The president has handed huge power to a group of military officers, and they’re out to solve two big problems: Obama’s policies, and their boss.
By JAMES KITFIELD/August 2017
By the end of last week, even President Donald Trump had apparently had enough of the self-inflicted chaos swirling around his White House. And the person he turned to fix it—instinctively, it seems—was a retired Marine Corps general.
John Kelly, out of uniform for just a year after retiring as head of U.S. Southern Command, has been running the Department of Homeland Security since January. He’s a straight-talking and sometimes blunt man whose accent suggests his working-class Boston roots, and he enjoys a salty joke. Sources say Trump was already in the habit of asking him for advice on how to make the White House run more smoothly.
Not since the early days of the Ford administration has a general served as White House chief of staff—and arguably not since the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a retired general, have senior military officers wielded such influence at the top levels of an administration. Kelly forms a nexus of power with three other generals: Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a retired Marine general; Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Marine general; and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, still a uniformed lieutenant general in the Army — and a replacement for retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, who was fired after less than a month in the job.
As the administration first took shape, the heavy military makeup of the administration’s national security and foreign affairs team — of its senior leadership, only Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a civilian — raised serious questions about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. These concerns were exacerbated in February when Trump bragged his budget contained “one of the largest defense-spending increases in history,” and later when he handed a series of important new wartime authorities to the Pentagon, while proposing to slash the State Department budget by 30 percent.
But during the first seven months of his administration, the generals have emerged as a fairly coherent bloc of foreign-policy thinkers whose views have put at least the most extreme fears of critics to rest. Through both experience and military education, the generals are pragmatic realists and internationalists, committed to the United States’ leadership role in the world. Internally, they’ve been a strong counterweight to the nationalist/populist faction in the White House led by chief strategist Steve Bannon, which was behind controversial Trump policies like the initial immigration ban, the rejection of the Paris Climate Change Accords, and potential steel tariffs that could yet spark a global trade war.
Taken as a group, Trump’s generals have tended to see their mission as twofold: The first job is to correct what senior military officers see as the mistakes of the Obama administration, a hesitancy to use force or commit troops that many allies perceived as a retreat from traditional U.S. commitments in the world.
The second job—and the far riskier one—is to mitigate the damage caused by their boss.
An undisciplined and shoot-from-the-lip president, Trump has shown a proclivity for rattling allies with unexpected tweets and bullying phone calls. When he trumpets his “America first” foreign policy, it’s widely interpreted by allies as a fig leaf for isolationism and protectionism. The generals, with Tillerson as something of a junior partner—nicknamed the “axis of adults” by a number of establishment Republicans and conservative commentators—have become the reassurers-in-chief to the outside world. They’ve already persuaded Trump to back away from some of his most controversial foreign policy positions, including labeling NATO “obsolete,” moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, rescinding the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, and reconsidering the venerable “One China” policy.
Trump pointing at generals Left: Trump with Mattis before their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, November 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. Center: Trump jokes with retired Gen. Michael Flynn as they speak at a rally at Grand Junction Regional Airport on October 18, 2016 in Grand Junction Colorado. Right:Trump and Kelly at Trump International Golf Club in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. | Getty
And they’ve won some internal fights. McMaster, in particular, appears to be locked in battle with the nationalist faction: He has recently cleared out a number of senior national-security staffers associated with his predecessor Mike Flynn or seen as allied to Bannon; he’s fired Rich Higgins, the strategic-planning director who wrote a conspiracy-laced memo, as well as Intelligence Directorate head Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Bannon ally who earlier this year secretly shared intelligence with Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Devin Nunes. For his troubles, McMaster is now under attack by Bannon’s former website, Breitbart, which is covering his “purge” with blazing headlines—though he appears to be enjoying some protection from the arrival of Kelly. Which suggests that the more interesting internal fight may be the one Kelly is just beginning, trying to both corral a deeply disjointed White House staff and temper Trump’s erratic day-to-day impulses.
