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Mad Dogs and Americans and the Noonday Sun

James “Mad Dog” Mattis is lately in the news again, and we welcome him back. The decorated war hero and four star Marine general and former Secretary of Defense has a book coming out soon, and judging by the pre-release excerpts it’s a rather scathing critique of the foreign policy of a conspicuously unnamed sitting President of the States, which strikes us as another brave and patriotic act in a long and distinguished career of public service.
Already both the left and the right are prepared to pounce on his previously impeccable reputation, of course. The left will never forgive him for volunteering to serve in the administration of the hated President Donald Trump and failing to call the president out by name, and the newly reconstituted right will never forgive him for trying to restrain the beloved president’s all-knowing gut instincts. So far as we can tell, though, he’s been a principled man to today.
Mattis came into the Trump administration with high praise from his new boss, who seemed to relish Mattis’ nickname of “Mad Dog,” although Mattis himself hated it, and Trump liked the straight-from-central-casting lean physique and wizened visage Mattis wore, but the two never got along. Mattis was accustomed to military order and a by-the-book way of doing things, while Trump clearly preferred a more chaotic management style. Mattis’ much-decorated combat experience in Vietnam and his advanced studies at the National Defense institute and his experience as commanding general of the Central Command of the North Atlantic Treaty organization had convinced him that strong alliances with the world’s leading democracies are vital to America’s national security, while Trump’s gut instincts told him that our NATO allies were a bunch of deadbeats free-riding on global trade arrangements, and he actually said out loud that he knew far more about NATO than the four-star general and former commander of the NATO alliance ever did.
Mattis eventually resigned with an exquisitely worded letter when Trump dismissed his advice against a precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Syria, which pretty much everyone was urging against, and from which Trump later backtracked. By that time the lieutenant general of the army H.R. McMaster had resigned as national security advisor, which came after he’d taken over from lieutenant general Michael Flynn’ after his resignation and conviction on felony charges, and there had also been the resignation of former Marine general John Kelly, who had clashed with Trump as White House Chief of Staff  because of his efforts to impose some sort of discipline on the White House. Trump once bragged about all of the generals who answered to him in the White House, but one by one he grew annoyed by their military tendency to tell him things he didn’t want to hear.
The left doesn’t much like military people in the first place, especially those who volunteer for service in the Trump administration, but the more sensible and centrist sort of leftists did develop a begrudging respect for the likes of Mattis and McMaster and Kelly, if not Flynn, who no longer has any friends on any side as he holds out hope for a presidential pardon. They were considered the adults in the room, the serious sort of educated and experienced men who had spent their careers contemplating the complex issues of national security, and even the most military-hating sorts of liberals hoped that they’d somehow rein in the gut instincts of Trump, which don’t seem to anyone at all well-informed.
The left still resents the exquisitely worded way all of them have gone about lambasting Trump’s policies and managerial style, without mentioning any names, but they don’t understand that the generals still feel constrained they rigid rules of military protocol they had lived their lives by. Nor does the left understand the time-tested wisdom of those rules. Trump is still the Commander in Chief, as much as that might drive the left and the generals and any seasonable person crazy, so we should all be grateful than even without mentioning any names and despite the exquisitely worded prose Mattis is plainly warning the country he long served about Trump’s gut craziness.
Based on Mattis’ carefully worded resignation letter and previous few public statements and the excerpts from his forthcoming book, he seems to believe that Trump’s penchant for fighting “twitter” feuds and trade wars and demands of protection money from such longtime and steadfast allies as Canada and the United Kingdom and Germany and Denmark and Japan and South Korea are not a good. Nor does Mattis seem to like the way Trump has “fallen in love” with the North Korean dictator and has nothing bad to say about the Russian dictator, and otherwise tends to prefer authoritarian regimes to democratic governments, and has little regard for the hard-earned international rules that have mostly brought us and the most of the rest of the rest of the world relative peace and prosperity..
This seems sound advice to us, although we lack Mattis’ educational credentials and hard-earned experience in war and peace, or Trump’s infallible gut instincts. None of the Democratic alternatives to Trump seem interested in repairing alliance or opposing adversaries, and none seem likely to solicit the carefully considered and exquisitely worded advice of the military’s best minds, but here’s hoping the center somehow holds.

— Bud Norman

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On the Lull Before Christmas

