Trump vs. the foreign policy establishment
Every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
I find myself haunted these days by Pete Seeger’s antiwar anthem of 1967, written when it had become evident to Seeger and many others (although not yet to me) that the United States was engaged in an enterprise certain to end in disaster and dishonor. The Big Muddy was Vietnam. The big fool committed to blindly pushing on was President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Today Seeger’s lyrics possess an ironic resonance. The United States once more finds itself stuck in a perplexing military misadventure, this one dating from 2001 and known initially as the Global War on Terrorism. Once more we have a bona fide fool in the White House, one whose antics make LBJ look like a font of acumen and good sense.
Yet note the contradiction. In this instance, it’s the big fool who grasps the obvious: Waging war to pacify the Greater Middle East hasn’t worked and won’t. However unwittingly, President Trump has embraced Pete Seeger’s cause as his own.
Yet we have it from the nation’s putative “wise men” that the fool is dead wrong. Much as in 1967, members of the foreign policy establishment (today very much including women) say that the United States has no choice but to push on, no matter how dark the night or deep the water.
So when Trump recently announced his intention to withdraw US troops from Syria and cut in half the troop contingent in Afghanistan, reaction from across that establishment was swift, severe, and all but unanimous. Terminating lengthy wars in places of marginal importance to the United States, it turns out, represents the height of irresponsibility.
For Defense Secretary James Mattis, Trump’s announced intention to pull out of Syria was the last straw: He resigned (and was then unceremoniously fired). In an instant, Mattis — widely proclaimed as the last adult in the room — became the recipient of encomiums usually reserved for icons like George C. Marshall. With Mattis gone, it is said, the way is now clear for Trump to convert America First from provocation into policy.
We thus find ourselves at an interesting, and perhaps pivotal, moment in American history. At issue are the prerogatives of the commander-in-chief. Since World War II, those prerogatives have expanded exponentially, so much so that in practical terms the Congress has all but forfeited its war powers to the executive branch.
For decades now, presidents have used those powers to initiate, expand, and redefine armed conflicts more or less at will, Vietnam being only one example among many. Underlying this practice is an assumption: That the president, drawing on the expert advice of the foreign policy establishment, is uniquely situated to divine and to pursue the nation’s true interests. Especially in matters related to war, we the people, not to mention our elected representatives, are expected to respect his decisions.
Acting on that assumption finds the United States today mired in several armed conflicts that members of the establishment accept as more or less perpetual. In Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, their inclination is to press on. Deeply invested in a militarized and interventionist conception of demonstrating global leadership, they will admit to no alternative.
The commander-in-chief begs to differ. Exercising prerogatives enjoyed by his predecessors, he appears determined to wind down conflicts he considers contrary to the nation’s interests. The big fool apparently thinks that interminable wars are a bad thing.
Trump’s conviction places him directly at odds with and also threatens the foreign policy establishment. After all, the status of that establishment derives from the claim that listening to the likes of James Mattis keeps America safe and strong. If presidents cease to listen, then the entire raison d’etre of that establishment, which is both unelected and unaccountable, collapses.
In that event, a genuine debate over America’s role in the world might ensue. Alternatives to the existing militarized and interventionist conception of national security policy just might become possible. This is what the foreign policy establishment fears most.
And that’s why it will fight tooth and nail to obstruct Trump’s efforts to end armed conflicts that he correctly sees as misguided. In establishment circles, the big fool’s opposition to foolish wars will become one more indication that he is unfit to serve.
Andrew J. Bacevich served in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971. He is the author, most recently, of “Twilight of the American Century.”