The Cost of Chaos

West Point was a long time ago, just after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, just before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and we had to toss him out, and the Colonel in the family is finally retiring after all the tours from Baghdad to Kabul and getting to the heart of the matters at hand, as more of strategic thinker in the end, teaching at the Army War College and involved in the work of the Army’s Futures Command. Fluent in both French and Turkish, with that posting to Istanbul long ago, he knows far too much for combat command. He knows the overarching situation in the current key conflicts most everywhere – the detailed history and motivations of all parties. He can even keep all dozen or so Kurdish groups straight – who the good guys and the bad guys actually are. And don’t get him started on Ataturk. He’ll probably end up the retired consultant they call to untangle the nonsense both our adversaries and allies seem to generate in every damned crisis. He’ll be fine.

And he knows all these guys in Peter Bergen’s new book Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos:

From one of America’s preeminent national security journalists, an explosive, news-breaking account of Donald Trump’s collision with the American national security establishment, and with the world!

It is a simple fact that no president in American history brought less foreign policy experience to the White House than Donald J. Trump. The real estate developer from Queens promised to bring his brash, zero-sum swagger to bear to cut through America’s most complex national security issues, and he did. If the cost of his “America First” agenda was bulldozing the edifice of foreign alliances that had been carefully tended by every president from Truman to Obama, then so be it…

From Iraq and Afghanistan to Syria and Iran, from Russia and China to North Korea and Islamist terrorism, Trump and His Generals is a brilliant reckoning with an American ship of state navigating a roiling sea of threats without a well-functioning rudder. Lucid and gripping, it brings urgently needed clarity to issues that affect the fate of us all. But clarity, unfortunately, is not the same thing as reassurance.

That’s the blurb, the promo, but Bergen needs no pumping up – he’s CNN’s national security analyst, New America’s vice president, and a professor at Arizona State University. He produced the first television interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997. The interview, which aired on CNN, was the first time that bin Laden declared war against the United States to a Western audience – a scoop of course – but Bergen has written or edited eight books. Three of those were New York Times bestsellers, four were named among the best non-fiction books of the year by the Washington Post, and most of them have been translated into twenty-one languages. Bergen was also the editor of the South Asia Channel and South Asia Daily, online publications of Foreign Policy magazine, from 2009 to 2016 – so he doesn’t need hype. He knows his stuff.

The Washington Post asked Derek Chollet to review Bergen’s new book:

Derek Chollet is executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense. His next book is about the shared foreign policy legacy of Dwight Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Chollet knows his stuff too, and he gets right to the heart of the matter:

“Holy fuck! This can’t last. This is literally insane.” This salty quote, coming about midway through Peter Bergen’s rollicking account of President Trump’s foreign policy, is how an unnamed senior official describes the response of the two original adults in the room, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to one of many presidential decisions they felt unwise and uninformed – in this instance, the blithe approval of a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar in 2017. Soon enough, the government careers of both of these experienced and proud men would meet an unceremonious end. But their sentiments succinctly capture the way most of official Washington – and much of the world – thinks about U.S. foreign policy under Trump.

But there’s nothing new there:

From the moment Trump strutted into the Oval Office, we have been buried by an avalanche of jaw-dropping revelations about what happens when an unhinged, cynical and impulsive commander in chief bumps up against professionalism, decency and the rule of law. So when opening a new book promising still more inside stories of Trump’s foreign policy, it is hard to expect an author to say anything new – especially when the book was written before the impeachment drama started. Perhaps the best one can hope for is something that helps put this craziness in perspective and lays out the stakes for the future.

Chollet admits he had low expectations, but he was pleasantly surprised:

Bergen provides a deeply informed study, written with clarity and flair. Reflecting fresh research and nearly 100 interviews with some key players, his retelling of Trump’s foreign policy skillfully synthesizes what’s already known and adds gossipy tidbits. Although it doesn’t change the fundamental story line and may not create breaking news, it is the best single account of Trump’s foreign policy to date.

And that was a mess from the start:

The narrative arc of Bergen’s tale is familiar, showing how the relationship between the president and the military brass who initially staffed his administration – retired Marine generals Mattis and John Kelly, and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster – went down in flames. Bergen traces the ways Trump’s fanboy fascination with “his” generals transformed into deep frustration with their caution and ethical code.

Trump initially saw these men as cartoon characters – killers, he liked to call them, as though they were schooled exclusively in the ways of John Rambo. At first Trump crowed about “Mad Dog” Mattis like a mafia boss brags about his hired muscle, but he soon dismissed him as a “Little Baby Kitten” and mocked him as overrated. McMaster suffered an even more humiliating fate, as Trump quickly tired of his professorial briefings and disparaged his civilian suit because he looked “like a beer salesman.”

