Thursday, February 8, 2018

What is Wrong With Mattis/Trump Dynamics? Let Me Count The Ways

The WashPo put out a great piece last night that is getting a lot of attention, asking whether Mattis can "check an impulsive president and still retain his trust?"  Lots of great details into the dynamics within American civil-military relations as the US barrels towards another war or two.  And the piece absolutely drives me nuts.  There is so much wrong both about how the US is operating and how the press is depicting the bizarro world we are now in, so I decided to enumerate my problems with both the facts that are reported and how they are reported:

  1. "Trump's Favorite General" is title.  This keeps on reinforcing Mattis as a general, not as a Secretary of Defense.  Mattis retired a few years ago and is a retired general, yet he is still perceived as a military officer (and acts like one, as we shall see below).  This is not healthy for American civil-military relations because it ultimately tends to mean that there is only one civilian in the chain of command--Trump--and not two.  It also means that whenever Mattis does anything, he represents the US military and not the office responsible for managing the Defense Department.  I have repeatedly harped on this because, damnit, it is important.  But folks think it is ok because it could be worse--the tyranny of low expectations I have been discussing since December 2016.
  2. "Can Mattis check an impulsive president?"  It is really awful that we have to ask this question and hope for a yes answer.  In what other administration have we hoped that either the SecDef or the military checks the President?  This desire/expectation is undermining norms of civilian control of the military--it is not the job of the military to check the President.  So even before we get to the text of the piece, we are already hoping for the norms of civil-military relations to be undermined.  And norms are not easily re-built.  
  3. "In places such as Afghanistan and Somalia, he has been a force for stability, resisting the president’s instincts to withdraw."  Is the President's instincts wrong?  Nice assumption that continuing the forever wars is a good idea, but that probably should be contested just a smidge rather than assumed.
  4. "In Iran and North Korea, he has curbed Trump’s desire for a show of military strength."  This is where I start getting ambivalent, as Mattis was known as an Iran hawk, along with McMaster, when he was CENTCOM commander.  So, it is interesting that now he could be successful in advocating a war with Iran, he is not.  This is good news!  That North Korea part?  Oh, I am so worried.  And not just me.
  5. "For weeks, Mattis has been resisting requests from the White House to provide military options for Iran."  Um, good?  No.  First, yes, this is normal behavior for the military to slowroll when asked for options (so says the folks who used to ask for such options).  So, is Mattis being SecDef here or being senior military officer?  Hmmm.  Second, even if this is normal, it ain't good.  This is textbook "shirking" where the principal asks the agent for something, and the agent does the job slowly or selectively.  This is seen as problematic, not a good thing.  
  6. "Trump made clear he wanted ... a range of plans... 'Why can't we sink them?'"  Ok, I get why folks want Mattis to check Trump since Trump is such a simpleton.  He really does not get it that actions have consequences, probably because he has never paid much of a price for any of his actions.
  7. McMaster asked Mattis to comply with the president's request, and Mattis refused.  Um, insubordination anyone?  One thing to do things slowly, another to say no to the President.  A reminder this is not normal, and should not be acceptable.  Again, we root for Mattis in this because of how awful Trump is BUT we should not feel good about this at all.
  8.  "In his first year in the Penatgon, Mattis has been one of the least visible and most consequential members of Trump's foreign policy team."  Since the US might still be a democracy, this really is not a good thing to be celebrated.
  9. That Mattis has given Ambassadors more face-to-face time than Tillerson (heck, I have probably had more face-to-face time with Ambassadors) is not a good thing but a condemnation of the #worstsecstate
  10. The text then goes on to praise Mattis receives from retired Marine General Cartwright.  Oh, yeah, Marines complimenting Marines, what a surprise.  This follows a sentence referring to how the foreign policy establishment praises Mattis, but a retired Marine probably is not the best voice for the foreign policy establishment.  Oy.
  11.  Trump thinks Mattis is "doing a great job."  Woot!  But Mattis is being insubordinate, so what does that say about Trump's judgement?  Oh, we already knew that Trump has lousy judgement.
  12. I worried about the cult of personality around Mattis before he became SecDef and now he is getting standing ovations from everyone?  Um, not great.
  13. The story about how Mattis was likely blindsided by the Muslim ban is interesting, and I think I am glad that Mattis was surprised.  I would have wanted him to fight the ban since it was bad for the military and the country, but it looks like he was presnted with a fait accompli.
  14.  "Mattis’s top aides said they were struck by how much time he spent at the White House with the president during his first months in the job."  Are we supposed to be reassured by this?  SecDef or retired general as babysitter?  Sure, it works for Drezner's unending thread of Trump as toddler, but this is not what we should expect or desire.
  15. Mattis "has managed to escape Trump's wrath."  Yeah, this article does not make Trump look good.  
  16. Mattis has said “Loyalty really counts when there’s a hundred reasons not to be loyal.” Which explains his staying power--Trump wants loyalty above all else.  So, don't expect Mattis to resign if he loses a policy battle.  A war against North Korea might or might not be sufficiently problematic to lead to Mattis resigning.  I am now betting on "might not."