What’s at stake, in the minds of the generals, is something considerably larger than winning the internal Game of Thrones. In the back of his airplane returning from a recent trip to Asia, General Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me that that the international order they were striving to protect was more volatile and unpredictable today than at any moment since World War II. “Today, we’re confronting simultaneous challenges posed by China, North Korea, Russia and Iran, as well as a natural disaster in Sri Lanka,” he said, referring to flooding that had recently displaced hundreds of thousands of people. “So, as I prepare for posture hearings in Congress, that’s a reminder that this is the world as it is, not the world as we might want it to be.”
The world as it is also includes a global Islamist insurgency, U.S. combat operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and growing instability and state failure around the world, from Yemen to South Sudan to Venezuela. The defense of what author Robert Kagan calls “The World America Made” now depends on the success of Trump’s generals in the twin objectives of shaping a more muscular national security posture, and limiting the international blowback from an “America First” foreign policy of naked nationalism and mercantilism —even as their own commander-in-chief projects that face to the world.
Why generals at all? Donald Trump, a flamboyant billionaire and reality-TV star who received multiple deferments from serving in Vietnam, might initially seem an unlikely boss for a clique of buttoned down military officers. But from his days at the New York Military Academy, Trump seems to have retained an innate respect for the uniform, and above all he likes tough guys. All of his top generals distinguished themselves in multiple combat tours, and Trump especially likes reminding Mattis of a former nickname he would just as soon retire, “Mad Dog.”
For their part, the generals were qualified to step into a Trump administration in a way that few other national-security experts were: Experienced and worldly without being partisan or political, and thus not part of the “Washington swamp” that candidate Trump constantly promised to drain. By training, they innately respect the position of the commander-in-chief and the institution of the presidency, regardless of who holds it. And unlike many of the Republican defense and foreign policy experts in the Republican establishment, they hadn’t put their names on “Never Trump” proclamations during the campaign.
Trump’s closest relationship was with none of his current generals, but with Flynn, a decorated combat veteran who served as the former intelligence chief for Joint Special Operations Command. The brash businessman and the maverick soldier had something in common: Both felt that America had lost the knack of “winning,” either in international trade or in the global fight against Islamist extremists. The two bonded on the campaign trail, and Flynn infamously spoke at the Republican National Convention, leading the crowd in chants of “Lock Her Up” in reference to Hillary Clinton. Flynn was eventually fired as Trump’s national security adviser for his entanglement with Russia, and is now a target of the FBI’s investigation—and his fall from grace presents a cautionary tale of the dangers military officers can face in entering the unfamiliar terrain of hyperpartisan politics, and the whirlpool of controversies constantly swirling around Trump.
Top left: Iraqi General Mohammed Latif, head of the Fallujah Brigade, stands near US Marines General James Mattis during a joint press conference on May 20 at the Fallujah Liaison Team Building, west of Baghdad in May 2004. Top right: Col H. R. McMaster, Commander of the 3rd ACR readies to lead members of the S-3 Scout Platoon of Remmington Troop while conducting a reconnaissance mission South of Baghdad in 2005. Bottom left: Gen. John F. Kelly (right) in Ninewa, Iraq, Dec. 5, 2008. Bottom right: Gen. Flynn in Farah Province, Afghanistan, in 2010. | Getty
Flynn’s replacement was a surprising choice for an ahistorical president who puts a premium on obsequiousness and loyalty in his subordinates: McMaster is a warrior-scholar who distinguished himself in combat, but also wrote a book called “Dereliction of Duty,” a critique of generals who didn’t speak honestly enough to their civilian bosses during the Vietnam War. He had made a career out of independent thought and speaking truth to power.
Mattis, similarly, has a scholarly reputation: a noted intellectual and keen student of history, Mattis sprinkles his conversations with references to Thucydides and the Peloponnesian war, Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to prepare the nation for the end of slavery, and the enduring lessons of the post-World War II Marshall Plan, fashioned by his predecessor George C. Marshall, the last retired general to serve as defense secretary. (Kelly reportedly caught the eye of Team Trump for reasons a little closer to the Trump campaign themes: In testimony, he gave before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015, he argued that a porous southern border was a potentially “existential” national security threat.)
