The World According to the “Adults in the Room”

A Year of Forever War in Review
By Danny Sjursen

Leave it to liberals to pin their hopes on the oddest things. In particular, they seemed to find post-Trump solace in the strange combination of the two-year-old Mueller investigation and the good judgment of certain Trump appointees, the proverbial “adults in the room.” Remember that crew? It once included Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, and a trio of active and retired generals — so much for civilian control of the military — including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Until his sudden resignation, Mattis was (just barely) the last man standing. Still, for all these months, many Americans had counted on them to all but save the nation from an unpredictable president. They were the ones supposedly responsible for helming (or perhaps hemming in) the wayward ship of state when it came to foreign and national security policy.

Too bad it was all such a fantasy. As Donald Trump wraps up his second year in the Oval Office, despite sudden moves in Syria and Afghanistan, the United States remains entrenched in a set of military interventions across significant parts of the world. Worse yet, what those adults guided the president toward was yet more bombing, the establishment of yet more bases, and the funding of yet more oversized Pentagon budgets. And here was the truly odd thing: every time The Donald tweeted negatively about any of those wars or uttered an offhand remark in opposition to the warfare state or the Pentagon budget, that triumvirate of generals and good old Rex went to work steering him back onto the well-worn track of Bush-Obama-style forever wars.

All the while, a populace obsessed and distracted by the president’s camera-grabbing persona seemed hardly to notice that this country continued to exist in a state of perpetual war. And here’s the most curious part of all: Trump wasn’t actually elected on an interventionist military platform. Sure, he threw the hawkish wing of his Republican base a few bones: bringing back waterboarding as well as even “worse” forms of torture, bombing “the shit” out of ISIS, and filling Guantánamo with “some bad dudes.” Still, with foreign policy an undercard issue in a domestically focused campaign to “Make America Great Again,” most Trump supporters seemed to have little stomach for endless war in the Greater Middle East — and The Donald knew it.

Common Sense on the Campaign Trail

Despite his coarse language and dubious policy positions, candidate Trump did seem to promise something new in foreign policy. To his credit, he called the 2003 Iraq War the “single worst decision ever made” (even if his own shifting position on that invasion was well-documented). He repeatedly stated his virulent opposition to continuing the war in Afghanistan and regularly urged President Obama to stay out of Syria. And to the horror of newly minted Cold War liberals, he even suggested a détente with Russia.

Like so much else in his campaign, none of this was from the standard 2016 bullet-point repertoire of seasoned politicians. Sure, Donald Trump lacked the requisite knowledge and ideological coherence usually considered mandatory for serious candidates, but from time to time he did — let’s admit it — offer some tidbits of fresh thinking on foreign policy. However blasphemous that may sound, on certain international issues the guy had a point compared to Hillary, the hawk.

During his presidency, traces of his earthy commonsense still showed up from time to time. In August 2017, for instance, when announcing yet another escalation in the Afghan War, he felt obliged to admit that his original instinct had been to “pull out” of it, adding that he still sympathized with Americans who were “weary of war.”  He sounded like a man anything but confident of his chosen course of action — or at least the one chosen for him by those “adults” of his. Then, last week, he surprised the whole business-as-usual Washington establishment by announcing an imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.  Whether he reverses himself, as he’s been apt to do, remains unknown, but here was at least a flash of his campaign-style anti-interventionism.

How, then, to explain the way a seemingly confident candidate had morphed into a hesitant president — until his recent set of decisions to pull troops out of parts of the Greater Middle East — at least on matters of war and peace? Why those nearly two years of bowing to the long-stale foreign policy thinking that had infused the Bush-Obama years, the very thing he had been theoretically running against?

Well, pin it on those adults in the room, especially the three generals. As mid-level and senior officers, they had, after all, cut their teeth on the war on terror. It and it alone defined their careers, their lives, and so their thinking. Long before Donald Trump came along, they and their peer commanders had already been taken hostage by the interventionist military playbook that went with that war and came to define the thinking of their generation. That was how you had to think, in fact, if you wanted to rise in the ranks.

The adults weren’t, for the most part, political partisans. Then again, neither was the militarist playbook they were following. Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush were selling exactly the same snake oil in 2016. Only Trump — and to some extent Bernie Sanders — offered a genuine alternative. Nevertheless, the Trump administration sustained that same policy of forever war for almost two full years and the grown-ups in the room were the ones who made it so. Exhibit A was the Greater Middle East.

The Same Old Playbook

While George W. Bush favored a “go-big” option of regime change, massive military occupation, and armed nation-building, Barack Obama preferred expanded drone strikes, increased military advisory missions, and — in the case of Libya — a bit of light regime-changing. In Trump’s first two years in office, the U.S. military seemed to merge aspects of the losing strategies of both of those presidents.

