James Mann

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - James Mann

The Adults in the Room

The time­worn metaphor has been used and reused ever since the ear­li­est days of the Trump era, when Don­ald Trump was first putting to­gether his cab­i­net. On De­cem­ber 4, af­ter he named James Mat­tis to be his de­fense sec­re­tary, the web­site Politico as­serted that “there’s fi­nally an adult in the room.” In Jan­uary, as Rex Tiller­son was be­ing con­firmed as sec­re­tary of state, Bob Corker, chair­man of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, told his col­leagues, “To me, Mr. Tiller­son is an adult who’s been around.” In Fe­bru­ary, dur­ing Trump’s first visit to Mex­ico, the Fi­nan­cial Times quoted one source as say­ing that Tiller­son and John Kelly (then sec­re­tary of home­land se­cu­rity) “rep­re­sent the adult wing of the new regime.”1

Be­fore long, the metaphor be­came a col­lec­tive one: a small group of of­fi­cials within the Trump for­eign-pol­icy team rep­re­sented “the adults” or “the grownups in the room.” The mem­ber­ship in the club changed slightly from time to time. At first, the “adults” hon­orific was most com­monly ap­plied to the three­some of Tiller­son, Mat­tis, and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser H. R. McMaster. This sum­mer, af­ter Trump brought in Kelly to be his White House chief of staff, Kelly be­came not only a mem­ber but the lead­ing fig­ure in the Adults club, while, grad­u­ally, Tiller­son’s prob­lems and in­creas­ing marginal­iza­tion as sec­re­tary of state have made him less cen­tral to the group. Phrases like “the adults” or “the grownups in the room” seem on the sur­face to carry in­tu­itive mean­ings but raise all sorts of ques­tions that de­serve scru­tiny. What does it mean to be an “adult” in Wash­ing­ton in gen­eral, or, in par­tic­u­lar, un­der Don­ald Trump? What poli­cies do the “adults” fa­vor? Where do they come from, and what do they be­lieve? Most im­por­tantly, what is the sig­nif­i­cance of the fact that most of Trump’s so-called grownups come from the mil­i­tary? To an­swer such ques­tions, it helps to look at the his­tory, both of the way the idea of “adults” has been used in Wash­ing­ton in the past and of the way mil­i­tary of­fi­cers in the US have served in top civil­ian jobs.

The no­tion that some of­fi­cials are “adults” or “the grownups in the room” is an old Wash­ing­ton trope dat­ing back decades be­fore the ar­rival of Don­ald Trump. It is linked to an op­pos­ing metaphor: in Wash­ing­ton par­lance, oth­ers are said to be “in need of adult su­per­vi­sion.” These phrases go to the heart of the way those who work in Wash­ing­ton op­er­ate, see them­selves, and, above all, talk about them­selves. Wash­ing­ton in­sider news­let­ters like The Nel­son Re­port and Wash­ing­ton colum­nists like The New York Times’s Thomas Fried­man pur­vey the no­tion that some peo­ple are “adults” or “grownups” and oth­ers are in need of “adult su­per­vi­sion.” The phrases were meant to im­ply a judg­ment about an in­di­vid­ual’s char­ac­ter or be­hav­ior: some peo­ple were deemed to be ma­ture, while oth­ers were merely be­ing ju­ve­nile.

Be­fore Trump, this Wash­ing­ton lingo was usu­ally a cover for pol­icy dif­fer­ences. The “adults” were those who fa­vored cer­tain poli­cies or ap­proaches; those in need of “su­per­vi­sion” were the op­po­nents of such poli­cies. Thus, the metaphors amounted to a ver­bal sleight-of-hand, trans­form­ing po­lit­i­cal judg­ments into per­sonal ones. Other, more neu­tral ad­jec­tives could usu­ally have been ap­plied to those who were ap­prov­ingly called “adults” (“prag­ma­tists,” “cen­trists,” and “mod­er­ates” come to mind), but the “adults” metaphor added an ex­tra bit of sneer and in­sult to the op­pos­ing side.

