Trump’s Generals

Everyone is trying to figure out Donald Trump, even if it’s a little late for that. He’s got the job, even if he might be mentally ill (as in quite crazy) – but that notion is getting a lot of play and not going anywhere. America will not admit its mistake, and a bit less than half the country sees no problem at all. And there may not be any problem. Lots of people with narcissistic personality disorder, with that psychopathic lack of empathy and a rock-solid sense of entitlement, do just fine. They’re captains of industry. Humor them or get out of the way.

Call it leadership – unless Trump is the insecure wannabe loutish guy from Queens who could never impress the Old Money in Manhattan, no matter how many gold-plated toilets he had installed in his gold-plated penthouse high over Fifth Avenue. He was still vulgar. Nixon had the same problem with the Kennedy crowd – those Ivy League bastards who, he thought, always considered him a rube. He’d show them. Overcompensation driven by insecurity drove him and perhaps ruined him – as it could ruin Trump – if that’s the problem. If that’s the problem, however, a bit less than half the country has the same problem, with the damned “coastal elites” and Hollywood stars and “experts” telling them what they should think and feel. They have the same seething resentment. They want to strike back too, and cause some real damage. They’ll blow up the system. They kind of did. But don’t call them crazy. They see themselves as rational actors.

None of this solves anything, but the problem persists. What is Trump’s problem? That question matters, and Bill Neely of NBC News reports on Vladimir Putin’s efforts to understand the psyche of our odd president:

A dossier on Donald Trump’s psychological makeup is being prepared for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Among its preliminary conclusions is that the new American leader is a risk-taker who can be naïve, according to a senior Kremlin adviser…

Former Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Fedorov told NBC News…”Very serious preparatory work is going on in the Kremlin, including a paper – seven pages – describing a psychological portrait of Trump, especially based on this last two to three months, and the last weeks.”

They see a problem:

Putin’s government is growing increasingly concerned about Trump’s battles in Washington, according to Fedorov and former lawmaker Sergei Markov, who remains well-connected at the Kremlin. Fedorov added that Trump’s “constant battle with the mass media” was “worrying us.” The U.S. president “is dancing on thin ice,” he said. “It’s a risky game.”

A former prime minister under Putin said the Kremlin is taking no pleasure at Trump’s struggles. “Absolutely not – not laughing,” Mikhail Kasyanov said. “The situation is very serious and the whole of [Putin’s] team, they are nervous.” Many in the Kremlin believe hardliners in America – in Congress and the military – want to sabotage the president and his plans for better ties with Russia.

They see an unstable man, a risk-taker who can be naïve, in an untenable position, and Kevin Drum sees these implications:

From Putin’s point of view, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Trump can’t control himself. Putin could literally publish his dossier on his Facebook page and it wouldn’t matter. Just as he did in the debates, when Hillary Clinton baited him in the most obvious ways, Trump will respond to provocations the way he always responds.

That’s also the bad news, of course: Trump can’t control himself. He lives in a delusionary world where everything is going great and the White House is a finely tuned machine. This divorce from reality is likely to become ever more cavernous as time goes on, and there’s no telling how long it will be until this produces a disaster of some kind. Eventually it’s going to become clear that trying to run the US government the same way he ran his business – Trump acting as the showman/marketing genius, while professional managers keep the gears turning – isn’t producing any results here in consensus-reality. And then the whole delusionary edifice will come tumbling down.

Perhaps the Russians should wait for that, and then talk with the calm and measured and rather boring President Mike Pence. They might not get what they want but there’d be no surprises – but that’s not going to happen. Trump has professional managers keep the gears turning, and not just Mike Pence showing up in Europe to say that NATO is wonderful and not obsolete, no matter what Trump keeps saying. Trump has his generals – retired Marine General James Mattis as defense secretary, and John Kelly, another retired Marine general, as secretary of homeland security. Former Lieutenant General Michael Flynn got the job as national security adviser but that didn’t work out. James Mattis just made a surprise visit to Baghdad and the first thing he did was tell the Iraqis that America wasn’t there to take all their oil – no matter what Trump keeps saying over and over and over. Professional managers who keep the gears turning clean up after their boss, and there’s no one more professional than a general.