Given that the Marine Corps is the smallest of the four major armed services, the Marines that rise to the level of general form an especially tight-knit clique. Kelly and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford served under Mattis multiple times in combat in Iraq, close aides say, and the three talk frequently and meet often at national security meetings and retirement ceremonies. It was General Dunford who personally delivered the heartbreaking news to Kelly that his son, 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011.
As a group, Trump’s generals are united by bonds of friendship, common experience and wartime sacrifice. By the nature of their military education—and the U.S. military’s constant overseas deployments of the past two decades—they’re also well steeped in international relations, and deeply committed to the global alliance structure that the U.S. military built and maintained after World War II. Their wartime experiences have also made them sensitive to looming threats, whether from Islamist extremists, a hegemonic Iran, and especially a revanchist Russia that has targeted Western democracies as its enemies.
They also have one more thing in common: Serious worries about the Obama Doctrine. Though in the broad sense, the generals are clearly embracing continuity in America’s relationship to the world, almost to a man they had taken positions in public opposition to aspects of Obama’s second-term foreign policy.
Mattis had been eased out as head of U.S. Central Command because of his harsh rhetoric about Iran at a time when the administration was negotiating an agreement to curtail Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. As head of U.S. Southern Command, Kelly got sideways with the Obama White House for calling attention to the threats posed by a porous southern border. McMaster was publicly critical of Obama’s precooked deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, thought Obama was severely underestimating the threat of Islamic extremism in the Middle East. He believed he was let go early as director of the Defense Intelligence Agencyfor pushing back on the notion that the threat from Islamist extremism had largely passed with the death of Osama bin Laden.
Senior uniformed leaders privately blame Obama’s decision to prematurely pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011 for the rise of the Islamic State there, and they felt overly constrained by the White House’s extreme sensitivity to “boots on the ground” in the anti-ISIS campaign. Troop levels have thus been increased in Iraq and Syria under Trump, and the anti-ISIS campaign intensified. The request for additional authorities itself arose out of a widespread belief that Obama’s White House micromanaged military operations by insisting that military commanders constantly ask, “Mother, may I?”
The influence of their beliefs can be seen in Trump’s sometimes arbitrary-seeming foreign policy decisions. In the Obama administration’s eagerness to reach a deal curtailing Iran’s nuclear program, Mattis in particular felt that too little was done to reassure traditional Sunni Arab allies, and push back against Tehran’s support of terrorist proxies throughout the region. Trump thus traveled to Saudi Arabia earlier this year in one of his initial overseas trips, where he rallied the Sunni Arab states and announced a major weapons sale to Riyadh. After recently certifying that Iran was in compliance with the nuclear accord, the Trump administration nevertheless slapped new sanctions on Tehran for its support for terrorists and its meddling throughout the Middle East.
In a recent interview, Mattis referred to this belief that Obama failed to finish the job of destroying Al Qaeda and its offshoots. “I think under the Obama administration, there was a more accelerated campaign against terrorists than perhaps the administration was willing to sustain,” Mattis said in an interview with The Islander, the newspaper of the Mercer Island High School. As for Tehran, Mattis said, “Iran is certainly the most destabilizing influence in the Middle East.”
U.S. military leaders like McMaster have also publicly faulted Obama for setting an artificial deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, and for setting too steep of a glide path for those withdrawals. The Pentagon and McMaster thus support the deployment of roughly 4,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to halt recent Taliban gains—a policy reportedly opposed by Bannon and his allies in the White House. Trump has yet to weigh in decisively on either side.
Top left: Gen. John Kelley, U.S. Command Sgt. Maj. Will Zaiser, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at a change of command ceremony in Doral, Florida, in January 2016. Top right: Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Command Sgt. Maj. John W. Troxell, Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meet with deployed service members at bases across Iraq in December 2016. Bottom left: Mattis visiting with a Marine at Camp Taqaddum’s Shock and Surgical Trauma Platoon facility in Iraq. Bottom right: Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly pay respects at the funeral of Pvt. Harry K. Tye at Arlington National Cemetery on March 28, 2017. | Getty
“We saw with the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, and the subsequent fall of Mosul, what can happen when you withdraw before making your military gains permanent,” McMaster said at a recent conference hosted by the Center for a New American Security.
