Almost the Right Thing

There was that graduation at West Point long ago. Colin Powell spoke – he was fine. The Soviet Union had just collapsed and we had no enemies now. In fact, our idea of how societies should be organized had won. Our form of democracy was the only thing that actually worked. Francis Fukuyama had called it The End of History – but we would still need a military, and need thoughtful military leaders, to keep the peace and manage things and inspire others. That was Powell’s message, and those young men and women were amazing – Duty, Honor, Country – they were the real deal. They could pull that off.

Everyone should attend a graduation at West Point, especially those of us who were part of the late-sixties long-haired left who had turned into middle-aged bleeding-heart liberals. Powell and Fukuyama were wrong. Saddam Hussein soon tried to grab Kuwait and had to be tossed out of there – and then September 11 happened and we had our wars. We’re living through what had to follow those – perpetual proxy wars all across the Middle East and now all around the world, where our friends are sometimes our enemies and our enemies are sometimes our friends. That means that Powell was actually right. We do need thoughtful military leaders more than ever. There’s a lot to sort out, that won’t stay sorted out. Attend a graduation at West Point. There’s hope. There are those who will do the right thing.

But there’s something else. There was that second marriage to the much younger tall-young-blond former model. Divorced men, in their mid-thirties, who move to California, do such things – that’s normal – but that marriage came with a new father-in-law, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, with a big office in the Pentagon. That changed things. The visits to the Pentagon were surreal – small talk with admirals and generals. It had to be small talk. They couldn’t say anything about anything to someone who worked for a defense contractor, and someone who worked for a defense contractor, even in human resources, shouldn’t say anything about anything to them. Baseball and the weather were safe. Frank Carlucci, a weaselly little man who was secretary of defense at the time, just smiled – he had all the power in the room. It was a bit unnerving. These guys were doing all they could to arm Saddam Hussein, probably sending him anthrax, so he could take care of Iran for us. These guys were probably doing lots of stuff. No one would ever know.

No one was supposed to know. The government runs on secrets. There are wheels within wheels and multiple levels of security clearances, and even then there are “need to know” restrictions no matter how high your clearance. That’s how things get done. You just have to trust these guys. They know the current good guys from the current bad guys, at the moment, before things reverse again – and they take care of those bad guys, in silence most of the time. You don’t have the proper clearance or the “need to know” to understand. Make small talk. That’ll do. And that’s a long way from West Point and those utterly honorable young men and women. There is duty, and honor, and country, and there is power and politics and secrecy and lies, and massive egos and a need to dominate others, to survive.

And they had to collide. And they just did:

Former defense secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned last year after clashing with President Trump, says in a book excerpt that “I did as well as I could for as long as I could” and warns of the dangers of a leader who is not committed to working with allies.

Mattis, who announced his resignation in December after Trump shocked U.S. allies and overruled his advisers by announcing a troop withdrawal from Syria, writes in his book that he decided to depart “when my concrete solutions and strategic advice, especially keeping faith with our allies, no longer resonated.”

It seems he finally realized what Trump’s catchphrase was all about, or he finally realized that Trump was actually serious about his two magic words, that Trump really could be that dumb:

In the excerpt, published Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal, Mattis writes about the need for leaders to appreciate the value of allies without explicitly mentioning Trump, who has made a slogan of “America First.”

“Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither,” Mattis writes. “Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy. At this time, we can see storm clouds gathering. A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader. A leader must display strategic acumen that incorporates respect for those nations that have stood with us when trouble loomed.”

Mattis argues for “returning to a strategic stance that includes the interests of as many nations as we can make common cause with.”

“Absent this,” he says, “we will occupy an increasingly lonely position, one that puts us at increasing risk in the world.”

That’s not a profound thought. That’s common sense. That’s the way the world has worked since the first modern nation-states were formed in the eighteenth century. Stand alone and you disappear. Stand together and you can get rid of Hitler, or build a rules-based free-trade system that assures that all parties are safe and prosperous. It’s quite simple, but Donald Trump (and Boris Johnson) doesn’t believe a word of any of that, so Mattis had to bite his tongue, and he had been doing that:

Although Mattis’ views were no secret when he served in Trump’s Cabinet, he had maintained near-total public silence since resigning.

Trump’s Syria announcement, made on Twitter, was the immediate cause of Mattis’ departure. But the two were at odds over several issues almost from the time that the then president-elect, following an introduction and 40-minute meeting with the retired Marine general, announced his nomination.

Calling him “Mad Dog Mattis,” a Marine nickname Mattis reportedly disliked, Trump referred to him as “one of our great, great generals.”

And then real life intervened:

Over the next two years, Mattis played a major role in formulating Trump’s strategy against the Islamic State and in Afghanistan, and he successfully recommended that Trump lift the more restrictive rules of combat engagement put in place by President Barack Obama. Viewed as an Iran policy hawk, he questioned the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran but disagreed with Trump’s decision to withdraw from it. He voiced appreciation for military spending increases he had said were sorely needed.