Flynn wasn’t that guy. James Clapper and Obama fired this guy. Trump had to fire him. He was once good at this intelligence stuff and then he lost it. He went off the deep end, saying what no one else would say – that Islam is not a religion and all the rest – and then lied about his pre-election back-channel talks with the Russians. And he hated the CIA and NSA and all the rest. He had his own facts – those “Flynn facts” that his previous staff used to mock behind his back. That’s why James Clapper fired him at the end of the Obama administration, but that may be why Trump hired him.

That’s a story in and of itself, about Donald Trump. He has a thing for “bad boy” generals. In fact, in early 2016, Emily Flitter filed a curious background story for Reuters:

Presidential candidate Donald Trump admires the late Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, both World War Two generals. They were winners, unpredictable, and not especially nice guys, he says in campaign speeches. But Trump’s pledge to imitate their styles sets modern-day military experts on edge.

Although unquestionably in the pantheon of U.S. military heroes, MacArthur and Patton were also controversial figures remembered by historians as flamboyant self-promoters. The commander in the Pacific, MacArthur was eventually fired by President Harry Truman for speaking out against Truman’s policies in the Korean War, which followed World War Two. Before Patton died in December 1945, he questioned the need to remove Nazis from key posts in postwar German politics and society.

It seems that Donald Trump doesn’t attend to details:

Born in 1946, a year after World War Two ended, Trump often praises MacArthur and Patton for the blunt ways he says they commanded respect. “George Patton was one of the roughest guys, he would talk rough to his men,” Trump told an audience last week in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “His men would die for him,” Trump added. “We don’t have that anymore.” He said Patton would wipe out Islamic State without hesitation, were he still in command.

His audiences cheered, but others didn’t:

Interviewed by Reuters, recently retired military personnel voiced doubts about Trump’s grasp of U.S. military operations. One retired four-star general called Trump’s references to Patton and MacArthur “bumper sticker foolishness.” Another said Trump was comparing “apples to oranges” by likening America’s role in World War Two to the fight against Islamic State.

“He has no understanding of how it works, at least in my view,” said an aide to a third retired four-star general. “He makes these bold statements and one-liners, but that doesn’t translate into understanding what it takes to be a military leader, what it takes to develop a plan.”

In short, Trump was an amateur pretending he knows stuff that he doesn’t know:

Trump often says that in the spirit of MacArthur and Patton, he never wants to reveal his specific plans for military operations, since that would give the enemy a chance to prepare and counterattack. “I don’t want my generals being interviewed,” he said in Myrtle Beach.

Trump’s statement had an irony about it, given his oft-repeated comment that he knows what military experts have to say from their interviews on television. But historians said the comment also showed he has little understanding of just how often MacArthur and Patton spoke to the press.

“They were the media whores of their time,” said Daniel Drezner, a professor at International politics at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University who often writes on national security. He said anyone vaguely familiar with Patton by way of the 1970 George C. Scott film “Patton” would know he got into trouble for remarks that were politically controversial.

Trump saw that movie – everyone has – but there was this scene:

In early August 1943, Lieutenant General George S. Patton slapped two United States Army soldiers under his command during the Sicily Campaign of World War II. Patton’s hard-driving personality and lack of belief in the medical condition post-traumatic stress disorder, then known as “battle fatigue” or “shell shock”, led to the soldiers becoming the subject of his ire in incidents on 3 and 10 August, when Patton struck and berated them after discovering they were patients at evacuation hospitals away from the front lines without apparent physical injuries.

That was in the movie – Patton slapping the troubled soldier in the hospital and calling him a coward – and maybe Trump liked that scene. Trump’s like that. Everyone else is a coward. He’s not. Even if he didn’t go to Vietnam, he did attend a military academy, not a regular high school, so he knows about such things, or so he says:

Donald J. Trump, who received draft deferments through much of the Vietnam War, told the author of a coming biography that he nevertheless “always felt that I was in the military” because of his education at a military-themed boarding school.

Mr. Trump said his experience at the New York Military Academy, an expensive prep school where his parents had sent him to correct poor behavior, gave him “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.”

