Near-daily gossip surrounds Donald Trump’s three marquee generals.
The media sometimes blare out rumors that General John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, is proving to be a loose cannon and might soon be fired.
Lt. General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, is occasionally rumored to be a robotic PowerPoint wonk and hawkish interventionist who soon might be terminated.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis is purportedly too much the centrist Democrat, and embarrassed by Trump’s antics, and thus might be leaving.
Of course, few Cabinet or White House appointees ever serve throughout an entire administration. Burnout is natural. Lucrative private-sector job offers multiply monthly. Normal people do not enjoy living inside the Beltway.
Barack Obama had four defense secretaries, three national security advisers and five chiefs of staff. That is about par for a presidential tenure covering eight years.
But the problem with all these rumors of departing generals is not just that they are likely false and shopworn. They also make no sense because the three generals have been radically successful. In just a year, they have markedly enhanced U.S. national security as well as the image of the Trump administration itself.
The media, which is mostly anti-Trump, has always been schizophrenic in the coverage of the three generals. Some media outlets initially echoed old worries about too many Pentagon tentacles or the militarization of the executive branch. They forgot that generals, both active and retired, have long held administration jobs. General Colin Powell, for instance, served four different presidents, starting with his tenure as national security adviser under Ronald Reagan.
Others in the media had hoped that the mostly apolitical generals would nudge the wild-card Trump left of center and embed him within the Washington foreign-policy establishment.
But now, most journalists seem baffled that the generals are either proving too conservative or not standing up to Trump enough—as if playing the role of the loud maverick to a president had been in the job description of any Cabinet secretary or White House official of the past.
By late 2016, strategic deterrence had mostly been lost due to the prior administration’s failed Russian reset; unchecked Chinese ascendance; a comatose approach to North Korean nuclear enhancements; the Iran deal; empty red lines, step-over lines and deadlines; the Syrian and Libyan misadventures; the collapse of Iraq and rise of ISIS; and the alienation of Israel and the Gulf states.
In reaction to these growing threats, our friends have been reassured, enemies have been warned, and stability is returning. ISIS is on the run. North Korea is forcefully embargoed. Defense spending is up. Missile defense is recalibrated. And reset fantasies are over with Vladimir Putin.
Trump’s improving poll numbers reflect the order that Kelly established out of chaos in the West Wing. In delusional fashion, the media had hoped that a four-star Marine general might be a liberal wolf in conservative sheep’s clothing—so it’s easy to understand why the number of Kelly’s media critics has grown.
Kelly is a no-nonsense traditionalist and serves Trump not just by improving the mechanics of day-to-day operations in the White House, but also by helping Trump with the shared goal of restoring U.S. economic and military dynamism.
Mattis and McMaster are said to play good cops abroad to Trump’s bad cop. By warning that the alternative to negotiations is a raging Trump who might do anything, the two generals are purportedly leveraging everything from delinquent NATO members’ defense contributions to European help in isolating Iran and North Korea.
The problem with that scenario is not that it is absolutely false, but that the stereotype is exaggerated and simplistic. After all, it is difficult to see where Mattis and McMaster have disagreed with Trump—or, for that matter, with the American people—on existential issues.
Who wishes to return to Obama’s principles of “strategic patience” and “lead from behind”? Do critics want more of the massive Defense Department cuts that had been the most severe since the end of the Korean War? Should there be more apology tours, or further outreach to Cuba and Venezuela?
The real challenge for the generals has been how to warn enemies and reassure friends that past global provocations against U.S. interests will now be deterred—but without a major war.
So far, Kelly, Mattis and McMaster—along with Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—have avoided both nation-building interventionism and lead-from-behind abdication of postwar responsibilities.
When they go abroad, their wide portfolios and latitude are signaling that they are in charge not despite but rather because of Trump.
To reverse the purported quip of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord: To fire any one of these three generals at this point would be worse than a mistake, it would be a crime.
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