But Mattis, who spent four active decades as a Marine and held a number of senior commands, was seen as personally uncomfortable with the president’s scattershot policy pronouncements. While he largely kept his views of Trump to himself, he was outspoken on the threat posed by Russia and China and the need to preserve the international alliances that the president repeatedly denigrated.

Allied governments and foreign policy experts saw him as a stabilizing influence in a turbulent and unpredictable administration.

And that was the kiss of death:

By last fall his imminent departure was widely rumored. When a book by journalist Bob Woodward reported that Mattis had privately compared Trump to a “fifth- or sixth-grader,” Trump responded that Mattis was “sort of a Democrat” and noted that “he may leave” the Cabinet.

In his resignation letter to the president, Mattis said that “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.” While he offered a two-month transition to a new secretary, Trump announced his immediate departure.

That was a mess. Trump kept insisting that he fired this jerk. Trump hadn’t even read the resignation letter. Which came first? In the end it didn’t matter much. Mattis was gone. But he’s not gone:

Mattis writes that he is more concerned today about “our internal divisiveness” than “our external adversaries.”

“We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions,” he writes. “All Americans need to recognize that our democracy is an experiment – and one that can be reversed. We all know that we’re better than our current politics. Tribalism must not be allowed to destroy our experiment.”

It may be too late for that, and the reviews are in:

Former defense secretary Jim Mattis has broken months of silence with an indirect critique of President Trump’s leadership in a new book and interview. But Mattis’ effort to distance himself from the White House has sparked new criticism of his tenure at the Pentagon and the way he has straddled his political and military identities.

Even in retirement, Mattis has sought to play the role of the responsible, apolitical, respected Marine. In an essay published Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal, Mattis obliquely attacked Trump’s dismissive treatment of U.S. allies, without mentioning the president by name.

He tried to have it both ways:

“Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy,” Mattis wrote. “A leader must display strategic acumen that incorporates respect for those nations that have stood with us when trouble loomed.”

In an interview published Thursday in the Atlantic, granted in part to promote his book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,” Mattis defended his decision not to directly air his grievances with the president.

“You don’t endanger the country by attacking the elected commander in chief,” he said. “I may not like a commander in chief one fricking bit, but our system puts the commander in chief there, and to further weaken him when we’re up against real threats – I mean, we could be at war on the Korean peninsula.”

That won’t do:

Mattis’ approach – in which he vaguely describes his frustrations with Trump and then says he can’t criticize him – has brought a hail of disapproval from critics…

“Mattis saw his duty as preventing the worst from happening” when he was defense secretary, said retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, who has written extensively about civil-military relations. “But he also legitimized the worst. He lent his honor and integrity to the Trump administration. He didn’t just give the president Jim Mattis’ credibility. He gave Donald Trump the military’s credibility.”

On the other hand:

“I think Mattis in some ways is either made into a saint or the devil, and he is neither,” said Kathleen Hicks, the senior vice president for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He’s a human. He’s very capable, loyal and patriotic, and for all those reasons in some ways, people put upon him these burdens that aren’t realistic.”

“It’s very hard for any of us to put ourselves in those shoes,” she added.

But he did make a mistake:

Hicks noted that Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a longtime friend of Mattis, also has said that he will not criticize the president, but that there is a fundamental difference between the two leaders at this point. Dunford is an active-duty Marine, and Mattis was serving as a politically appointed member of the Trump administration.

“I think at heart he is that 40-year veteran Marine, and yet he took a political position,” Hicks said of Mattis. “I don’t think he ever became comfortable with the reality that it is, in fact, a political position.”

And that discomfort might explain this:

In his interview with the Atlantic, Mattis repeatedly underscored what he said is his “duty” not to criticize Trump, but he also makes it clear he disapproved of some of the president’s behavior.

At one point, the article’s author reads to Mattis a tweet in which Trump says he is not disturbed by North Korea’s launching “some small weapons” and then attacks former vice president Joe Biden as a “low IQ individual.”

Mattis responded that “any Marine general or any other senior servant of the people of the United States” would find it “counterproductive and beneath the dignity of the presidency.”

“Let me put it this way,” Mattis added. “I’ve written an entire book built on the principles of respecting your troops, respecting each other, respecting your allies. Isn’t it pretty obvious how I would feel about something like that?”

But should he have said anything? Slate’s Fred Kaplan addresses that:

Mattis has a proper case for not rousing an overt campaign against Trump. Ever since Gen. Douglas MacArthur publicly tried to undermine President Harry Truman’s policies during the Korean War (leading Truman to relieve the popular combat hero of his duties), the U.S. military services – in their manuals, academies, and training drills – have drummed into recruits, officers, and commanders the firm dictum that they must accede to civilian leadership and stay out of politics.

