Don't count on 'Trump's generals' to save us

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
From left: John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, President Trump, James Mattis (Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty, Reuters)

Well, that’s a relief.

For a while there, it seemed as if our democracy was starting to look like some backward former colony in Africa or Latin America, where everything is controlled by the ruling family whose demagogue patriarch doles out fiefdoms to a tight circle of privileged heirs.

But ever since Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. got pulled into this whole mess with Russia and the campaign, you don’t hear as much from the Trump Bunch. (Also, Jared is busy negotiating peace in the Middle East, which is, like, really time-consuming.) Even when the president seemed to sympathize with neo-Nazis, his Jewish son-in-law and daughter were oddly absent.

No, apparently, we’ve now moved on to a government administered by military council — a powerful trio with oversight of all Cabinet agencies and armed forces that the civilian president refers to as “my generals.”

So you see, we’re on our way from being Zimbabwe or Saudi Arabia to, say, Myanmar. How badly can that go?

Actually, this latest turn has done a lot to buoy the spirits of President Trump’s liberal critics, a generation of whom grew up thinking of military leaders through the twisted prism of “Dr. Strangelove.” They’ve learned to love the generals now, and you can understand why.

There’s been a sense these last few months that nobody can put a brake on Trump’s careening crazy train — not the kids, not establishment Republicans on the Hill, not the Wall Street guys or the Cabinet of billionaires. While North Korea tests its missiles, Trump whines about the media in middle-of-the-night tweets and self-delusional rallies.

At least now, the current thinking goes, the administration seems to be in the hands of strong and serious-minded patriots who can fill in a map without help. As Newsweek put it in a subtle headline last week: “Trump’s Generals Can Save the World From War — and Stop the Crazy.”

That’s a low bar, and maybe the generals — Kelly, McMaster, Mattis — can clear it. But even if these guys can keep Trump’s presidency from immediately derailing, that doesn’t mean they’re likely to steer it in the right direction.

Modern America has a real mythology around its generals; we’ll ask them to fix almost any problem. Generations removed from a time when the burdens of war were shared by everyone, we tend to idealize the men and women who still rise up to shoulder them.

Our weathered institutions sag under the weight of bureaucratic inertia. We imagine that a battlefield commander will attack intractable problems as he might a battery of machine guns, immune to petty grievances and lawyerly objections.

Except that in reality, and with few exceptions, military leaders haven’t had much success running other things — political campaigns, school districts, businesses, Cabinet agencies. The courage and brilliance they display in rising up through the armed forces don’t seem to translate very easily.

Maybe that’s because the careers they spend in service to the public are also spent inside a kind of socialist bubble, with very little exposure to the more mundane trials of civilian life. There’s no reason, really, that a general should know the first thing about finance or domestic policy or politics. We only like to pretend they do, since we’ve pretty much lost faith in everyone whose job it really is.

If I told you I had a novel plan to partition Syria, you’d wonder — with good reason — what I could possibly know about it. But when John Kelly, the chief of staff, assumes responsibility for legislative strategy or tax policy, he’s like the guy in the ad who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Somehow we assume he’ll figure it out.

Even in foreign policy, where generals are assumed to hold vast expertise, that may not translate into progress. Modern generals are, in fact, nothing like the cigar-chomping, Cold War cowboys we remember from iconic movies, hell-bent on killing Commies and reducing villainous countries to rubble.

Today’s more cerebral military leaders were schooled in the lessons of Vietnam, which taught them the value of cautious incrementalism, of staying within political objectives, of carrying out the policy set by others with maximum efficiency and minimal loss.

Look at Colin Powell, who was the most successful of recent military leaders in the political realm. His stature was such that in 1996 he quite possibly could have become our first black president — if not our first politically independent one.

He will likely be remembered now, chiefly, for having persuaded the world that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration told Powell to go out and make the case, because no one had more credibility in the country or the world. And Powell, whatever his personal misgivings, agreed to complete the mission, because that’s what modern generals are supposed to do.

I remember sitting in a Pentagon briefing room, not long after Powell’s speech to the United Nations Security Council, listening to Jay Garner, soon to become the commanding general and overseer in occupied Iraq, talk about how simple it would be to make Iraq great again after the invasion. (I’d been to Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and that didn’t sound especially simple to me.)

Garner later said we never should have gone to war there in the first place. OK. But at the time, given a completely unreasonable objective, he never considered the possibility that it couldn’t be done.

Which brings us to the president’s speech on Afghanistan this week, in which he offered virtually no departure from the last two presidents, other than a new and entirely meaningless, contradictory slogan: “principled realism.” (Why not “pragmatic idealism,” or maybe “flexible paralysis”?)

What we’re doing in Afghanistan, at bottom, is following the same basic policy drift that now stretches across three administrations, because the generals were given a political objective 16 years ago, and they’re going to see it through to the bitter end. They aren’t trained to acknowledge failure, much less futility.

What follows from all this are two essential possibilities, neither of which is very inspiring. One is that while “Trump’s generals” may well stand ably between us and some kind of all-out lunacy in the world (which is no small service to render), they may also continue to doggedly lead us down well-worn and dangerous paths, mainly because they’re not willing to rethink policies that aren’t working.

The second and worse scenario is that they may become not so much Trump’s advisers as his enablers, applying a credible, military sheen to whatever half-informed policy he decides to implement.

How did Kelly become Trump’s chief of staff, after all? By carrying out the president’s religiously based immigration order as efficiently as he possibly could, with no apparent objection or sense of alarm.

I’ve no doubt Kelly is a brave and decent man with a superior intellect. He’s just conditioned to carry out the mission, and that’s what he’ll do.

Given the choice between a bunch of rich, Manhattan-bred dilettantes (or a bunch of white nationalist ideologues) on one side, and a trio of battle-tested generals on the other, I’ll take the generals in a heartbeat. No one rational is going to seriously argue that point.

When it comes to addressing the country’s problems and divisions in a thoughtful way, though, the only guy who can do that is the president himself, and I don’t see it happening, no matter how many square-jawed warriors surround him or how many slogans they latch onto.

Trump’s the principal, and that’s the reality.

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