The idea Mattis was the “adult in the room,” the moral and intellectual restraint on Trump’s evil wishes, is tired. We’ve been recycling that one for two years and more now, as various “adults” were christened as such and rose and fell in the eyes of the media – Flynn, McMaster, Tillerson, Kelly, and now Mattis (the media regards Pompeo and Bolton as “dangerous” and thus not adults. Nobody else seems to make the news.)
Despite these adults’ irregularly scheduled regular departures, there has been no catastrophe, no war with Iran or China, no dismantlement of NATO, no invasion of Freedonia. We can certainly argue over the rights and wrongs of Trump’s foreign policy decisions (for example, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement) as with any other president, but that clearly falls within the boundaries of standard disagreements, not Apocalypse 2018: Trump Unleashed. The big news is that none of the terrible things and in reality, tweets aside, very few of the small bad things, have come to pass. It’s almost as if all the predictions have been… wrong.
Somewhat unique to the Trump era is the idea cabinet officials, appointed by the President and who work for the executive branch, are supposed to be part of some underground #Resistance check and balance system. One pundit critically observed “If Trump holds to form, he will look for a new secretary of Defense who sees the job as turning his preferences into policy rather acting as a guardrail on his impulses.” Leaving out the hyperbole, isn’t that what all presidents look for in their cabinet, people who will help them enact policy?
Positions like Secretary of Defense exist to carry out the policies of the executive branch, offering advice and counsel of course, but ultimately are not independent actors. I can’t seem to recall anyone saying Donald Rumsfeld failed to control the worst impulses of George Bush, or was expected to do so. No, this is a role imagined into existence by a paranoid media streamlined now to condemn anything Trump does and praise the, well, opposite. Much media have been spent explained how it was good Mattis “slow walked” and stalled orders from his boss. In any other administration that would be called borderline insubordination; it is real chaotic when underlings don’t follow orders. People usually get fired for that. With Trump somehow it is labeled courageous. I do wonder how open Mattis would be for some of his generals slow walking a few of his own orders, you know, the ones they disagree with politically.
Funny thing, but here’s a partial list of things that happened when Mattis (and McGurk, below) was in senior leadership positions which did not call forward from him an act of conscience such as resigning: Bush starting the Iraq war based on lies, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Gitmo, torture, drone killings of multiple civilians. And Obama agreeing to forever hide torture, drone killing American citizens, invading Libya under whatever pretenses, not closing Gitmo. And Trump threatening nuclear war with North Korea. Nope, that was all apparently cool. Just don’t ask these guys to stop a war.
It has become common now for the media to ascribe super powers to outgoing officials, and the veneration of Mattis and the whispers about all the crises’ he quietly averted these past two years for us are only now beginning. It is all expected and it is all meaningless. Mattis did a decent enough job but was neither a superstar nor a goat, just SecDef for a couple of years.
Seriously, if your system is so fragile that it can be broken by one man, and otherwise depended on another one man to keep it afloat and not destroy the world, the problem is the system, not Trump.
Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the coalition (which is mostly just the U.S.) fighting the Islamic State, has accelerated his resignation by two months, telling colleagues this weekend that he could not in good conscience carry out Trump’s newly declared policy of withdrawing American troops from Syria. No American, it seems, can support in good conscience actually ending a war.
Funny aside: There were no known State Department resignations of protest during the 15 years of atrocities known as the War of Terror (as well as no publicly released dissent memos.)No one quit because of torture, or Abu Ghraib, or Gitmo, or white phosphorus against civilians, or any invasion or drone kill. Zero. That must have all been OK! At the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over the 2003 Iraq War, and one other related to Afghanistan. In 2016, 51 American diplomats did write a formal dissent memo calling on Obama to order military strikes against the Syrian government. Former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is believed to have resigned that post in protest over the Obama administration not going to war in Syria.
McGurk has a long, long history with Iraq and Syria. In fact, he has been the Forrest Gump of the American Gulf Wars.
McGurk worked in Iraq under multiple US ambassadors and through both the Bush and Obama administrations. He was present at nearly every mistake the US made during the years of Occupation. In return for such poor handling of so many delicate issues, McGurk was declared “uniquely qualified” and Obama nominated him as America’s ambassador to Baghdad in 2012. You’d kinda think having that on your resume– I am partially responsible for everything that happened in Iraq for the last ten years, including America’s tail-between-its-legs retreat – might make it hard to get another job running Iraq policy. Who goes out of their way to hire the coach that lost most of his games?
Unfortunately, around that same time a series of near-obscene emails appeared online, showing a sexual relationship between the then-married-to-someone else McGurk, and a then-married-to-someone else female reporter assigned to Baghdad. The emails suggested a) that official US government communications were being used to arrange nooky encounters; b) that McGurk may have shared sensitive information exclusively with this one reporter as pillow talk; c) that he may have ditched his security detail to engage in his affair and d) rumors circulated that a McGurk sex tape, featuring a different woman, existed.
McGurk withdrew his nomination for ambassador and was promptly appointed by the State Department as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, a position without the title of ambassador but one with a significant role in policy making. Conveniently, the position was not competed and did not require any confirmation process. McGurk just walked in to it with the thanks of a grateful nation.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.