The Mainstream Media remain useful as a mouthpiece for an American political establishment that retains all too much power to frustrate Trump-ian – and other populist – impulses. So it’s vitally important to identify and evaluate emerging narratives they’re trying to propagate. And one that’s been especially prominent – and pernicious – is the habit of dividing the president’s top aides into the voices of reason (my term) and the “hot-heads.” A great example of this habit and the dangers it can foster, is Jonathan Stevenson’s February 21 New York Times column on President Trump’s appointment of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as his new White House national security adviser.
According to Stevenson – a national security veteran of the Obama administration – McMaster is a welcome addition to the voices of reason. In particular, his selection is portrayed as combining with that of former general Jim Mattis as Defense Secretary to strengthen a firewall against the “hot heads” (Stevenson’s term) that also have Mr. Trump’s ear.
Part of the reason Stevenson likes McMaster and Mattis et al is that he believes they will oppose “pointlessly disrupting” strategies and positions that he and many other establishment-arians (on both sides of the aisle) view as successes, or the best possible approaches – like the “One China” policy, the Iran nuclear deal, and immigration initiatives that seek to admit more refugees and other newcomers from the Middle East in hopes of winning hearts and minds in the Islamic world. I personally don’t agree with the Stevensonian/establishment view, but reasonable people can legitimately differ on these matters.
What’s much less reasonable, and genuinely dangerous, is Stevenson’s other reason for liking the world’s McMasters and Mattis’, and disliking its Stephen K. Bannon – the Trump aide who he and so many others view as a quintessential extremist and populist hot head. As the author sees it, McMaster is one of the national security professionals who will help make sure that American diplomacy won’t be unduly influenced by Trump-ists like Bannon. These ostensibly shallow, narrow-minded politicos supposedly see foreign policymaking not as an exercise in advancing and safeguarding the country’s most critical interests, but simply as a means of boosting or protecting a president’s popularity.
Although foreign policy can never be entirely separated from domestic politics – and in a democracy, shouldn’t be so separated – over-politicization can of course produce disaster. But Stevenson’s main historical example (the gradual escalation of the Vietnam War), and his analysis of the Trump administration, get literally everything important wrong. For example, two of his leading Vietnam villains (and those of Gen. McMaster) are then Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and then national security adviser McGeorge Bundy. But far from being politicians who had any experience with the electoral process, or any apparent interest, they were quintessential establishment mandarins. In fact, it was their catastrophic advice that (rightly) turned “the best and the brightest” into a term of contempt.
The substance of their advice – chiefly, the championing of gradual escalation – can be faulted, too. But as Stevenson glosses over, this strategy enjoyed wide backing in the military, and not only among a group of military chiefs who McMaster and Stevenson dismiss as “inordinately politicized.”
Much more important, however, the fundamental mistake behind the Vietnam disaster was not the specific set of military tactics chosen, but the strategic decision to intervene militarily in the first place. And this choice reflected the strong internationalist consensus across the foreign policy establishment that, in the face of the Cold War community threat, every square inch of the globe had to be treated as a vital American interest, whether it held any specific geopolitical or economic significance to the United States or not.
Now fast forward to the present. Who’s more likely to embroil the United States into a needless military conflict that could spiral into a complete debacle? Mere “politicos” like Bannon – and his boss – who have complained (most recently in the Inaugural Address) that America has too often “defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own”? Has “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay”?
Is a new Vietnam really what can be expected from a president who has declared, “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.
“We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow”?
For my money, I’d bet on the genuinely reckless foreign policy moves being advocated by figures from an establishment that, in the wake of Mr. Trump’s election, is doubling down on its support for internationalism – and therefore for the indiscriminate interventionism that logically follows from it. Indeed, lately this allegiance to internationalism has even blinded the establishment to rapidly mounting dangers from the pillars of post-World War II foreign policy – America’s security relationships with Europe and Asia.
In the former region, a completely unnecessary expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to include former Soviet republics and other nearby countries has committed the United States to protect lands that can be defended only by he threat of using nuclear weapons even though they have never been viewed as vital interests. In the process, of course, this NATO expansion has triggered a military and paramilitary reaction by Russia that has all of Europe on edge.
In Asia, America’s two likeliest adversaries – China and North Korea – are rapidly becoming capable of offsetting the nuclear weapons edge that has enabled Washington to protect countries like Japan and South Korea with little risk to the U.S. homeland. Ever more powerful nuclear forces now mean that Beijing and Pyongyang can use the credible threat of destroying American cities to deter U.S. military responses to any aggression they undertake. (See this post for more detail – and for powerful evidence that Mr. Trump recognizes both problems.)
Indeed, in this respect, erring on the side of caution would involve President Trump siding with the America Firsters like Bannon – whatever short-term disruption their recommendations would bring – against the McMaster portrayed by Stevenson, and other establishmentarians he comfortingly but misleadingly labels as guardians of policy “stability.” That’s the last result that Washington will get from defining or simply wishing away lessons that have stared the nation and its leaders in the face for decades.