state and threw away a victory for utopian dreams of a global government, we were planning to write to that he didn’t have much choice but to enter the horrible fray. The alternative was a Europe and world dominated by German militarism and Ottoman theocracy, and the Germans were sinking American ships and waging a war of sabotage and trying to lure Mexico in a revanchist war on our border, and our alliances with Great Britain and France and the emerging democracies were on the line, and our involvement did hasten the end of what was then history’s bloodiest conflict. It’s also true that the war didn’t all wars, as Wilson had promised, and the resulting peace carved the Middle East into all the currently warring states, and Ireland was emboldened to start a bloody war with England that would last for decades, and sub-Saharan Africa wound up with decades of wars, and a not-fully-conquered Germany and an emboldened Japan and a Italy suddenly on the other side would start a far bloodier conflict just two decades later.
These things always take time to sort out, so we’ll reserve a final judgment on Trump’s missile strike. We do hope, though, that some time will be taken before the next military action.

— Bud Norman