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Goodbye ‘President’ Trump; hail ‘President’ Mattis

US Defense Secretary Mattis takes effective charge of US foreign policy, but leads US down a blind alley

US Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis poses for photos before a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol in Washington, DC, on December 7, 2016. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Back on 16th February 2017, shortly after the forced resignation of President Trump’s first National Security Adviser General Flynn, I spoke of the extraordinary power that US Defense Secretary General Mattis appeared to be wielding within the Trump administration

General Mattis is becoming a dominant figure within this administration.  As a much decorated former combat officer who is also considered to be a genuine intellectual, Mattis appears to have quickly asserted his authority over the Joint Chiefs of Staff with whom civilian Defense Secretaries have previously often had uneasy relationships…..

All in all General Mattis appears to be gathering more and more of the threads of power into his hands.  If this trend continues, and if he uses his position skilfully, Mattis could end up becoming one of the most powerful Defense Secretaries the US has had since the Second World War.  Whether such a concentration of power in the hands of a soldier is a good thing is another matter.

These comments were written in anticipation of Vice-Admiral Bob Hayward, a military officer known to be close to General Mattis, being appointed President Trump’s National Security Adviser in place of General Flynn.

In the event Admiral Hayward declined the post, but the person who obtained it instead – General H.R. McMaster – is yet another military officer who seems to be working as closely with General Mattis as Admiral Hayward was expected to do.

Since the appointment as White House Chief of Staff of General Kelly, like General Mattis a former Marine officer, General Mattis’s influence extends not just to the National Security Council but to the White House staff.

As I have discussed recently, with the ousting of Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former Chief Strategist, and the purge of officials associated with Steven Bannon from the staff of the National Security Council, there appears to be no significant figure within the White House staff or the National Security Council who is capable of standing up to the military.

In the context of the Trump administration rule by the military means rule by General Mattis, who not only now has friends in charge at the White House, the National Security Council, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but who also heads the Department of Defense, the only department of the US government concerned with national security and foreign policy which is functioning properly.

This is because the two other agencies that traditionally have a big input on US foreign and security policy – the State Department and the CIA – are essentially crippled; the State Department because President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson have still not filled most of the vacancies caused by the clear-out of State Department staff which took place at the start of the year, and the CIA because it is distracted and locked in conflict with President Trump over the Russiagate affair.

The result is that the foreign policy of the US is being decided to an extent unique in US history by a former military officer – General Mattis – who does not hold elected office, but who does sit on top of the US’s gigantic defence and national security bureaucracy.

That it is General Mattis who is increasingly deciding matters is becoming increasingly clear from the direction US policy is taking.  Here are some examples:

(1) Middle East

That it is General Mattis who now all but runs US policy in the Middle East is shown by the fact that he is the senior official of the US government who far more frequently than any other visits the Middle East.  By way of example, General Mattis has just completed another in his seemingly endless series of fact finding trips to the region, this time to Jordan and Turkey.

In this case the fact that General Mattis has pushed out the civilians is actually on balance a good thing.

As a trained soldier it is clear that General Mattis has no time for regime change adventures in Syria which might result in a military confrontation with the Russians, and that he is unenthusiastic about confronting Iran, a policy which also comes with very high risks.

Back in June two Flynn holdovers in the National Security Council – Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Derek Harvey – are known to have pushed for the US to “confront” Iran and its “proxy forces” in Syria, a proposal which had it been implemented would have risked a head on clash in Syria with the Russians.

General Mattis would have none of it, and both Cohen-Watnick and Harvey have now been sacked.

Harvey incidentally was also one of the strongest voices within the Trump administration in favour of the missile strike on Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base in April.

The end result is that the Trump administration has not backed out of the nuclear agreement with Iran as many expected, whilst in Syria General Mattis has quietly redirected the US effort away from trying to achieve regime change towards its stated goal of destroying ISIS.

(2) Afghanistan

If General Mattis is what passes in the US for a ‘realist’ on the Middle East in that he wants to avoid a head-on confrontation with Iran and Russia there, on Afghanistan he is a hawk.

He has pressed for all constraints on US military operations in Afghanistan previously imposed by the Obama administration to be lifted, and for the US military campaign in Afghanistan to be continued indefinitely, with no end date, and even escalated.

The “new strategy” for Afghanistan the US announced on Monday shows that once again it is the views of General Mattis which have prevailed.  President Trump’s own original strategy – the one on which he was elected – of pulling out of Afghanistan, has been dropped.

Instead the US will continue and will escalate the war, and will even spread it to Pakistan, whilst any negotiations to end the war with the Taliban will be conducted purely on US terms.

The objective is less to achieve victory – something which Secretary of State Tillerson says is impossible, as General Mattis surely also knows – but to avoid even the appearance of defeat.

The motivation has been brilliantly explained by the Canadian academic Paul Robinson

So, the strategy is to use military power to create the conditions for a political settlement with the Taleban, even though it has so far utterly failed to achieve that, and even though ‘nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.’ And this is what constitutes ‘grown-up’ thinking? At the end of the day, Trump’s announcement amounts merely to a statement that withdrawing will bring untold disaster, and therefore we have to persist, because, well, you know, it will be bad if we don’t. There is nothing in this announcement which suggests how Trump or his advisors imagine that this war will end. They are as clueless as Obama and  Bush before them, and so are just carrying on doing the same thing over and over.

