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The Generals Have Won Their War With Trump

The missile attack on Syria shows how the president has caved to the Pentagon—with deadly consequences for U.S. foreign policy.

NICHOLAS KAMM / Getty Images

As a candidate, Donald Trump swaggered about how he’d order the military to do what he wanted. “They won’t refuse,” he said during a Republican debate, defending his call for the military to “take out” terrorists’ families. “They’re not gonna refuse me. Believe me.” He also claimed to have unique expertise. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me,” he said at a rally in Iowa. The U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base on Friday make clear a different reality: The Pentagon, not the White House, is playing the dominant role not just in military strategy, but in shaping foreign policy.

Trump’s campaign boasts were in keeping with the general cockiness of his ambitious foreign policy agenda, which promised to revive a radical “America first” nationalism and upend the internationalist consensus that has endured since World War II. Trump promised to tear up trade agreements like NAFTA, remake (and perhaps even end) alliances like NATO, foreswear regime change in the Middle East, and open up friendlier relations with Russia. This ambitious agenda is now in tatters, as Trump has caved in on issue after issue, giving in to the Republican foreign policy establishment.

The internal counterrevolution against Trump’s foreign policy agenda have been led by the generals, the very people Trump claimed to be smarter than. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster (aided by White House Counsel Don McGahn) along with Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have successfully outmaneuvered the supporters of the “America first” agenda, notably former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who resigned in disgrace over lies about his Russia contacts, and senior adviser Steve Bannon, who was removed earlier this week from the principals committee of the National Security Council.

Bannon’s removal, seemingly pushed by McMaster, is the latest in a series of setbacks for Trump’s agenda. On Monday, Jared Kusher, the president’s son-in-law and perhaps his most influential adviser, made a surprise visit to Iraq, where Dunford had his ear. By Wednesday, Bannon was demoted amid widespread reports that his star was waning. The following day, Trump reversed his longstanding Syrian policy of turning a blind eye to the crimes of dictator Bashar al-Assad in the interest of fighting ISIS. Instead, Trump took up the very policy he had derided his rival Hillary Clinton of advocating: to punish Assad for human rights violations. “We should not be focusing on Syria,” Trump said in October. “You’re going to end up in World War Three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton.”

Trump has come around not just to Clinton’s way of thinking, but, more significantly, the Pentagon’s way of thinking. President Barack Obama had long frustrated the national security establishment (encompassing senior leaders in the military and intelligence community, as well as the leading think tanks) by his reluctance to intervene in Syria. With Trump, the national security establishment has found a president who is much more pliable than Obama was. Obama had the strength of character and independence of mind to challenge the top military brass when he thought their policies were wrong. There’s no evidence that Trump has these qualities—quite the contrary.

Trump’s pliability shouldn’t be surprising. He’s already shown a tendency to outsource his presidency to those more committed to—and knowledgable about—policy details than he is. Trump has left broad economic policy to his Goldman Sachs crew, legislation (such as health care) to House Speaker Paul Ryan, and administrating the government to Jared Kushner. It’s only taking things to their logical conclusion to let the generals handle military policy.

While Trump is suspicious of experts in fields like science and national-security intelligence, there are two types of specialists he trusts: the very rich (hence all the plutocrats on his cabinet) and men in uniforms (hence surrounding himself with soldiers like Mattis and McMaster, as well as Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly). Perhaps Trump’s experience as student at the New York Military Academy also left an impression.

But the broadest reason for Trump to defer to the generals has to do with his own character. While Mattis and McMaster have decades of experience in the corridors of power, Trump is an outsider in Washington with no government experience and no real sense of how to execute policy. The same is true of Bannon. Compared to shrewd bureaucratic warriors like Mattis and McMaster, Trump and Bannon are rank dilettantes. Moreover Trump, unlike Obama, has expressed little interest in using diplomacy to address military crises around the world, and his key non-military advisers on foreign policy—namely Kushner and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—lack the necessary diplomatic experience to do so anyway.

The consequences are clear. The “America first” foreign policy agenda is stalled while the Trump administration looks increasingly like a conventional Republican administration, albeit an unusually chaotic one. As paleo-conservative analyst Daniel McCarthy noted in the National Interest, Trump is adopting “an establishment Republican approach that is rooted in the past.”

The signs are everywhere. Partly in response to indignation on Capitol Hill from Senators such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, President Trump is rapidly shifting his rhetorical stance on Syria. A few days ago intervention was out; now it appears that some form of military measures in Syria are in. Personnel changes are taking place as well. Steve Bannon is out and Nikki Haley is in at the National Security Council.

Not surprisingly, Trump’s most avid “America first” fans are deeply disappointed at what they see as the victory of a neoconservative and “globalist” (in other words, Jewish) foreign policy agenda.

Adopting a conventional Republican foreign policy has obvious advantages for Trump. He’s already being praised for it in mainstream media outlets. And since he’s under investigation by the FBI for possible collusion with Russia, cooperating with the national security establishment is a way of building loyalty from key institutions which could help him during the rocky days ahead as domestic scandals unfold.

All of this is causing a novel situation where civilian-military relations have been turned upside down. Over the course of American history, soldiers have usually submitted to presidential power. Abraham Lincoln clashed with, and triumphed over, General George McClellan. The same pattern was followed by Harry Truman over Douglas McArthur, John F. Kennedy over Curtis LeMay, and Barack Obama over Stanley McChrystal. With Trump, it’s more likely that the military will be setting foreign policy for the remainder of his term, especially since those ostensibly tasked with the job (Tillerson and Kusher) manifestly lack the necessary skills. The fact that Trump has demoralized the State Department with threatened budget cuts will only make the military, which has been promised a massive budget increase, all the more dominant.

At first glance, it might seem reassuring to have a foreign policy dominated by McMaster and Mattis rather than Bannon. But military men aren’t diplomats, and even if they’re personally adverse to war, their training is in finding military solutions to armed conflicts. Combine that with Trump’s mercurial temper, macho posturing, and habit of insulting foreign leaders, and we have a recipe for more instability and more wars.