President Richard Nixon was (in)famous for many things; one of the most important was the “madman” strategy in foreign affairs. Presidents from FDR on tried to impress on the world their gravitas and sense of responsibility in leading a great power. Nixon, in the teeth of the Vietnam War, came up with a different strategy. “Let them think I’m crazy,” he allegedly told Henry Kissinger. “Let them think I’ll drop the Big One on Hanoi. Then negotiate.”* Whether that played a part in the 1973 “peace” deal is another matter, but Nixon appeared to gain ever-greater enthusiasm for the strategy, until the mask began to eat the face.
The Trump administration appears to have developed, by default, a variant on the madman strategy. While the whole world is gawping at stories of decadence and chaos in the White House, US foreign policy is undergoing a shift. The Obama approach — in which the “soft power” of trade deals, reciprocal relationships, commitment to multi-polarism, and shows of respect (and a few drones) minimising the need for direct military threat or force — is being retrenched. In its place, there is a return to direct military presence and confrontation. Barely noticed, this represents one of the most important historical shifts of recent decades.
The chaos and disarray of the White House is a real factor in this of course. Whatever the exaggerations and errors of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, its overall picture has been multiply confirmed: a White House that began with multiple camps, a vast lack of expertise, months of disorganisation, and an absentee President, not across policy detail to the slightest degree.
The “Trump core” of the White House may be no less chaotic; but the “Trump administration” — something Donald Trump doesn’t play a huge role in — has stabilised. Unfortunately, it has done so because three key positions are now occupied by two US ex-generals, and a serving one, and they are running much of the presidency in the aspect where the President has the most unchecked power: as commander in chief.
John Kelly is chief of staff, and clearly de facto president of the US; given Trump’s schedule, it is clear that Kelly is choosing much of what comes across the President’s desk, or that he even knows about at all. Kelly is ex-Marines, a general with battlefield and whole hemisphere command experience, of South and Central America. The Defence Secretary is James Mattis, a warrior-scholar, who ended his career as head of US Central Command; the National Security Advisor is H.R. McMaster, a serving lieutenant-general, specialising in the Middle East, and military capabilities overview.
President Donald Trump knows less about anything than anyone with whom he deals; these three men, together, know everything about everything that concerns foreign and military policy. Together, they form a vast brain, on the US place in the world, with a long-term historical framework, strategic priorities and a vast command of detail. It is ridiculous to assume that they are not simply running the joint — with the Congressional Republican leadership running domestic policy, liaising with them via chief of staff Kelly — and presenting Trump with whatever they want signed.
You could say to that “duh”, but, well. Look at the way in which US foreign and military policy is still being parsed for signs of Trump’s hand in it, and Trumpism. Doubtless he does play an active role in some things — such as Twitter-spats with North Korea. It’s a measure of the world we live in, that the more trivial these interventions are, the greater their potential lethality. But the notion that the vast movements of the US in the world are somehow a product of his attitude or views, is an illusion generated by the God-like character of the office of the President, implicit in it from its creation in 1787, and confirmed with the creation of a species-ending nuclear arsenal. The only time since WWII that a US President hasn’t been intensely involved in the steering of their administration was in the last two years of the Reagan administration, when Ronnie’s brain was starting to rust, and the administration was de facto run by a committee of staff, advisors and cabinet members — one reason why the bizarre Iran-Contragate business got off the ground. Other than that, it seems that even Dubya and Reagan first-term have been more involved in their administration than Trump.
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That explains, of course, the hawkish direction of US foreign policy, and the renewed attention to Russia as a strategic adversary on a par with China. It explains above all, the most significant event of the moment — the plan to locate 30,000 US troops in Kurdistan, and Turkey’s invasion of Syria. This is a topic to which I’ll return tomorrow, but for the moment, it’s simply enough to observe that Trump-obsession can blind us to what is really going on: the rule of a military triumvirate in the US, and a return to hard power. Neither more nor less moral than the Obama doctrine, it is unquestionably different.
*It’s worth pointing out that Nixon, and others, had earlier considered dropping nuclear bombs on Hanoi as a real strategy, before rejecting it. So, y’know …