We should all be thankful for this drumming. It is never good for democracy to be saved by a Man on a White Horse. Mattis – a bookish bachelor and charismatic combat commander, widely venerated as one of the few “grown-ups in the room” during his two years in the Trump administration – could step into that role, if he were so inclined.

Lucky for us, he seems sensitive to the dangers of even appearing to saddle up. His ambivalence about criticizing the president probably stems from genuine anguish about those dual obligations – to the civilian commander and to constitutional principles.

Good for him. Let him be honorable. But others don’t have his conflicts:

Some of those who have resigned from the Trump administration are doing business with the government in some capacity and don’t want to incur the president’s wrath. Many others want to leave open the option of returning to government after Trump’s tenure is done – and don’t want some potential future boss to suspect they might not be team players, that they might place their own agendas above that of the administration.

Meanwhile, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of recently departed officials are walking among us, intimately aware of the dangers posed by this president, some of them possibly pondering whether to speak out. Mattis has chosen his brand of tightrope. Some, among his former colleagues and brother officers, think he’s gone over the line; others want him to broaden the line and go further still with his criticism; many wonder why he got up on the tightrope to begin with if he wasn’t going to walk the full distance.

Still, maybe he’ll inspire others, especially those who don’t face the dilemmas that come with wearing the uniform, to get up and say something themselves.

On the other hand there’s Tina Nguyen at Vanity Fair with Mattis Says He Loves America Too Much to Call Trump a Moron – but she’s wrong:

Mattis also indicated he might soon more vocally challenge the president and speak out about his time leading the Defense Department. “There is a period in which I owe my silence. It’s not eternal. It’s not going to be forever,” he said.

Donald Trump should be worried, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog would rather not wait:

General Mattis is endangering the country by not telling us what he knows. So is every other disaffected ex-Trumper. Veiled, diplomatically phrased, non-specific attacks on Trump don’t motivate him to curb his behavior. They don’t inspire reflection within his inner circle. They don’t lead to second thoughts on the part of his allies in Congress or in the media. So what’s the point?

Journalists – don’t treat these teasers as heroes. They should get into specifics about Trump’s misrule or go away quietly.

Steve M doesn’t get it. Mattis’ dilemma is real, and David Brooks notes how deep Mattis’ conflict with Trump runs:

In the first few months of his presidency, Donald Trump surrounded himself with a certain sort of ramrod military man: John Kelly, Michael Flynn, H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis. These men had or appeared to have the kind of manly virtues and bearing that Trump likes to see in himself – courage, toughness, combativeness.

But when you look at how someone like, say, Jim Mattis forged his character, you realize that he is actually the exact opposite of Trump. Mattis built strengths and virtues through the steady application of intense effort over decades. Trump is a man who has been progressively hollowed out by the acid of his own self-regard.

Mattis is a man who is intensely loyal to others and attracts loyalty among those around him. Trump is disloyal to others and attracts disloyalty in return.

Trump expected courage, toughness, combativeness, but got duty, honor and country instead, and he got this:

Mattis was a mediocre college student. He partied too much and was jailed for underage drinking. But then he discovered the Marine Corps. His new book “Call Sign Chaos,” which he wrote with Bing West and which will be released next week, is purportedly about leadership but really it is a portrait of Mattis’ life-defining love for the Marine Corps.

His prose sings when he describes those times when he was out on some battlefield exercise with frontline Marines. When he is stuck away inside the Pentagon or high up commanding NATO, you feel his longing for their presence.

Mattis reads Roman writers like Marcus Aurelius, but he is no stoic.

He wants to be out there where the action is – he’d never make any claim about bone spurs – but he also reads books:

Mattis’ drive, born of his devotion to the Corps, is his most telling trait. He works insanely hard, propels himself extremely quickly, making himself, every day, a better Marine. Much of the work is intellectual. He thought the second Iraq war was a crazy idea, but when he was ordered to command part of it, he started reading Xenophon and ancient books about warfare in Mesopotamia.

“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you,” Mattis and West write.

But he’s not talking about Donald Trump, right? And there’s this:

Mattis is also willing to submit himself to an institution. Somebody like Trump is anti-institutional. He thinks every organization is about himself and that every organization’s procedures and traditions should bend to his desires.

But a person with an institutional mind-set has a deep reverence for the organization he has joined and how it was built by those who came before. He understands that institutions pass down certain habits, practices and standards of excellence.

Mattis asserts that his way of doing warfare is simply the Marine way. In the Marine way, for example, “Amateur performance is anathema, and the Marines are bluntly critical of falling short. Personal sensitivities are irrelevant.”

Each mission gives him another body of knowledge, another strength, and greater capacity to live his devotion to his country.

So this is about duty and honor and country, and amateur performance is anathema. Why was James Mattis working for Trump?

No one knows. But everyone now knows that there is a period in which he thinks he “owes” his silence. And it’s not eternal. It’s not going to be forever. And then things get interesting.

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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