Finally, U.S. military leaders almost uniformly believed it was a mistake for President Obama to draw a rhetorical red line against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, and then fail to enforce it with military action when Assad gassed scores of civilians in 2013 with sarin nerve agent. When Assad crossed that line again last April, the Trump national security team responded with what looked like choreographed diplomacy backed by military muscle. Within days Secretary of Defense Mattis directed a missile strike against the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians, even as Trump held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago about putting increased pressure on North Korea over planned nuclear tests. The missile attack on the murderous Assad regime was applauded by Democrats and Republicans alike. Having generals running U.S. foreign policy still worried plenty of liberals, but more hawkish mainstream commentators began talking of Trump’s generals and Tillerson as a stabilizing force that had finally brought much-needed discipline and strategic coherence to the administration’s national security and foreign policies.
“The same President Trump who can be gruff and erratic in public tweets is a commander-in-chief who is deferential and attentive when he talks to a star-studded cast of his closest military advisers,” national security reporter Rowan Scarborough wrote at the time in the Washington Times. Chimed in Eric Fehrnstrom, a former Mitt Romney aide, in the Boston Globe: “Thank God for the generals. …President Trump’s senior military appointees are taking a leading role and acting as a restraining influence.”
Nowhere is the influence of Trump’s “axis of adults” felt more acutely than overseas, where worried allies look for reassurance that “America first” does not mean a U.S. retreat. With the administration approaching the six-month mark in June, for instance, Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson appeared together at a news conference for the very first time—not in the US, but in Australia. The briefing at the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) was a chance for a close ally to view Team Trump’s new power dynamic up close, and for American participants and observers to judge how the Trump administration’s “America first” foreign policy was playing overseas.
As partnerships go, the U.S.-Australian alliance is as rock solid as they come – but there are no more easy alliances for the United States. After Mattis, Tillerson and their Australian counterparts gave prepared remarks extolling their joint commitment to the “rules-based international order”—shorthand for a U.S.-backed system predicated on free trade and freedom from intimidation—that uneasiness was driven home by questions from the assembled press. Tillerson, who had made few public appearances, took a long, tough question from an American reporter about how the Trump administration has “tossed aside” free trade and climate change pacts, risking being seen as “America the Selfish,” or “America the Boorish.” “Do the president’s words no longer matter in international relations?” the reporter asked. By the end of the harangue Tillerson’s right hand was wagging in tight circles in an unmistakable gesture of wrap it up already.
“Are you sure you don’t have more?” Tillerson asked the reporter sarcastically, before launching into a defense of presidential policies and pronouncements that would be difficult for even the most seasoned diplomat to defend. Mattis took a stab and was equally unpersuasive. For her part, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop offered a defense of her guests that has become increasingly common for bewildered allies, one that attempts to sidestep the president’s preferred bully pulpit: We will react to what the administration does, and not what the president Tweets. “I understand Twitter has a maximum of 140 characters,” she said. “So we will deal with the president, with his cabinet, and with this administration on what they do, what they achieve, and what their strategies are.”
Just days earlier in Singapore I had watched as Mattis was similarly cornered at the Shangri-La Dialogue. During a speech to Asian leaders and national security experts, he gave a rousing defense of traditional U.S. leadership, referring to America’s “enduring commitment” to Asian-Pacific allies based on “strategic interests and on the shared values of free peoples and free markets.” He promised that the United States would continue to defend “the rules-based international order” constructed by the United States out of the wreckage of World War II.
The cognitive dissonance of the Trump administration’s messaging was just as confusing to the political leaders and security experts in Singapore as it was to the press scrum in Australia. In the question-and-answer session after Mattis’ speech, a delegate from Singapore wondered why the United States wasn’t more worried that China was aggressively filling the trade vacuum left by its rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. An Australian delegate questioned whether the administration’s rejection of TPP and the Paris Climate Accord, and its bruising treatment of NATO, meant that Trump really wanted to deconstruct the rules-based international order. A Japanese parliamentarian wondered whether her nation’s security alliance with the United States was still based on common values like free trade, environmental protection and human rights.