According to longstanding American political tradition the final days of a lame duck Congress and the last few days before Christmas are supposed to be a slow news cycle, but in the age of President Donald Trump’s newfangled conservatism such longstanding American traditions have been jettisoned. Thursday brought news that Trump’s defense secretary has resigned in apparent protest of Trump’s derided-by-almost-everyone decision to withdraw a small but effective force from Syria and Afghanistan, Trump and his remaining allies in the temporary Republican House majority are threatening to force government shutdown over Trump’s derided-by-almost-everyone insistence on a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border, and largely as a result the stock markets had yet another dreadful day instead of the traditional “Santa Claus rally.”
The resignation of Defense Secretary and former four-star Marine general James Mattis struck us as the most worrisome development of the day. Despite the “Mad Dog” nickname that Trump seemed to love, Mattis was well regarded by both the center-left and center-right consensus that had successfully guided through the Cold War and has done about as well as can reasonably be expected with the resulting and relatively low-level wars against Islamist terrorism, and his departure leaves him pretty much without any of those wise old hands.
Flynn resigned from his post in record-setting time after being charged with felony perjury charges and making admission to administration that he’d lied about his contacts with Russian officials, and he’s currently awaiting sentencing from a judge who has openly wondered in court why he’s not being charged with treason given all the credible accusations of undisclosed shady dealings with the Turkish and Russian governments, despite the special counsel investigation into the whole “Russia thing” pleading he should get no jail time because of his cooperation, which also doesn’t look good for Trump. He was replaced by McMaster, who didn’t last much longer, reportedly because Trump was annoyed three-star general’s know-it-all attitude during the daily briefings. The post is now held by John Bolton, a President George W. Bush holdover from the late and lamented Republican establishment who’s a bit more aggressive about American internationalism that even our Reagan-esque tastes would prefer, but he’s also advised against Trump’s Syrian withdrawal and might be on the way out.
The four-star chief of staff Kelly has also been pushed aside, reportedly in part because he didn’t get along with Trump’s favorite daughter and son-in-law, and he will temporarily be replaced on a moonlighting basis by acting Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney,  who will also be charged with deciding which agencies should be shut down in case of a partial government shutdown. Whatever advice Trump might be getting from the son-in-law in charge of everything from Middle East peace and the opioid crisis and re-inventing the federal government, and whatever  remains of the rest of his staff about domestic policy, the unpopular president has apparently committed to an unpopular partial government shutdown over Christmas to get a few billion in funding for his unpopular idea of a big beautiful wall along the entire Mexican border, and we don’t see that turning out well. In a few weeks the House of Representatives will install a significant Democratic majority with no political or ideological reason to fund Trump’s big beautiful border wall, much of the slight Republican majority in the Senate is already in revolt over Trump’s withdrawal from Syria and other foreign policy matters, political realities almost always prevail, and without any generals or wise old hands backing him up he seems in a weakened position.
The stock markets seem to agree, given their recent dour mood, and although Trump can plausibly partially blame that on the damned Federal Reserve Board chairman he did appoint the guy, and after what looks to be losing year on the exchanges, which can also be plausibly blamed on the yet-unwon trade wars Trump had declared on our erstwhile allies, but for now Trump  can no longer brag about delivering the best economy ever. No one’s currently predicting a recession, and we’re certainly hoping for one, but the best that all establishment forecasters are predicting is the same sort of slow but steady economic growth that has been the bipartisan norm over the decades. Perhaps Trump will eventually prove smarter than all those multi-starred  generals and economists and the newly-elected Democrats in the House of Representatives and all of us old-fashioned Republicans, as well as  the Syrian and Russian and Iranian dictators, but for now only the true believers who still shot up at the ongoing rallies  in those “Make America Great Again” ball caps seem to be betting on it.

— Bud Norman

Sayonara, Syria

President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced his intention to withdraw all American forces from Syria, which probably surprised the vast number of Americans who were previously unaware that America had had any forces fighting in Syria. The news apparently also surprised all of our allies in the conflict, as well as Trump’s usually reliable Republican congressional allies and his own administration’s top officials and everyone at the Pentagon, most of whom seemed none too pleased.
Trump has long maintained he was only in Syria to fight the Islamic State, a particularly nasty bunch of Islamist terrorists known for beheadings and crucifixions and other nasty methods of imposing a particularly severe theocratic vision on the people they’ve subjugated, and on Wednesday he declared victory and said that some 2,000 or American troops could thus come home for Christmas. The Islamic State has indeed been driven from almost all of the territory it had conquered during Syria’s horrifically bloody civil war, in some cases by our Kurdish and more or less democratic allies and those outstanding 2,000 or so Americans backing them up, in most cases by the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and his equally unsavory Russian and Iran allies, but there are still an estimated 30,000 Islamic State fighters hanging around, according to what top Trump administration officials were saying just before Wednesday, and the situation in Syria remains quite complicated.
Trump’s decision went against the advice of his defense secretary, James Mattis, a four-star Marine general whose advice Trump routinely rejects, as well as the Republican senate foreign relations committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who was left waiting outside the Oval Office after a scheduled meeting, and even such a sycophantic sort of Republican as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina went so far as to call it a “huge Obama-like mistake,” which is about as harsh an insult as a Republican can muster. We’re by no means experts on these complicated geopolitical matters, but so far as we can tell neither is Trump, and for now Trump’s Republican and Democratic critics both seem to have the better arguments.
Those 30,00 or so Islamic State fighters will surely boast of how they expelled the American crusaders, and thus recruit a few thousand more, unless the Syrian and Russian and Iranian dictatorships kill them all, but even that’s not an ideal outcome. There is no ideal outcome in such a convoluted portion of our complicated world, of course, but it’s hard to imagine a best-case scenario that involves American ceding its longstanding global leadership role in the most troublesome part of the world to those awful Syrian and Russian and Iranian dictatorships. The abandonment of our erstwhile more or less democratic allies, while Trump also feuds with pretty much all of our most longstanding and undeniably democratic allies, also offends our traditionally Republican sensibilities. The Democrats who apologized for President Barack Obama’s premature abandonment of our allies in Iraq’s more or less democratic government, which arguably led to the Syrian civil war, can at least note Obama was persuaded by his wiser advisors to main the presence in the region that began the defeat of the Islamic State and that he was never the isolationist that Trump wants to be.
Back during the campaign Trump bragged that he knew more about the Islamic State than any of the military’s generals did, and that his main foreign policy advisor would be himself because “I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things,” and he’s claimed to know more about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that the four-star Marine general he appointed as defense secretary, and he’s more recently bragged that his gut tells him more than any man’s brain can, so Secretary Mattis and Senators Corker and Graham can’t say they weren’t warned about how he makes decisions. There’s some cynical speculation by some of the more snide commentators that Trump made the announcement about the boys and girls coming home for Christmas to detract attention from the stock markets’ bad year and the latest developments in the “Russia thing” and other bad domestic news, which we heartily agree with, but he seems to have lost at least another news cycle.

— Bud Norman

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