After three months of fumbling, President Trump’s ship of state finally seems to be gaining its sea legs. Depending on where you sit, that’s either scary or great news.
He ran as an American Firster, criticizing Barack Obama for his overseas entanglements. But that has changed following his quick strike on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons (63 hours between the two attacks), and the first-ever dropping of the biggest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal on the Islamic State in Afghanistan six days later. Dark threats about dealing with North Korea’s nuclear-weapons ambitions are only adding to the sense that Trump’s White House has turned a geo-strategic corner. He seems to have morphed, at least temporarily, into George W. Bush.
The White House was delighted last week by the rave reviews it received following the Navy-launched Tomahawk cruise-missile strike on a Syrian air base, Trump’s personal dealings with the Chinese leader, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tough stance during his visit to Russia and meeting with President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. ambassador to the U,N., former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, has gotten good grades for her deft handling of the Syrian chemical-weapons attack in New York.
Trump blustered into the White House as an outsider who disparaged Washington’s norms and protocol. He got off on the wrong foot as scandals ranging from his aides’ dealings with Russia to snafus like press secretary Sean Spicer’s declaration April 11 that Adolf Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” have sucked the precious oxygen every new administration needs to show it knows what it’s doing.
There is an obligation that comes with the label “superpower.” Capitalism and free trade require alliances, and the military helps glue them together. That fact tends to lead many Americans to see military action as a good thing, at least initially (Trump got a modest bump in the polls following the Syrian strike).
But there are nations—Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria (what’s left of it) among them—who care little for democracy. The U.S. approach to such challenging nations has always been a combination of carrots and sticks. Bush preferred sticks; Obama preferred carrots. Trump, in his eagerness to strike deals to solve problems, relishes using carrots as sticks.
“You want to make a great deal?” he asked Chinese President Xi Jinping during their recent Florida confab. “Solve the problem in North Korea.” In an interview last week with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said the U.S. would tolerate a larger trade deficit with China if Beijing would get its North Korean ally to behave.
Washington’s foreign-policy establishment is hailing Trump’s new-found maturity, now that he’s seeing the world its way (the resemblance between what happens in the capital and what happened in junior high can be disquieting). In part, that’s because much of what Trump has touched on around the globe—ranging from his initially kinder and gentler approach to Russia, to his recently-retracted claim on NATO’s obsolescence—has evaporated as the candidate’s promises meet White House reality.
He told the Journal that after talking with Xi about the challenges Beijing faces reining in Pyongyang, he had to recalibrate U.S. policy. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump said, echoing what he said in February about the difficulty of replacing Obamacare. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea,” Trump added. “But it’s not what you would think.” While a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances is vital to a politician, in these cases it’s not the circumstances—but merely Trump’s mind—that has changed. And on-the-job training in a commander-in-chief is disconcerting.
His new approach—no one knows how long it will last—is muscular. That gives it the imprimatur of most Republicans and many Democrats in the national-security arena. They see the U.S. as the one “indispensable nation,” as then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously described it nearly 20 years ago.
The key partnership is between Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, a pair of hawkish combat veterans with more than 75 years in uniform between them. They’re also “ground-pounders”—Mattis did 43 years in the Marines, and McMaster is in his 33rd year on Army active duty—immune to the nostrums of air-power advocates (the fact that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford, is also a Marine gives the pair added clout).
Mattis, a monkish, wonkish retired Marine four-star general, oversaw the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during his final years in uniform as chief of the U.S. Central Command. But his unstable wingman for the first three weeks of the Trump administration was National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, a well-respected military-intelligence Army officer who, according to colleagues, seemed to go off the rails after being eased out of his final Pentagon post as the three-star head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. Trump jettisoned Flynn Feb. 14 after Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about pre-inauguration conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to Washington.
Trump replaced Flynn with McMaster, 12 years Mattis’ junior. McMaster has won quiet praise inside the Pentagon (and from nervous GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill) for bringing rigor to the National Security Council. That’s the internal White House agency that coordinates conflicting foreign and military policies, and brokers debates between the Defense and State departments. His stock rose further after presidential pal and conservative firebrand Steve Bannon lost his principal’s seat at the NSC earlier this month, and word leaked that the deputy national security adviser, ex-Fox News host K.T. McFarland, will soon be packing her bags to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Singapore.
Mattis and McMaster make an interesting pair. As chief of Centcom in 2011, Mattis wanted to launch a limited attack inside Iran to punish it for supplying Iraqi insurgents with deadly projectiles believed to have killed nearly 200 U.S. troops. President Obama said no.
McMaster raised eyebrows across Washington in his 1997 book about the failure of the Joint Chiefs to stand up to President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam war as it became clear the U.S. strategy would not lead to victory. It was called Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.
It remains a good book; the fact that it was written by a young Army major—one who still in uniform 20 years later—is both startling and gratifying. You have to wonder if his new boss has read McMaster’s indictment of a president getting too involved in waging war. Then again, perhaps that is what is needed with old soldiers crafting U.S. military strategy.
The outstanding question is whether the return of such national-security gravitas should be hailed. Vietnam was brought to us by the “best and the brightest” strategists America had to offer. The last time the nation relied on such experts, we launched what we were assured would be short-term wars (“Six months, tops,” Pentagon officials were whispering before the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq).
As of Monday, April 17, 2017, we have been in Afghanistan for 5,761 days, and in Iraq (with limited time off for good behavior) for 5,142. Neither is markedly better—in some ways, they’re worse—for our presence, our money and our blood.
That’s why Trump’s return to what diplomats call the status quo ante—the way it was before—may not represent progress.