Mattis, typically, tried to place the current moment into a historic context, pointing out that there has long been a strain of isolationism in the American body politic, and a reluctance to serve as the world’s policeman. But after witnessing the carnage of tens of millions of people in World War II, Mattis noted, the “Greatest Generation” recognized the danger of countries once again retreating back inside their own borders—implying, without saying outright, that it would prevail over Trumpian “us first” nationalism. “Even for all the frustrations that are felt in America right now and the sense that at times we carry an inordinate burden, that sense of engagement with the world is still deeply rooted in the American psyche,” said Mattis. And then, and not for the last time, he paraphrased Britain’s World War II-era leader and statesman Winston Churchill to explain Washington’s wavering leadership. “Bear with us,” he told the Shangri-La Dialogue audience. “Once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”
Afterward, on his aircraft flying home from Asia, Dunford told me that the president’s tweets never came up in the private meetings he and Mattis held with allied leaders. “I know there’s been noise about the United States supposedly walking away from our Asian allies. That narrative is real and it’s out there in the media,” he said. “But when you look at the facts, we have a pretty compelling story to tell. We are devoting 60 percent of our joint forces to U.S. Pacific Command, and we’ve overseen a significant increase in the volume of multilateral military exercises in Asia. We’ve deployed the newest and most capable weapons in the U.S. arsenal to the Pacific. So we’re matching our actions to the message that the United States remains committed to the Asia-Pacific.”
The message was meant as reassurance, and from my discussions with nervous Asian allies in Singapore extremely welcome. And yet everyone understands who ultimately calls the shots in the American system. Recently, Trump had gotten into a spat with the new leader of South Korea over who should pay for the deployment of a U.S. antimissile system to that treaty ally, which faces an existential threat from North Korea. Meanwhile, some of Trump’s advisers were pushing a new tariff on steel imports that could spark a global trade war. That reminded me of something else that Mattis had said during the question-and-answer session at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
“As for the rules-based order, obviously we have a new president in Washington, D.C. We’re all aware of that,” Mattis said. “And there are going to be fresh approaches taken.”
Since it emerged, the flaw in the “axis of adults” narrative is the assumption that Donald Trump himself is willing and able to fundamentally change. If generals like McMaster, Mattis, Dunford and Kelly and the other “adults” among his close advisers could just establish a disciplined decision-making process, the thinking goes, then surely the best arguments will win most of the time.
In reality, despite McMaster’s best efforts to instill a more orderly NSC process, knowledgeable sources say decision-making in the Trump White House still remains a much more fluid and informal affair, with competing factions frequently at odds, decisions discussed by Trump in ad hoc klatches over dinner or lunch, and freelance players like Bannon and son-in-law and top advisor Jared Kushner often circumventing the formal chain-of-authority by being the last person in the room to whisper into Trump’s ear.
The recent drama surrounding the firing or resignation of White House spokesman Sean Spicer and chief of Staff Reince Preibus suggests that John Kelly will face stiff odds in trying to wring order out of the chaos emanating from the Oval Office. His success in getting rid of 11-days-and-your-fired communications director Anthony Scaramucci, and assurances that he will be given authority to act as the gatekeeper to the Oval Office, were a start. In the end, however, the man inside the office will dictate the administration’s management style.
“Donald Trump learned about political infighting on ‘The Apprentice,’ where his management technique was to provoke fights between the different candidates and teams, and then decide who prevails by saying ‘You’re fired!’” Robert Bear, a former Middle East case officer for the CIA, told me. “I don’t see him changing that style in the White House. When was the last time you saw a 70-year-old man change for the better?”
The longer the disorder continues, the bigger the risk to the generals trying to keep the ship steady. The U.S. military remains by far the most respected institution in America, and current and former generals some of the most respected individuals in society, precisely because of a strict nonpartisan tradition and ability to stay above the political scrum. When the administration’s travel ban targeting people from seven Muslim-majority countries was initially unveiled by Steve Bannon and company with little consultation with Cabinet officials, for instance, then-DHS Director Kelly dutifully appeared before the press to insist he was in the loop in formulating the travel ban, when clearly, he was not.
