Boy! Go away for a few days around the holiday season and the whole world seems to turn upside down! (Especially during the Trump era?) For the purposes of this column, I’m thinking of the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis and his “Don’t forget to write” replacement by the President – although of course adding to the sense of tumult have been Mr. Trump’s angry tweets about the Federal Reserve and the stock market swoon that has partly resulted.
Not that the reactions of the nation’s chattering classes to the Mattis departure haven’t been entirely predictable. A prominent figure publicly chides the President, and he’s practically canonized by establishment politicians and their Mainstream Media spokespeople. The more so if he’s a former Trump official. (Google, e.g., “Tillerson, Rex.”) And major histrionics are always added when the dearly departed have been designated the “adults in the room” – i.e., familiar, experienced (and therefore automatically venerated) policy hands who supposedly are the last lines of defense against Trump-induced catastrophes.
But even at a time when Trump Derangement Syndrome has become epidemic, the Mattis-related lamentations stand out for numerous reasons. First, although Mattis’ performance as a battlefield commander has been outstanding – and deserves the respect and gratitude of all Americans – show me the evidence that he’s been a great or even OK leader of the Pentagon. Spoiler alert: There is none. In fact, in two important respects, Mattis has underwhelmed, at best.
He’s displayed absolutely no interest in strengthening the nation’s domestic defense manufacturing base – a vital challenge considering how dependent such production has become on parts, components, and material made in China, an all-too-likely adversary. In fact, Mattis badly failed the President during the early stages of developing the administration’s steel tariffs. In the Defense Department’s official memo commenting on the President’s decision (sought as part of an interagency review undertaken before the final announcement), Mattis never told his boss that Canada is officially considered part of the U.S defense manufacturing base. So levies on Canadian steel justified by national security considerations arguably made no sense. (Unfortunately, the full Mattis memo is no longer on-line.)
Nor is there any evidence that the Defense Department under Mattis made any progress in reducing its levels of waste, fraud, and abuse. What we do know now based on an official report is what everyone knowledgeable about the subject has known for decades: the scope is massive. Mattis deserves credit for approving this report – the first audit the Pentagon has ever conducted of its own (even more massive) operations. But he served for nearly two years, and the department continued to be poorly run in too many respects.
Mattis’ performance was even less impressive as a strategist. For all his expertise in fighting wars and otherwise deploying forces once the relevant decisions have been made, he’s demonstrated no expertise in helping to figure out what conflicts and threats the nation should prepare for and what interests are essential to defend or promote. And that’s a big problem because, although the Secretary of Defense is far from the only presidential adviser responsible for providing input in the periodic process of developing the country’s official foreign policy strategy, he’s one of the principals.
Worse, everything we know about Mattis’ contributions – the essence of which was made unmistakable in his resignation letter – shows that he remained doggedly devoted to the globalist dogma that the key to America’s security and prosperity is maintaining and advancing the current international order, and especially the nation’s core military alliances. Viewed in a vacuum, these views are eminently defensible. Viewed the (essential context) of recent and present circumstances, they’re a formula for continuing to coddle chronic economic protectionists and defense free-riders, and for open-ended military involvement in hopeless tar-baby regions like the Middle East. At worst, they’re a recipe for exposing the United States to needless military risks precisely because allied free-riding (in the form of pitifully inadequate spending on their own conventional military forces) despite burgeoning aggressiveness from China and Russia has put a growing premium on America’s nuclear forces to maintain deterrence.
Which leads to the greatest irony surrounding the role of the globalist advisers President Trump originally hired and those he still retains: The globalist establishment keeps propagating the meme that they’ve been all that have been preventing a hair-brained chief executive from blowing the entire world to kingdom come. But the greatest dangers (indeed, the only dangers) that the country could be drawn into a nuclear conflict come from the globalist policy of seeking to protect allies or regions marginal to U.S. interests (South Korea, the new Baltic and East European members of NATO) from adversaries that can or will soon be able to hit the American homeland with nuclear weapons.
Only somewhat more defensible is the globalists’ determination to protect South China sea lanes from Chinese designs even though their favored trade policies have greatly enriched and strengthened China for decades – and even though most of the local beneficiary economies have victimized America’s with their mercantile trade policies.
In the process, Mattis and his fellow globalists have either utterly neglected or arrogantly savaged the kinds of America First alternatives that the President has rhetorically championed (though, as argued comprehensively in this article, not carried out consistently). In other words, he has portrayed as impractical or ignorant – along with reckless – a far superior strategy that views America’s strength, wealth, and favored geographic position as the best guarantors of its safety and well-being.
That’s the real reason for the doom- and gloom-saying sparked by Mattis’ departure. And why I wish he had never been appointed in the first place.