Why do they do this? The answer is that the financial costs of the war are dispersed over a vast number of people, so that nobody actually notices them, while the human costs are concentrated in a small segment of the population – the military – which the rest of the people can safely ignore (and at the current tempo of operations, the number of Americans dying in Afghanistan is quite low). Politically speaking, continuing the war is relatively cost-free. But should America withdraw, and something then goes wrong, Trump and those around him will be held to blame. It is better therefore to cover their backsides and keep things bubbling along as they are until the problem can be passed onto somebody else. This is a solution in terms of domestic politics, but it’s not a solution in terms of the actual problem.

Put another way, General Mattis does not want to be remembered as the soldier who presided over the US’s biggest defeat since Vietnam.  To that end he will keep the war in Afghanistan going indefinitely in the hope that something turns up.

(3) Europe

Though General Mattis grudgingly cooperates with the Russians in Syria – where the risks are too great to confront them head-on – he shows a positive eagerness to confront them in Europe, where he presumably believes that the risks of confronting them are minimal.

Thus in diametric contradiction to the policies advocated by President Trump during last year’s election, General Mattis not only outspokenly supports NATO but is pressing ahead with the anti-ballistic missile deployments in eastern Europe and with the provocative and unnecessary parades of token NATO forces on Russia’s borders.

As a military officer General Mattis surely knows that these forces are too small either to threaten Russia or to defend themselves in the event of a Russian attack (see the comments of retired US Colonel Douglas Macgregor in this article in Politico).  The fact that General Mattis is however pressing ahead with these provocative displays – deeply infuriating as they are to the Russians, to whom they serve as a constant reminder of the broken promises the US gave them when the USSR broke up – shows that despite all the overheated talk coming out of the US of ‘Russian aggression’ he does not believe that a war in Europe is imminent.

In an indication of how far General Mattis is prepared to go in provoking the Russians in Europe, that he is now talking openly of the possibility of sending arms to the Maidan regime in Ukraine, reversing the previous policy not to send arms, which was agreed upon by both Barack Obama and by Donald Trump.  Indeed Trump – the US’s constitutionally elected President – famously even deleted the proposal to send Ukraine arms from the Republican Party’s platform during the Republican Party’s Convention last year.

In floating this extraordinarily bad idea General Mattis is of course also ignoring the public opposition to it of the US’s most powerful ally, the German government.

The fact that sending arms to Ukraine will not change the military balance there (see the Saker’s excellent discussion of this subject), but does greatly increase the risk of war, appears not to worry General Mattis at all given that Ukraine is a theatre where the US is not directly involved.

(4) North Korea

Amidst all the overheated rhetoric of the last few weeks about a possible war with North Korea, it has gone almost unnoticed that General Mattis has ruled it out.

Again as a trained soldier General Mattis knows what the dangers of a war against a nuclear armed North Korea backed by China would be, and he has no intention of risking them.

That it is General Mattis who is once again the key decision maker, and that his known opposition to war with North Korea effectively rules that option out, is shown by how talk of war against North Korea basically stopped the moment he spoke out against it.

(5) South China Sea

Just as General Mattis is happy to confront Russia in Europe, so he is happy to confront China in the South China Sea, moving elements of the US Seventh Fleet to within short distances of territory occupied by China and provocatively flying US military aircraft there.

Here again we see the same pattern at work as in Syria and Europe.  Just as General Mattis is not prepared to risk a head-on clash with the Russian military in Syria, but is willing to act in the most provocative way imaginable against Russia in Europe, so General Mattis is not prepared to risk a head-on clash with China in the Korean Peninsula, but is willing to act in the most provocative way imaginable against China in the South China Sea.

As is the case in Europe, this is because General Mattis presumably doesn’t believe that the risk of an armed clash with China in the South China Sea is a real one.

This strange mix of policies – backing off from confronting the Russian and Chinese militaries in Syria and Korea where the risks are real, but aggressively seeking confrontation with Russia and China in Europe and the South China Sea where no risks are thought to exist, is exactly what one would expect of a US soldier.

They combine the extreme risk-aversion characteristic of today’s US military, with its longstanding habit of aggressive posturing where the risks of doing it appear to be minimal.

What is wholly absent is any sense of a larger strategy.

In no sense does General Mattis seem to have a policy either for Russia or China or for dealing with the separate crises in Afghanistan, Korea or the Middle East.

Instead he improvises reactively – as might be expected of a soldier – in each case doing so without any sense of the interconnections between the various crises which confront him, or of the paradox of the US seeking Russia and Chinese help in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula whilst simultaneously striking against Russian and Chinese interests in Europe and the South China Sea.

Needless to say, in respect to Grand Strategy – thinking about the Chinese-Russian alliance and looking for ways to respond to it – General Mattis can come up with nothing at all.  So far as he is concerned, it is enough that China and Russia are adversaries of the US, so he sets out in each case to confront them where he feels he can, without giving any thought to how this may make them work more closely together against US interests.

In my previous discussion of the rise of the US military to a position of effective political leadership in the US I pointed out that the closest parallel was with Germany in the run up to the First World War, where the dysfunctional political system also left the military in a position of de facto leadership.

In the case of pre First World War Germany the military also adopted an essentially technical piecemeal approach to Germany’s problems, alternating extreme aggressiveness with botched and ill thought out attempts at conciliation.  The result was that in 1914 Germany found that all the other important Great Powers of Europe except for Germany’s Habsburg satellite were ranged against it.

Under the de facto leadership of General Mattis the same appears to be in the process of happening to the US.

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