“I think General Kelly took a hit for his commander-in-chief that day, but you can only do that once. The second time, you lose credibility,” former Secretary of Defense William Cohen said in an interview. “The larger point is, whether it’s Kelly, Mattis or McMaster, you can spend a lifetime building credibility, and loose it overnight.”
From top left to bottom left, clockwise: Mattis, McMaster, Dunford (with Jared Kushner, left) and Kelly. | Getty
McMaster edged dangerously close to that line in defending Trump’s inexplicable meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office the day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, in part because of the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. When news quickly broke in the Washington Post that Trump had shared highly classified, “code word” intelligence with the Russians, Trump sent McMaster out to defend the action to the press. As a clearly uncomfortable McMaster dutifully walked out to the White House lawn to issue a brief statement calling the story “false,” he unexpectedly ran into a gaggle of reporters in the West Wing.
“This is the last place in the world I wanted to be,” McMaster confessed, and no one had reason to doubt it. The next morning Trump essentially undercut McMaster’s defense that the story was false by insisting in a Tweet that he had every right to share highly classified intelligence with the Russians.
Retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl is a counterinsurgency expert and former president of the Center for a New American Security, and he has known McMaster for years. “I believe H.R. McMaster was given a direct order by Trump to go out and try and defend the indefensible, and his doing so is OK with me because I truly believe H.R. may one day be the person who saves the planet when the proverbial crap hits the fan,” Nagl said in an interview, noting that the incident was nevertheless a blow to McMaster’s hard-won reputation for honesty.
As for Mattis, who has had his own run-ins with the White House over personnel choices and other issues, knowledgeable sources say he is also increasingly frustrated. Mattis was reportedly “appalled” and surprised by the Trump tweet barring transgender persons from serving in uniform, and he continues to receive unsolicited suggestions from the White House. Recently, Steve Bannon tried to get Mattis to consider an idea hatched by the founder of Blackwater Worldwide to install an “American viceroy” in Afghanistan who would run the war through “private military units,” according to a report in the New York Times; Mattis “listened politely,” the story said, but declined to include the idea in his review of Afghanistan policy.
In June, McMaster was finally able to persuade President Trump to publicly reaffirm a U.S. commitment to NATO’s foundational Article V commitment, but not before his failure to do so at a NATO Summit the previous month badly rattled America’s closest democratic allies, even prompting Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel to publicly lament that “the times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over. …” POLITICO recently reported that McMaster is “increasingly a national security adviser out of sync with his mercurial president” on issues ranging from Russia, NATO, the Iran deal, and the Afghanistan strategy.
Before moving into his West Wing office, newly minted chief of staff John Kelly had seen his own relations with Congress grow increasingly testy. Those relationships will now be key to resurrecting Trump’s stalled agenda on Capitol Hill, which includes major tax reform and infrastructure initiatives. In late June, Kelly testified on Capitol Hill that he was “offended” by lawmakers who “often threaten me and my officers” for their stepped-up arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants. The criticism recalled Kelly’s earlier admonishment that Congress should pass new immigration laws if it didn’t like the way his department was enforcing the current ones, or else just “shut up.” Many lawmakers were not amused.
Meanwhile, the frequent disconnect between Trump’s controversial rhetoric and stances and the “axis of adults” involved in clean-up duty was evident in the ongoing crisis with Qatar, home to the major U.S. airbase involved in the anti-Islamic State campaign. Shortly after Trump visited Saudi Arabia in May—during which he bonded visibly with the Saudi royals and the other monarchs of the Persian Gulf—Riyadh and the other Gulf Cooperation Council members announced a blockade of Qatar over its alleged financing of terrorism. Trump publicly backed the Saudis, working at direct cross purposes with Tillerson, who was engaged in shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East trying to defuse the crisis.