Maybe so, but Patton paid for slapping those soldiers:

Word of the incidents spread, eventually reaching Patton’s superior, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who ordered him to apologize to the men. Patton’s actions were initially suppressed in the news until journalist Drew Pearson publicized them in the United States. While the U.S. Congress and the general public expressed both support and disdain for Patton’s actions, Eisenhower and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall opted not to fire Patton as a commander. He was nonetheless sidelined from combat command for almost a year.

In the end, Patton, the tough guy some folks still loved, was more trouble than he was worth:

Seizing the opportunity the predicament presented, Eisenhower used Patton as a decoy in Operation Fortitude, sending faulty intelligence to German agents that Patton was leading the Invasion of Europe. While Patton eventually returned to combat command in the European Theater in mid-1944, the slapping incidents were seen by Eisenhower, Marshall, and other leaders to be examples of Patton’s brashness and impulsiveness. Patton’s career was halted as former subordinates such as Omar Bradley became his superiors.

Brashness and impulsiveness ended Patton’s career. Brashness and impulsiveness ended MacArthur’s career too – the sudden move to take all of Korea without thinking about the Chinese on the other side of the Yalu or what Harry Truman wanted him to do. Brashness and impulsiveness ended Michael Flynn’s career too.

Flynn was Trump’s kind of general, but reality intervened. Perhaps Trump hired “Mad Dog” Mattis because of his nickname, but Trump got a thoroughly professional thoughtful guy instead. John Kelly, the retired Marine general, is a thoroughly professional and thoughtful too. They’ll do their best to clean up Trump’s messes, and advise him to stuff saying stupid stuff, if he can. Trump many not listen, but they’ll probably try – and just as, under Eisenhower, Patton was out and Bradley was in, now Flynn is out and McMaster is in:

President Donald Trump has picked one of the military’s leading warrior-scholars to restore order to the National Security Council – but also one who has staked out a decidedly more hawkish position on Russia and gone out of his way to assert that the war against terrorism must not morph into a war against Islam.

There will be no more brashness and impulsiveness:

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s newly named replacement for ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, is considered one of the Army’s top intellectuals. When he was a young major he published a best-selling book about failed military leadership during the Vietnam War and later went on to help pioneer counterinsurgency operations in Iraq.

The first active-duty officer to hold the post since Colin Powell under President Ronald Reagan, he has also attained legendary status in military circles for his willingness to buck conventional wisdom.

It is a pedigree that might soon come in handy in his new post as the top national security policy official in the Trump White House.

McMaster is currently the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, where his job has been to figure out what the Army should look like in 2025 and beyond. He has placed particular emphasis on preparing to counter the kind of tactics and weapons that Russia, which he considers a rising threat to global stability, has used in its incursion in Ukraine.

This emphasis could put him at odds with Trump, who says he wants to improve relations with Russia and has expressed little concern about its aggressive behaviors in Eastern Europe and contends that Vladimir Putin can be bargained with.

And there will be no more nonsense:

Trump’s first pick to replace Flynn, Ret. Vice Adm. Bob Harward, turned down the job – in part, according to an individual familiar with his thinking, because he wasn’t given assurances he would be able to select his own staff and have autonomy from Trump’s close-knit political advisers – led by Steve Bannon, who Trump elevated to a permanent position on the National Security Council, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that Trump had given McMaster “full authority” to hire “whatever staff he sees fit.”

Not that this will be easy:

Philip Carter, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said McMaster will be tested to try to “impose order and discipline on a White House national security structure and process that has seen neither since Election Day.”

“This challenge will be particularly hard given the political winds within the White House, and the fact that McMaster comes to the White House as an outsider and relative political neophyte,” Carter said.

Retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, who has known McMaster for years, said the new national security adviser is a hard-charging and forceful personality who grasps the political challenges he will face in addition to the national security ones.

“He’s going to have to build a relationship with the boss, get in to see the boss,” said Barno. “There’s no question something he will do daily is tell the boss hard things that he doesn’t necessarily want to hear.”

That may be the real problem:

Max Boot, a conservative military scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and a longtime critic of Trump, spoke for many so-called “Never Trumpers” in the Republican Party.