  17. "In meetings with the president, Mattis often worked to acknowledge “the emotional essence” of Trump’s arguments and to restate them in ways that were more palatable or in some cases consistent with international laws on armed conflict..."  Lovely.  He is helping calm the emotional toddler (again, see Dan's thread).  This is not reassuring.
  18. Another passage refers to Mattis being nicer to the State Department than Tillerson.  Which speaks much of Mattis and also says much (bad) about Tillerson. Mattis has long said that State should get more resources, so this is consistent.
  19. "Under Mattis, the military has gained greater autonomy on the battlefield than it has had in a decade."  Yes, folks were upset that Obama micro-managed the military, but you know who else wanted the military to be constrained?  The senior officers of the military.  Stanley McChrystal's courageous restraint stuff was all about limiting the use of force so fewer civilians would die as their deaths were seen as being bad for the war effort.  What do we have now?  More civilian deaths.  So, yes, the guy who co-wrote a book on caveats (restrictions) on NATO troops is saying that some restrictions might not be a bad idea.  Oh, and how did the military perform with heaps of autonomy in 2007?  Do remember that the surge in Iraq was something that the civilians pushed on the military--Petraeus was a maverick.
  20. The article goes to show that Mattis is driving US policy on Africa, which means that the National Security Council's attention on Africa is pretty much restricted to military stuff.  Yeah, the old maxim of having a hammer and seeing everything as nails may be trite, but this article is making it quite relevant.
  21. The story about Ambassadors being given and then not being given the power to halt airstrikes requires for more info before I can figure out what is going on here.  It would be strange for a civilian on the ground to hold the red card and stop a strike.  On the other hand, given how weak State is these days, having an Ambassador in the loop is not a bad idea.
  22.  "In contentious meetings last summer on Afghanistan, Mattis and his top aides often dominated the process."  Civilian control of the military was fun while it lasted. I was teaching US foreign policy yesterday, and I noted that it used to be that State led on foreign policy, and that DoD was seen as an interloper.  There used to be fights between SecState and SecDefs, but with Tillerson rolling over and more focused on gutting State, Mattis runs the show.
  23. "senior representatives from the State Department often seemed to have little clue where their secretary stood."  Tillerson is #worstsecstate.
  24. The story where McMaster confronts Bannon and Mattis grabs McMaster's knee is the focus of the coverage of the story, but it makes complete sense to me.  Bannon is such a troll that he gets McMaster to lose it, and the military buddy just makes contact so that McMaster regains his composure.  The good thing about this story is that neither Bannon or Priebus are in the White House anymore.  Remember when they were? 
  25. "His final decision gave Mattis and his commanders almost everything they wanted to expand the longest war in U.S. history." Fantastic.  
  26. "Mattis has largely avoided the Pentagon media briefing room"  BAD.  Mattis has been breaking the norms of how SecDefs relate to the media, and that is bad.  Civilian control of the military involves not just POTUS and SecDef but the media as well--they play important roles in informing the public and Congress and serve as a key fire alarm to let everyone know when something is problematic.  Not talking to the media might be acceptable for a Marine general (not really), but it is not acceptable for the SecDef. 
  27. "and has resisted White House requests to represent the administration on Sunday-morning talk shows."  Good?  The Sunday morning talk shows are awful.
  28. "His aides said that Mattis’s low profile is a product of his determination to focus as much time as possible on understanding the inner workings of the Pentagon, reading the latest intelligence and talking with his commanders." This is where I call BULLSHIT.  The reporter falls for the cult of personality here. It does not take time and effort and is not a distraction to bring on board the SecDef's plane a full contingent of media.  And having press conferences does take time, but give me a break.  Yes, it allows him to duck defending Trump tweets, but he could Belichick that at a press conference.
  29. "Mattis has displayed a broad disdain for the country’s politics, and, at times, seemed to set the military above the fray."  Um, not great.  This reinforces the views of military officers that the military is superior to the civilian world.  A key job of the SecDef is to manage civil-military relations, not to take the military's side.  This is one of the clearest cases where it is problematic to have a recently retired senior officer as SecDef--his mindset is still back in uniform.  Having contempt for American democracy is not a good thing even in the Age of Trump.
  30. “You’re a great example for our country right now, and it’s got problems,” Mattis told troops ... delivered a few days after Charlottesville. 'You know it and I know it. It’s got problems that we don’t have in the military.'"  Given that a heap of white supremacists are folks who recently served in the military, perhaps do not deny the possibility that they are there right NOW!
  31. “The American way of war is to establish air, space and maritime superiority and have your way,” said Michèle Flournoy, a senior official in the Pentagon during the Obama administration. “How do you fight without that advantage up front? It’s a big challenge for Mattis.”  Yep.
  32. “You guys want me to send troops everywhere,” Trump said, according to officials in the Situation Room meeting. “What’s the justification?”  Sometimes, a simpleton can ask the right question.  
Fundamentally, what is happening here is people are betting on personalities and don't mind if the normal processes are being undermined.  That might be fine in the short term, but for those who see process as their valentine (thanks Bombshell ladies for converting me).  Plus those focused so much on personalities and not on institutions, norms and processes have to come to grips with this possibility:

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