“Tillerson’s shuttle diplomacy to try and solve the Qatar crisis was a reminder that, in terms of conflict management, there is no simple substitute for U.S. diplomacy, but the crisis erupted in large part because during his visit President Trump seemed to provoke Saudi Arabia to take a hard line with Qatar,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the United States, and currently head of the Munich Security Conference. Similarly, European allies were relieved that McMaster and Mattis finally convinced Trump to publicly embrace Article V, he said, but lasting damage was done by Trump’s unwillingness to do so during the NATO Summit.
“Trump’s hesitancy on Article V and earlier talk of NATO being ‘obsolete’ have left a lingering sense of uncertainty and unpredictability about the United States’ commitment to the alliance,” said Ischinger. “Trump’s generals keep telling us to look at what they are doing, and not what the president is saying, but the trans-Atlantic boat has been severely rocked and there is a lingering concern in Europe that more waves and surprises are likely to come.”
No matter how hard they try, Trump’s generals cannot fully mitigate the lasting damage of an “American first” foreign policy that is often interpreted overseas as much loud boasting backed up with a military stick. Even in normal times, the United States’ superpower military threatens to overshadow its soft-power diplomacy, despite the fact that generals stationed overseas are technically outranked by U.S. ambassadors. Trump’s clear preference for the company of generals and his frequent military tough talk, combined with his administration’s steady marginalization of the State Department, sends an even stronger signal, and one that many allies find alarming.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates used to highlight the dangers in that vast dichotomy in funding and influence between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom by noting that there are more people in military bands than in the entire Foreign Service—giving voice to the widespread unease among senior military leaders about being front and center in U.S. foreign policy. None of Trump’s generals have forgotten that’s exactly how they ended up isolated and stuck inside a broken Iraq, with little help from the State Department or a diplomatic corps that had been largely shut out of the decision-making surrounding the invasion.
While he conducts a yearlong review to rationalize deep cuts in the State Department budget, however, Tillerson has left whole management layers of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries vacant, and the seventh floor of Foggy Bottom where he works is said by insiders to resemble a “ghost town.” The vacancies nearly led the department to cancel the incoming class of Foreign Service officers, knowledgeable sources say, and there is a move by the White House to try and have management of refugee issues taken away from the soft power State Department and given to the hard power Department of Homeland Security.
Nicholas Burns is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and the former third-ranking official at the State Department. “There is a real fear in the diplomatic community that the goal of the Bannon faction in the White House is to fundamentally weaken the State Department,” he said in an interview. Proposed draconian cuts in the budgets of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the wholesale failure to fill vacancies in the leadership ranks, and efforts to strip the department of key functions, he said, have all severely undercut morale in the Foreign Service. “Mattis, McMaster and Tillerson are all very solid people, but there is not one senior Trump adviser with diplomatic experience, which is a terrible mistake,” Burns said.
Aware of the danger of an overly militarized foreign policy, Defense Secretary Mattis has forged a close relationship with Tillerson, walking over to Foggy Bottom from his home on the Navy Annex once a week for breakfast, and speaking by phone two to three times a day with Tillerson. As a commander, Mattis once testified that if Congress was going to cut the budget of the diplomatic corps, then he was going to need to buy more ammunition. Unless Tillerson can somehow reverse the slow-motion strangulation of his State Department, Mattis might want to adjust his ammo budget sooner rather than later.
The problem, in the end, is that even the most thoughtful generals tend to represent just one instrument in a strategic toolbox that draws its strength from the collective capabilities of the U.S. government. As the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Michele Flournoy is co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, and previously the No. 3 official in the Pentagon, and worries about the lack of a bigger-picture approach. “There is certainly a danger of the White House becoming too disengaged from operations that put American troops in harm’s way,” she says. “Only the president and the White House can develop ‘whole of government’ strategies, coordinate all the tools of U.S. power to include diplomacy, and provide the necessary oversight to achieve successful outcomes. Because whether it’s the war in Afghanistan or the anti-ISIS campaign, none of these issues can be solved on the battlefield alone.”
James Kitfield is senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He is a former senior correspondent for National Journal and has written about defense, national security and foreign policy issues from Washington, DC, for more than two decades.