If Trump’s gut instinct was to skip future “dumb” Iraq-style wars, “pull out” of Afghanistan, and avoid regional conflict with Russia, his grown-up advisers pushed him in exactly the opposite direction. They chose instead what might be called the more strategy: more bombing, more troops, more drone strikes, more defense spending, more advisors, more everything. And if a war seemed to be failing anyway, the answer came straight from that very playbook, as in Afghanistan in 2017: a “surge” and the need for yet more time. As a result, America’s longest-ever war grew longer still with no end faintly in sight.

Given such thinking, it’s odd to recall that those adults in the room were, once upon a time, reputed to be outside-the-box thinkers. Secretary Mattis was initially hailed as such an avid reader and devoted student of military history that he was dubbed the “warrior monk.” H.R. McMaster was similarly hailed for having written a book critical of U.S. strategy in Vietnam (though wrong in its conclusions). Both Democrats and Republicans in Washington were similarly convinced that if anyone could bring order to the Trump administration, it would be the ever-responsible John Kelly.

Let’s review, then, the advice that these innovators offered the president in his first two years in office and the results in the Greater Middle East, starting with that presidential urge to pull out of Iraq. You won’t be surprised to learn that U.S. troops are still ensconced there in an ongoing fight against what’s suddenly a growing ISIS insurgency (now that its “caliphate” is no more). Nor has Washington taken any meaningful steps to bolster the legitimacy of the Shia-dominated Baghdad government, which portends an indefinite Sunni-based insurgency of some sort (or sorts) and a possible Kurdish secession.

In Syria, rather than downsize the U.S. military mission in the interest of Trump’s stated wish for détente with Russia and his urge to get the troops out “like very soon,” his administration had more than stayed put. It essentially chose to go with an indefinite American occupation of eastern Syria, including up to 4,000 mainly Special Operations forces backing predominantly Kurdish rebels there. In fact, only recently Mattis and other “senior national security officials” reportedly tried unsuccessfully to talk the president out of his recent tweeted proclamation to end the American role in Syria and withdraw those troops from the country as, it seems, is now happening.

In this, he clearly wants to avoid the ongoing risk of war with both Russia and NATO ally Turkey, not to speak of Iran. The Turks continue to threaten to invade the northern Syrian region controlled by those U.S.-backed Kurds, while Russian forces had, alarmingly, exchanged fire with U.S. troops more than once along the Euphrates River buffer zone. The Syrian mission was all risk and no reward, but the adults in the room continued to work feverishly to convince the president that to pull out might create a new “safe haven” not just for ISIS but also for the Iranians.

In Afghanistan, whatever Trump’s “instinct” may have been, after many meetings with his “cabinet and generals,” or what he called his “experts,” the president decided on a new escalation, a mini-surge in a then 17-year-old war. To that end, he delegated yet more decision-making to the very generals who were so unsuccessful in previous years and they proceeded to order the dropping of a record number of bombs, including the first-ever use of the largest non-nuclear ordnance in the Air Force arsenal, the so-called Mother of all Bombs. The results were the very opposite of reassuring. Indeed, the U.S. and its Afghan allies may be headed for actual military defeat, as the Taliban controls or contests more districts than ever, while Afghan government casualties have become, in the phrase of an American general, “unsustainable.”

Now, in a rebuke to those very experts and adults, the president will apparently remove half the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. After so many years of fruitless war, this sensible decision raised immediate alarm among the hawks in Congress and in the rest of the Washington national security establishment.  That decision, plus pulling the plug on the Syrian operation, apparently proved to be a red line for the last adult left standing and Jim Mattis promptly resigned in protest.  For the outgoing secretary of defense, it seems that complicity in Saudi war crimes in Yemen and the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi were passing events.  Trump’s willingness to try to end the American role in two failing, dubiously legal quagmires, however, proved to be the general’s breaking point.

Elsewhere, the Trump team has moved ever closer to a regime-change policy in Iran, especially after the replacement of Tillerson and McMaster by the particularly Iranophobic duo of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as secretary of state and national security advisor. Still, don’t blame any looming Iran disaster on them. Washington unilaterally pulled out of the Obama-negotiated nuclear deal with that country well before they arrived on the scene. While the grown-ups might not have been quite as amenable to war with Iran as Bolton and Pompeo, they couldn’t countenance détente for even a second.

And, of course, all those adults in the room supported U.S. complicity in the Saudi-led terror bombing and starvation of Yemen, the poorest Arab country. They also favored sustained ties with Saudi Arabia and its increasingly brutal crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Indeed, despite the recent murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist and Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi in that country’s embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Senate’s increasing disenchantment with the war in Yemen, Mattis remained a vocal supporter of the Saudis. Just before the Senate recently voted to pull U.S. military assistance for the Saudi war, he joined Pompeo in urging that chamber not to abandon Riyadh. In addition, key senators called Mattis’ testimony “misleading” because he “downplayed” the Saudi crown prince’s role in the murder, ignoring the conclusion of the CIA that the prince was indeed “complicit” in it.