It’s almost as if Trump wanted stone-cold killers, who would gleefully kill for him, so of course he was frustrated with their caution and ethical code. He was angry. This was bait and switch. He was more of a “real” general than any of these guys. He wanted to kill, they didn’t. But the generals felt they had been deceived too, in the other parallel bait and switch:

As Bergen tells it, Mattis and McMaster were motivated to work for Trump by their perceptions of the Obama administration’s failures, especially in the Middle East. They thought Obama had squandered American leadership by not enforcing the red line in Syria, ceding ground to Moscow, withdrawing from Iraq and being too timid in the fight against the Islamic State.

Ironically, they ended up serving a president who wanted out of the region far more than Obama ever did. Instead of drastically altering the U.S. approach toward the Islamic State, Bergen explains, they followed a strategy that was essentially the same.

And they found themselves doing everything possible to save Obama policies (like the Iran nuclear agreement) that Trump was determined to destroy.

And what followed was almost absurd:

Bergen recounts how Mattis used all the tricks of the trade to thwart some of Trump’s most dangerous instincts, slow-rolling requests for military options or ignoring him altogether. “We have to make sure reason trumps impulse,” he quotes Mattis as saying. This seems laudatory when considering the nature of Trump’s requests: from telling his top national security officials that Seoul’s 10 million residents had to relocate, to questioning the U.S. commitment to NATO, to threatening to withdraw forces from South Korea or Afghanistan.

Yet this raises important questions for the future of civil-military relations. Do we want it to become routine for military leaders to ignore requests by a president and other civilian leaders? Would we feel the same way if this was how a future president – say, Elizabeth Warren or Nikki Haley – was treated? If that is okay, then, under what circumstances is it okay? Bergen doesn’t say, and one wonders what he thinks.

There’s no good answer to that question. No one wants a military coup, ending with the Generals in charge of everything, but no one wants to die either – because Trump is a bit impulsive. There’s no good choice, and then there’s this:

Recently things have taken an ugly turn, with the president surprising military leaders by abandoning the Kurds in northern Syria. Even more concerning, in echoes of McCarthy-era attacks on the Army, Trump and his family have promoted conspiracies questioning the loyalty of a senior military officer who serves in the White House. And Trump has championed the cause of Special Forces troops accused of war crimes, upending the military criminal justice system to shield some of them from punishment and leading to the firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer. Writing in The Washington Post, Spencer said that in intervening on behalf of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, the president showed “very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”

So, now, Chollet is worried:

Depending on the outcome of impeachment and the 2020 election, we may be in the kind of crisis where the military leadership – and all of us – will face an even more uncomfortable and dangerous situation. If the president survives and wins reelection, he will be empowered and emboldened to sow chaos. If he loses, we should expect him to triple-down on what he’s already saying: blaming enemies and traitors who hate America and who are trying to steal the presidency in a coup to destroy the country.

While it may seem far-fetched, we should carefully consider the circumstances when Trump once again looks toward “his” generals and ask, what will they do? As Bergen concludes his book, the choice is clear: They either “go along for the ride or resign.”

That makes them useless, but there is this guy:

Eliot Asher Cohen was a counselor in the United States Department of State under Condoleezza Rice from 2007 to 2009. In 2019, Cohen was named the 9th Dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, succeeding former Dean Vali Nasr. Before his time as Dean, he directed the Strategic Studies Program at SAIS. Cohen “is one of the few teachers in the American academy to treat military history as a serious field”, according to international law scholar Ruth Wedgwood.

The New York Times tapped him to write his own review of the Bergen book, and that’s a bit deeper:

Luckily, no one makes us read a book that covers all of our bad moments in the dental chair – the tut-tutting about a cracked tooth, the anesthetic-charged needle sliding into soft tissue, the high-pitched whine of the drill, the grating sound of enamel being ground away, the bleeding gum, the anodyne assurance that there are only four more visits left before the restoration is complete. Unfortunately, Peter Bergen has decided to have his readers relive the Trump foreign and national security policy equivalent in this account of the first three years of the current administration.

Open with a good and nasty metaphor. And that one is rather fine. Because this is extraordinarily painful:

Bergen focuses on the generals (Michael Flynn, John Kelly, Jim Mattis, McMaster and others) but he occasionally goes a bit beyond that, for instance describing Trump’s visit to Dover Air Force Base to witness the return of the body of a member of the SEALs killed in a raid gone bad. Typically, Trump immediately shifted the blame to his generals: “This is something they wanted to do.” The notion of accepting responsibility is as central to the military’s ethic as it is alien to Trump’s. His relationship with pretty much every general in his orbit failed because he seems to associate soldiering not only with violence, but also with uncaged brutality. Hence his initial approving description of Mattis as “Mad Dog” and his disgust at discovering that the Marine is a soft-spoken, well-read and judicious combat commander. Hence too his tensions with the leadership of the Department of Defense over the handling of military personnel accused of war crimes.

