Trump is fond of boasting about “his” generals. But over the short course of his presidency’s first months, the possession and control have reversed themselves. Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly have banished all opposition and now pour the neo-con agenda straight into Trump’s ear.
WASHINGTON – The U.S., long known for its meddling in the affairs of other nations, also has a long and sordid history of supporting military juntas abroad, many of which it forced into power through bloody coups or behind-the-scenes power grabs. From Greece in the 1960s to Argentina in the 1980s to the current al-Sisi-led junta in Egypt, Washington has actively and repeatedly supported such undemocratic regimes despite casting itself as the world’s greatest promoter of “democracy.”
Finally in 2017, karma appears to have come back to roost, as the current presidential administration has now effectively morphed into what is, by definition, a military junta. Though the military-industrial complex has long directed U.S. foreign policy, in the administration of President Donald Trump a group of military officers has gathered unprecedented power and, for all intents and purposes, rules the country.
Three generals at the center of power
In a recent article in The Washington Post, titled “Military Leaders Consolidate Power In Trump Administration,” Post reporters Robert Costa and Philip Rucker noted that “At the core of Trump’s circle is a seasoned trio of generals with experience as battlefield commanders: White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. The three men have carefully cultivated personal relationships with the president and gained his trust.”
“This is the only time in modern presidential history when we’ve had a small number of people from the uniformed world hold this much influence over the chief executive,” John E. McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA who served in seven administrations, told the Post. “They are right now playing an extraordinary role.”
This role, however, appears to reach beyond “extraordinary”. Although Trump is fond of calling them “my generals,” they now, Costa and Rucker report, “manage Trump’s hour-by-hour interactions and whisper in his ear – and those whispers, as with the decision this week to expand U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, often become policy.” Another Washington Post article, published last Tuesday, led with the headline “The Generals Have Trump Surrounded.”
Also notable is the fact that this trio of generals has overseen the firing of more independent, “outsider” voices, notably Derek Harvey and Steve Bannon. Bannon, in particular, was a thorn in the side of the generals, in light primarily of his staunch opposition to the American “empire project” and new wars abroad. Bannon had opposed Trump’s strike against Syria, troop surges in Iraq, and the dropped hint of a ”military option” to deal with the crisis in Venezuela. The New York Times referred to McMaster as Bannon’s “nemesis in the West Wing,” precisely due to McMaster’s commitment to American empire building.
With Bannon’s relatively recent departure, the tone of the Trump administration – now unequivocally ruled by “the generals” – has changed significantly — as illustrated by Trump’s decision to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan, a measure both Bannon and Trump himself once opposed.
In addition, last Thursday, Politico published a report detailing the control exercised by Kelly over the president, as he personally vets “everything” that comes across Trump’s desk. Politico referenced two memos that laid out a system “designed to ensure that the president won’t see any external policy documents, internal policy memos, agency reports and even news articles that haven’t been vetted.”
The Hill further noted that Kelly is also “keeping a tight leash” on who gets to meet directly with the President in the Oval Office, which is now strictly appointment-only and also dependent upon Kelly’s approval.
How many generals does it take . . . ?
Kelly, however, is a recent arrival. H.R. McMaster, who took control of the National Security Council (NSC) following Flynn’s ouster in February, has been — at least since April — personally controlling the flow of national security information that makes it to the president. McMaster also took control of the Homeland Security Council and had Steve Bannon, known for his strident nationalism and anti-interventionism, removed from the NSC.
“McMaster is trying to put them [NSC staffers] under his control and either removing or downgrading people who had independent linkages to the White House so that advice will flow through him,” Mark Cancian, a national security expert and former White House official, told The Washington Post in April.
McMaster has drawn more ire than any other of “Trump’s generals” from disillusioned members of Trump’s base, many of whom have pejoratively referred to the NSC adviser as “President McMaster.” McMaster has also overridden many of the Trump’s policies, such as asking South Korea to pay for the THAAD missile system, and has actively pushed for a ground war in Syria and a massive 50,000-troop surge in Afghanistan.
The first of the trio of generals to be appointed to a high-ranking position in the Trump administration was Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Neo-cons like Bill Kristol and Elliot Abrams, along with “an anonymous group of conservative billionaires,” had called for Mattis to be drafted into running as a third party candidate in the 2016 election. Though his candidacy did not materialize as such, formal election appears to have been unnecessary.
Mattis began to take power in March. At the time, Defense One noted that Trump’s generals, including Mattis, “increasingly sound like they’re working for a different president altogether.” Trump’s failure to take the general’s advice was soon met with threats of resignation, shortly after which Trump’s tone changed and he gave Mattis “a freer hand to launch time-sensitive missions.”
The new model of command that arose involved “pre-delegating authority to Mattis; …that authority could be pushed much further down the chain of command – all the way down to the three-star general who runs JSOC.” Essentially, the White House, though still informed of military operations, relinquished commanding authority over the U.S. military to Mattis. Since the great “war power giveaway,” Mattis has overseen the expansion of every theater of war Trump inherited from his predecessor.
President Wolfowitz? The neo-cons back in the saddle and unchallenged
Not surprisingly, the path now being followed by the Trump administration, at the behest of the generals, is a familiar one. This likely owes to both Mattis’ and McMaster’s allegiance to notorious neo-cons and war hawks — such as Paul Wolfowitz, architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and creator of the Wolfowitz doctrine, and David Petraeus, disgraced general and former director of the CIA. Wolfowitz, in an April interview with Politico, revealed that he was in private email correspondence with both Mattis and McMaster, “in hopes they will pursue a U.S. strategy of stepped-up engagement in the Middle East” and elsewhere.
Though the generals are in control and their junta established, they are not the ones calling the shots — as Wolfowitz’s revelation suggests. The military-industrial complex and the ever-hawkish neoconservatives have taken over, refusing to let the anti-interventionism the American people voted for make itself heard. As Henry Kissinger — the man who installed military juntas throughout the world — once said of the Chilean people, while planning a coup against their democracy: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”
Over 60 years later, the theater of engagement has come home and the warning against foreign “communism” has been replaced by one against our own “anti-interventionism.” However, the powers-that-be have once again revealed that they will not allow the “irresponsibility” of any group, including American voters, to get in the way of their trillion dollar war racket and their expansion of the U.S. military empire.