The ‘adults’ in Trump’s room
The most troubling question in Washington is not what US President Donald Trump’s “adults” believe but why most of them come from the military.
There have never been so many military leaders at the top levels of the United States’ foreign policy apparatus: Defence Secretary James Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. This is the first time since George Marshall was appointed in 1950 that a former military leader serves in that post.
Observers expressed fear that the military might be trying to take over the country but there is scant evidence that these former generals are pushing their influence.
The longer-term problem is the lack of civilian influence on foreign policy when the other “adult” — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — has failed to fill many State Department jobs and is paring down the foreign service by supporting budget cuts and reorganising positions out of existence, which has left leading diplomats shocked and demoralised.
He seems to be fulfilling the populist call made by Stephen Bannon, the president’s favourite ideologue, for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
The more immediate problem may be that we cannot count on “the cabinet to stop a Trump-ordered nuclear strike.” This concern was articulated in no uncertain words in Politico by William Perry, who served as secretary of defence for President Bill Clinton.
Having lived through the Cuban missile crisis Perry knows what he is talking about. To hear him say that Trump does not understand the North Koreans and does not understand what his rhetoric is doing is chilling, indeed. Mattis and Tillerson, he said, are a “stabilising influence” but, with this president, Perry is “not really comfortable with anybody.”
An explanation of the meaning of the word “adult” in Washington is necessary. Traditionally, “the grown-ups in the room” implied a judgment about individuals’ character or behaviour; some were deemed to be mature, others juvenile. Journalists would apply the expression to politicians or senior civil servants who were “pragmatists” or “moderates.” In other words, it referred to people who did not stray too far from the political centre, however that was defined at the moment. Figures like Bernie Sanders or Ralph Nader, for example, never qualified. Their views disqualified them, not their character.
Since the arrival of Trump at the White House, the expression has far more frequently been used to refer to behaviour and character than views on policy. The three aforementioned people and, to a lesser degree Tillerson, are “adults,” whereas the head of state is emotionally immature, lying, taunting, vengeance-seeking and boastful. Trump threatens to make messes that his advisers have to clean up. They have sent occasional public signals that they are seeking to avoid Trump from veering off course. When they fail, they distance themselves from his tirades.
Before Trump’s first trip to Europe, Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster joined together to put a reaffirmation of Article V of the NATO treaty committing the United States to the collective defence of Europe into a draft of his speech. Trump cut the words from the draft but, after the predictable uproar, he turned around and made the commitment.
Trump’s often threatening behaviour has understandably raised fears he might do something impulsive, such as launch a nuclear attack, which has heightened the perception of the “adults” as guardians.
Of the three men with a military background, Mattis has the easier role because he is across the Potomac River running the US government’s biggest department and because he has strong support on Capitol Hill, where Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, let it be known that he would protect the defence secretary. Mattis has not been hesitant to contradict the president when he disagrees, such as on the use of torture.
The other two must deal with Trump day-in, day-out and there are endless acrimonious disputes in a White House where the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was set up to oversee foreign policy issues from the Middle East to China.
What is the outlook of the three key military “adults” on foreign issues? On China and North Korea we do not really know. They favour a tougher approach to Iran but will they encourage the president to withdraw from the nuclear agreement former President Barack Obama negotiated with Tehran?
As officers who fought in the field in United States’ post-9/11 conflicts and unlike former senior officials with military backgrounds such as Colin Powell or Brent Scowcroft, they seem less disposed to advocate the United States entering new wars and more inclined to find ways to win wars the United States is already engaged in. In other words, they desire a successful outcome in Iraq, Afghanistan and against the Islamic State.
The longer-term question is how the lack of civilian influence will affect foreign policy. It is worth remembering that it was civilian leaders, not least George W. Bush, who launched major US military adventures abroad, not military men. The same holds true in London, where Tony Blair’s enthusiastic backing of the United States in Iraq in 2003 was not shared by the military.
The behaviour of Tillerson at the State Department means, in the medium term, the destruction of a unique foreign policy team of experts. What is clear is that the military has come to dominate American foreign policy because it has the money and wherewithal to do what the State Department cannot. The military is stepping into the breach.
When a leading military condemns racist hatred in its institution while the president fans the flames of hatred in domestic politics, the result is unsettling. It is a strange time when the United States begins to remind the outside world of Thailand and Egypt, countries in which the military has felt an obligation to step in for the good of the country.
What the American electorate thinks of all this is difficult to tell but military figures are, for better or worse, the “adults” in the room.