But here Cohen steps back and argues that Trump in not some anomalous madman:

Trump’s failure to comprehend America’s soldiers is not his alone. He arrived in office following several decades of uninformed adulation of the military by a population that knew very little about military life, and that now takes it for granted that strapping 21-year-old men with military ID cards should get precedence in boarding airplanes over 65-year-old grandmothers. Veering between mawkish sentimentality on the one hand and indulgence in video-game war porn on the other, the country could no longer appreciate as it once did the martial virtues, which are not unbridled ferocity but rather discipline, self-abnegation, perseverance and loyalty to a constitutional order rather than to a president.

So that made the Trump presidency inevitable and popular:

The Trump administration delivered the policies that a lot of Americans wanted. And when he did cross the accepted wisdom of the foreign policy establishment – most dramatically in moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem – the predictions of doom failed to materialize. An unskilled bluffer, Trump is instinctively wary of real confrontation, knowing as he does that he is president of a country that has been baffled by protracted wars and is not keen to engage in more. So he stopped short of immediately dangerous decisions.

And that worked well enough, but that only made things worse:

The damage to American foreign policy that the administration has done is too subtle to register in headlines, because there are no reliable metrics for a nation’s reputation. It is visible in the accommodations that countries make, though they would rather not do so, when they send ministers to Beijing and Moscow more often than to Washington. It is to be detected in the candid observation of the foreign minister of a major partner of the United States who says, “Look, we simply cannot trust you now, and we doubt that we can trust you in the future.”

And then there’s that persistent question:

Why did so many retired senior officials, including persons of proven judgment and impeccable records, expose their reputations, and much more seriously, their characters, to Donald Trump? His was an open book after all: not only with his deceit, cruelty and contempt for all the values by which they had guided themselves through long careers, but also with the near certainty for them of personal betrayal and humiliation.

Patriotism is part of the answer, no doubt; and the service reflex that had been bred into them over decades. But an unenchanted view of generals, as of other human beings, tells us that ambition, wishful thinking and unfounded self-confidence can afflict any of us.

The dutiful diplomats, civil servants and lieutenant colonel who marched reluctantly and expressionlessly to testify to the House Intelligence Committee in recent weeks seem to have had fewer illusions than those senior to them in rank and life experience.

Why did these generals walk into this? No one will ever know, but at least the historians just woke up:

A group of more than 700 historians, legal scholars and others published an open letter Monday urging the House of Representatives to impeach President Trump, denouncing his conduct as “a clear and present danger to the Constitution.”

The letter’s release comes two days before the House is expected to vote on two articles of impeachment.

“President Trump’s lawless obstruction of the House of Representatives, which is rightly seeking documents and witness testimony in pursuit of its constitutionally-mandated oversight role, has demonstrated brazen contempt for representative government,” the scholars write in the letter, which was published online by the nonprofit advocacy group Protect Democracy.

“So have his attempts to justify that obstruction on the grounds that the executive enjoys absolute immunity, a fictitious doctrine that, if tolerated, would turn the president into an elected monarch above the law,” they add…

Among the notable signatories of the latest letter are award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, biographer Robert A. Caro and historians Ron Chernow, Jon Meacham and Douglas Brinkley.

In short, the cost of Chaos became far too high:

In the letter, the scholars criticize Trump’s “numerous and flagrant abuses of power” and state that his actions “urgently and justly require his impeachment.”

“As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist, impeachment was designed to deal with ‘the misconduct of public men’ which involves ‘the abuse or violation of some public trust,’ ” they write.

“Collectively, the President’s offenses, including his dereliction in protecting the integrity of the 2020 election from Russian disinformation and renewed interference, arouse once again the Framers’ most profound fears that powerful members of government would become, in Hamilton’s words, ‘the mercenary instruments of foreign corruption,’ ” they add.

“It is our considered judgment that if President Trump’s misconduct does not rise to the level of impeachment, then virtually nothing does.”

And that’s that. This was the right time for the Colonel in the family to retire. He did his job with honor and discipline, self-abnegation, perseverance, and loyalty to a constitutional order. If that doesn’t matter anymore it is time to step back a catch up on all the missed sleep over all those years. America changed. And that’s the real cost of chaos.

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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