So when it comes to outside-the-box thinking about the Greater Middle East almost two years into the president’s first term, the U.S. remains ensconced in a series of distinctly inside-the-box and unwinnable wars across the region.  Trump, however, now appears ready to change course, at least in Syria and Afghanistan, perhaps out of frustration with the ever-so-conventional mess the adults left him in.

A Militarized Planet

Elsewhere, matters are hardly more encouraging. At a global level, the grown-ups have neither tempered the president’s more bizarre policies nor offered a humbler, more modest military approach themselves. The result, as the country enters 2019, is an increasingly militarized planet. Mattis’ own National Defense Strategy (NDS), released in January 2018, represents a blatant giveaway to the domestic arms industry, envisioning as it does a world eternally on the brink of Great Power war.

On that planet of the adults, the U.S. must now prepare for threats across every square inch of the globe. Far from the military de-escalation hinted at by candidate Trump (and suggested again in a recent tweet of his), Mattis’ “2-2-1 policy” has the Pentagon ramping up for potential fights with two “big” adversaries (China and Russia), two “medium” opponents (Iran and North Korea), and one “sustained” challenge (conflicts and terrorism across the Greater Middle East). Few have asked whether such a strategy is faintly sustainable, even with a military budget that dwarfs that of any other power on the planet.

In fact, the implementation of that NDS vision is clearly leading to a new arms race and a burgeoning Cold War 2.0. Washington is already engaged in a spiraling trade war with Beijing and has announced plans to pull out of a key Cold War nuclear treaty with Russia, while developing a new group of treaty-busting intermediate range nuclear missiles itself. In addition, at the insistence of his military advisers, the president has agreed to back an Obama-era “modernization” program for the U.S. nuclear arsenal now estimated to cost at least $1.6 trillion over the next three decades.

So much for a Republican insistence on balanced budgets and decreased deficits. Furthermore, climate-change denial remains the name of the game in the Trump administration and, in this singular case, the adults in the room could do nothing about it. Despite earlier Pentagon reports that concluded man-made climate change presents a national security threat to the country, the Trump administration ignored such claims. It has even insisted upon substituting the term “extreme weather” for “climate change” in current defense reports. Here, the grown-ups do indeed know better — the military has long focused on the dangers of climate change — but have dismally failed to temper the president’s anti-science policies.

So, as 2018 comes to a close, thanks to the worldview of those grown-ups and the pliability of Trump’s own ideology (except when it comes to climate change), Washington’s empire of bases, its never-ending war on terror, and its blank-check spending on the military-industrial complex were more firmly entrenched than ever.  It will fall to the president — if indeed he proves to be serious when it comes to a course change — to begin the long work of (modestly) undoing a planet of war.

The Last Adult?

Looking toward 2019 in a world on edge, here are a couple of thoughts on our future. Expect that Robert Mueller’s future report will find many things to focus on, including plenty of collusion with women, but — whatever the Russians did and whatever the desires of those around candidate Trump may have been — no actual collusion of substance with Moscow in election 2016. That will undoubtedly break the hearts of liberals everywhere and ensure — despite the best efforts of a new Democratic House — a full Trump term (or two!).

Furthermore, whatever “blue-wave” Democrats do domestically, they are unlikely to present a coherent, alternative foreign-policy vision. Instead, prepare to watch them cede that territory (as always) to Trump and the Republicans. Meanwhile, at least until 2021, they will continue to lament the absence of those “adults in the room” and their supposed ability to preserve a respectable foreign policy, which, of course, would have meant war all the way to the bank.

Maybe it’s time to start thinking of those adults as the tools (and often enough the future employees) of a military-industrial-congressional complex that feeds Americans ample servings of endless war, year after year, decade after decade. In truth, in this century presidents change but the failing policies haven’t.

Call it the deep state, the swamp, or whatever you like, but bottom line: during Trump’s first two years in office, there wasn’t, until now, any serious rethinking of American foreign and military policy, not in terms of peaceableness anyway. Trump’s original adults in the room set the table for endless war. Their replacements clearly intended to devour plentiful helpings of the same dishes. Make no mistake, if it were up to those adults, the United States would be ringing in this New Year with yet another copious serving of militarism.  It still may.

I must admit that I find myself in a lonely spot as 2018 ends. I’ve been serving in the U.S. Army during this period, while dissenting from prevailing foreign policy. After spending 18 years in uniform, including tours of duty in both the Afghan and the Iraq wars, and observing a slew of retired generals and policymakers who oversaw those very wars champion yet more (failed) conventional thinking, forgive me for wondering, from time to time, if I weren’t the last true adult in the room.

Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army major and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and wrote Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.

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