Sunday, April 9, 2017

Douthat: What's wrong with having the military take over foreign policy, anyway?

Superman: Escape from Krypton, at Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia CA. Via.
Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street ("All the President's Generals"), is looking on the bright side for a change:
The Trump administration, though, doesn’t really have many normal foreign policy experts among its civilian officials. Rex Tillerson may have a realist streak and Nikki Haley a moralistic style, but neither one has been part of these debates before. Mike Pence has nothing like the experience of a Dick Cheney or a Joe Biden. If Bannon’s vision is getting sidelined, it’s not like Jared Kushner is ready with a deeply thought-out alternative.
What Trump has instead are generals — James Mattis and H. R. McMaster and the other military men in his cabinet, plus, of course, the actual professional military itself. And it’s this team of generals, not any of the usual foreign policy schools, that seems increasingly likely to steer his statecraft going forward.
And where's the bright side to this replacement of the ancient American principle of civilian control of the military with a new doctrine of military control of foreign affairs all round? Well, heck, why not?

After all, those military guys are so sensible, and restrained. Unlikely to be pulled in one direction or another by any kind of ideological mesmerism—

First, in certain ways a military-directed foreign policy promises to be more stability-oriented than other approaches to international affairs. It would be less prone to grand ideological ambitions than either liberal hawkishness or neoconservatism — less inclined to imagine the U.S. as an agent of democratic revolution or a humanitarian avenging angel. But it would also be skeptical of the shifts in our strategic posture and retreats from existing commitments that realists and anti-interventionists sometimes entertain.
—as you'll remember, no doubt, from when Argentina's foreign policy was run by generals back in the day (1976-83), though they did manage to fit a couple of wars (with Chile and Britain) in with their busy schedule of murdering Argentines and kidnaping their children.
Thus, had the U.S. military been running George W. Bush’s White House, it’s unlikely that we would have attempted to plant democracy in Iraq.
Some highly advanced question-begging in the presupposition there that "we" "attempted" to "plant democracy" in a country that no longer really exists. If we had a better sense of what the Bush administration was actually attempting to do we'd have a better sense of whether military rule would have attempted it or not. To be fair to the military, if Emperor Trump told them, "Fuck the democracy, just take the oil," I feel sure they would be able to stonewall him, as DHS will do with the Wall, for an indefinite period of time, and that's a good thing.
Had it been running the Obama administration, it’s unlikely that we would have abandoned Hosni Mubarak or sought a region-reshaping détente with Tehran.
The Egyptian military abandoned Air Chief Marshal Mubarak (and his family fortune of between $40 billion and $70 billion earned by taking cutbacks off military contracts over his 30 years of rule) before the US did. They decided to dump him and try co-opt the revolution instead (eventually slipping back into power after the revolution had died). Though ultimately the government of Field Marshal Sisi managed, a little less than three years after taking office in June 2014, to let the old president out of his house arrest, just last month. But I don't really see what the US did wrong here, any more than when it allowed Paul Manafort's clients Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Viktor Yanukovych to be overthrown in other eruptions of so-called "people power", and I don't see what difference military control of the state and defense departments would have made either.

As to détente with Iran, I tend to agree with the analysis of Micah Zenko for Foreign Policy, according to which the biggest beneficiaries of the deal were the planners in the Pentagon, and I think the more level heads in the Pentagon (like Martin Dempsey, as opposed to marginal hysterics like Flynn) recognized this, though being better deal makers than Donald Trump, they didn't run around boasting about what a fantastic deal they had made.
But even as it prizes stability, the military has a strong bias toward, well, military solutions whenever crises or challenges emerge.... Thus, you would expect a military-guided foreign policy to be leery of massive involvement in Syria’s civil war … but when something like Assad’s use of chemical weapons happens, its first and strongest impulse would be a punitive strike. A similar logic would apply around the world’s trouble spots. A generals’ foreign policy wouldn’t seek out a land war in Asia, but it would be open to many limited interventions that might take us, by increments, deeper and deeper into conflict.
As when General de Gaulle ran French foreign policy from 1958 to 1969 and successfully withdrew from Algeria, as civilian management had been unable to swing, while mocking the civilian McNamara for getting embroiled in Vietnam, through limited interventions, by increments, deeper and deeper into conflict. And made France the fourth nuclear-armed state, that's stability for you. Not to mention how General Bonaparte ran French foreign policy from 1799 to 1814 but I'm sure you can fill in your own examples.

The point being that it's pointless to bother arguing with this kind of Kristolline idiocy, floating free of fact to a kind of alternative history of the future—"What's going to happen if all my uninformed preconceptions are correct."
Overall, the armed forces’ worldview — a status-quo bias plus doses of hard power — is hardly the worst imaginable vision for Trump to adopt. 
Homeopathic doses of hard power, like the attack on Shayrat Airfield, too small to be detected by world history, which will immunize you against the illness?

Military rule of the kind we actually seem to have, under McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly, whether they have a status-quo bias or not (I'd think their main interest is to maintain military authority and respect at the cheapest available price, and status quo with the occasional dramatic well-publicized operation seems like an excellent recipe for that), isn't the worst imaginable prospect for foreign policy in the imperial court of a Trump White House, I'm afraid, because I can imagine much worse. Like if his worst general, Flynn, were still around, or Petraeus in the ascendant.

It's a comfort just to think Trump might believe those guys when they contradict something he's seen on Hannity or read in a pile of faxed #fakenews clippings from Bannon, as we all sit here with our teeth clenched wondering which phase of the roller-coaster trajectory we're on.

But that just shows what a perilous situation we've gotten ourselves into, where civilian control over the armed forces is ballast we might want to jettison, and the Monsignor's no guide to that either. Believe me.

Update: I seem to be uncharacteristically in conflict with Steve M here, who thinks Douthat's take is "smart" for making a fairly solid prediction of how rule by McMaster would pan out. OK, if the prediction's all you're looking at, I think so too. If we ever get a chance to test it: don't forget that Jared seems to be secretary of state along with the generals, and Haley, who's doing her best to make policy by getting herself on TV where Emperor Trump might notice her, and Bannon, who's nowhere near out yet, has plenty of foreign policy ambition of his own, and who knows what other horrors are likely to be realized, and then there's Vladimir Vladimirovich. I still think Douthat's making the prediction Kristol-style, in the form of a pious hope that it turns out that way, and his argument is screwy.

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