“McMaster is one of the most impressive army officers of his generation – a rare combination of soldier and scholar,” Boot said. “I cannot imagine a better choice for national security adviser.”

Yet, like many he also has doubts that McMaster can succeed if Trump does not moderate his rhetoric and insists on giving both [Steve] Bannon and [his son-in-law Jared] Kushner their own foreign policy portfolios.

“Not even the most talented individual will succeed in that job as long as Bannon and Kushner continue to run their own foreign policies and as long as Trump continues to make outlandish statements questioning basic American commitments and valued allies.”

Fred Kaplan puts that this way:

The key thing to know about McMaster – an active-duty three-star general and deputy commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command – is that he has made a career of speaking truth to power, often instinctively, without the slightest talent for fawning to his superiors. He made his first mark with a Ph.D. dissertation, written when he was a major, titled Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. Contrary to conventional Army wisdom in the 1970s and ’80s – which blamed the war’s loss on civilian micromanaging and the media – McMaster lambasted the top U.S. military officers for betraying their constitutional duties by failing to give the president their honest military judgment as the nation plunged into the quagmire of Vietnam.

Trump needs to be careful. Honest military judgment can be painful:

Early in the Iraq war, as the invasion drifted into occupation and spawned an insurgency, McMaster was chief adviser to Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command. In that capacity, he compiled – and read – an enormous library of books and articles, many of them long out-of-print, about counterinsurgency warfare. In 2005, McMaster took command of an Army regiment whose 5,200 soldiers were ordered to liberate Tal Afar, a city of a quarter million people that had been taken over by insurgents. Applying the lessons of his books, which emphasized not only combat tactics but also economic development and partnerships with local political leaders, McMaster won the battle and stabilized the city.

Among his traits as a commander that have particular pertinence now was that he ordered his soldiers to treat detainees humanely and not to use derogatory language toward Muslims.

Maybe he’ll slap some sense into Trump on that. Trump may not know what he’s gotten himself into. He loves generals, and now he’ll face a real one.

The Los Angeles Times adds to that:

Temperamentally, McMaster is far from the volatile Flynn, who had raised alarm in many quarters over his conspiratorial outlook, his hotly anti-Islamic worldview and his murky ties to Russia.

Associates of the new security advisor, whose appointment will not require congressional confirmation, have described him as tough and detail-oriented, with a wide-ranging intellect grounded in hard-won realism. He also has no immediately apparent connections to Russia, notable amid increasing calls in Washington for a congressional investigation into possible ties between Moscow and Trump’s associates.

“It is not an overstatement to say that Americans and the world should feel a little safer today,” tweeted Andrew Exum, an author and academic who saw combat in Afghanistan and writes widely about military affairs.

He was not alone:

Even some of Trump’s sharpest critics on the Republican side were effusive. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who in recent days had expressed some highly public misgivings about the administration’s foreign policy direction and fundamental values, called McMaster an “outstanding choice” and “a man of genuine intellect, character and ability.”

“He knows how to succeed,” McCain said in a statement. “I give President Trump great credit for this decision.”

Another Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, who is chairman the House Intelligence Committee, pointed to McMaster’s “history of questioning the status quo and infusing fresh thinking and new approaches into military affairs.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a veteran of the Iraq war, also hailed the selection, calling McMaster “one of the finest combat leaders of our generation … a true warrior-scholar.”

Somewhat tellingly, Trump answered only one of the multiple questions reporters asked at the announcement: whether Pence had helped select McMaster.

“He did,” the president said.

That’s all Trump had to say and it’s not hard to imagine what happened here. Others told Trump that McMaster was a fine general. Trump loves generals. Flynn didn’t work out. McMaster was a general. He would do.

Trump won’t know what hit him. Everyone is trying to figure out Donald Trump. The Russians are working on their new dossier – on Donald Trump’s psychological makeup as a wild risk-taker who can be quite usefully naïve. Others are trying to decide if Trump is stone-cold crazy. In this care Trump seems to be a sad sort of wannabe military mastermind, the insecure kid from the military prep school who never served a day in his life, and this may be a classic case of overcompensation driven by insecurity. He named the guy who others said is the best general we have, but he’ll be sorry. For once, the rest of us won’t be.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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