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Old 12-10-2019, 09:29 AM
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Arrow The Military’s Illusions - About Donald Trump

The Military’s Illusions - About Donald Trump
By: Eliot A. Cohen - The New York Times - Dec. 10, 2019, 11:00 a.m. ET
RE: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/10/b...er-bergen.html

Title: TRUMP AND HIS GENERALS - The Cost of Chaos - By Peter Bergen

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.

There it all is — the spectacular flameouts, from semitragic former generals ending up in court to harlequins flitting through White House corridors; the kooky theories of “The Fourth Turning,” which informed Stephen Bannon’s understanding of American history; the impulsive hires of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the national security adviser H. R. McMaster, and their humiliating tweet-singed send-offs; the jumped-up mediocrities incapable of writing a memo and the multimillionaires on the make with schemes to outsource the Afghan war; the birther conspiracy theories about Barack Obama; Kellyanne Conway’s invocation of the Bowling Green massacre and alternative facts; the constant expletive-laden discourse in which major American foreign policy decisions were conceptualized by the president as variations on the Anglo-Saxon monosyllable for sexual intercourse; the contempt for human rights, loyalty to allies and fidelity to covenants. And all this before the Ukrainian quid pro quo.

One should be grateful to Bergen, a vice president at New America and the author of several books on national security, even though none of the stories are fundamentally new. The anti-Trump Republican foreign and national security officials who denounced him in two letters in March and August of 2016 (both of which I had a hand in) foresaw all of this. It took a level-headed observer of no particular insight or special knowledge to understand that Donald Trump’s deficiencies of character, outlook and experience made him unfit for office. But “Trump and His Generals” raises, even if it does not address deeply, some important questions about the outlandish and sordid tale.

One of these has to do with Trump’s relationship with the military. 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 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.

Similarly, to the extent one can set aside the buffoonery, one has to ask: Why have Trump’s policies been popular (at least to some degree), and even more, why has no grievous calamity resulted?

To answer the first, the awkward truth is that his predecessor’s instincts, though more measured and thought out than his own, were not fundamentally different. The Obama administration fussed about our European allies and was not inclined to pick fights with Russia. It discovered the virtues of the Trans-Pacific Partnership only when it was too late to do anything about it. It wanted to exit Iraq and Afghanistan as fast as possible and was, like its successor, squeamish about Syria. It had no solution for North Korea, and it hoped that the Venezuelan catastrophe would just go away. It talked of “nation-building at home,” which is not quite Trump’s “American carnage,” but the two ideas are linked. Bergen acknowledges some of these uncomfortable parallels but does not dwell on them.

In some measure, then, 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.

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.”

There is one remaining question that Bergen’s book does not answer, in part because his generals probably cannot do so themselves. 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. When, in one year or five, we finally get out of Donald Trump’s foreign policy dentist’s chair, that is one of the puzzles we may wish to ponder as we rub our aching jaw.

Eliot A. Cohen is the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Book title: TRUMP AND HIS GENERALS - The Cost of Chaos
By Peter Bergen
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