The “adults” were usu­ally those who didn’t stray too far from the po­lit­i­cal cen­ter, how­ever that was de­fined at the mo­ment. Bernie San­ders has never qual­i­fied as an “adult” in the Wash­ing­ton us­age of the word, al­though he is old enough to col­lect So­cial Se­cu­rity; nor did Ralph Nader; nor did Rand Paul, though he is old enough to per­form eye surgery. What made them de­fi­cient was not their char­ac­ter or their im­ma­tu­rity, but their views.

Fol­low­ing the ar­rival of Don­ald Trump in the White House, the mean­ing of the words “adult” and “grownup” has un­der­gone a sub­tle but re­mark­able shift. They now re­fer far more to be­hav­ior and char­ac­ter than to views on pol­icy. This is where Kelly, McMaster, Mat­tis, and (to a lesser ex­tent) Tiller­son come in; “grownup” is the be­hav­ioral role that we have as­signed to them.

For the first time, Amer­ica has a pres­i­dent who does not act like an adult. He is emo­tion­ally im­ma­ture: he lies, taunts, in­sults, bul­lies, rages, seeks vengeance, ex­alts vi­o­lence, boasts, re­fuses to ac­cept crit­i­cism, all in ways that most par­ents would seek to pre­vent in their own chil­dren. Thus the dy­namic was es­tab­lished in the ear­li­est days of the ad­min­is­tra­tion: Trump makes messes, or threat­ens to make them, and Amer­i­cans look to the “adults” to clean up for him. The “adults,” in turn, send out oc­ca­sional lit­tle public sig­nals that they are try­ing to keep Trump from veer­ing off course—to ed­u­cate him, to make him grow up, to keep him un­der con­trol. When all else fails, they sim­ply dis­tance them­selves from his tirades. Some­times such ef­forts are suc­cess­ful; on many oc­ca­sions, they aren’t.

The back-and-forth be­tween Trump and the “adults” has been ev­i­dent on mat­ters both big and small. Some­times these in­volve ques­tions of sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance con­cern­ing the role of the pres­i­dent: when, at Trump’s first cab­i­net meet­ing, of­fi­cials took turns in front of tele­vi­sion cam­eras thank­ing Trump and singing his praises, as if the pres­i­dent were a Cen­tral Asian dic­ta­tor, Mat­tis opted out, say­ing, “It’s an honor to rep­re­sent the great men and women of the Depart­ment of De­fense.” Some­times these mat­ters in­volve is­sues of sweep­ing im­por­tance: be­fore Trump’s first trip to Europe, Tiller­son, Mat­tis, and McMaster joined to­gether to put into a draft of his speech a reaf­fir­ma­tion of Ar­ti­cle V of the NATO treaty, com­mit­ting the United States to the col­lec­tive de­fense of Europe.2 Yet Trump ul­ti­mately cut the words from his speech. Then, af­ter the un­der­stand­able and pre­dictable up­roar, he turned around and made the com­mit­ment. Trump’s blus­ter­ing, threat­en­ing be­hav­ior has raised fears that he might do some­thing im­pul­sive, such as launch a nu­clear at­tack. Those fears, in turn, have height­ened the per­cep­tion of the “adults” as watch­dogs or guardians. In Fe­bru­ary, the As­so­ci­ated Press said that “for the first few weeks af­ter the in­au­gu­ra­tion, Mat­tis and Kelly agreed that one of them should re­main in the United States to keep tabs on the or­ders rapidly fir­ing out of the White House.”3 Ever since, var­i­ous ver­sions of this story have ap­peared again and again, some­times in­clud­ing McMaster or Tiller­son, and usu­ally with­out the time lim­its of the orig­i­nal story.

Mat­tis has had the (rel­a­tively) eas­i­est time of it with Trump, while McMaster and, now, Kelly, have had the hard­est, in part be­cause of the na­ture of the dif­fer­ent jobs they hold. As de­fense sec­re­tary, Mat­tis has a cab­i­net job that keeps him across the Po­tomac River, run­ning the US govern­ment’s big­gest depart­ment, and Trump seems to al­low him con­sid­er­ably more lat­i­tude than the other “adults.”

Mat­tis, a for­mer Ma­rine Corps gen­eral who served as com­man­der of Amer­ica’s Cen­tral Com­mand forces in the Mid­dle East, has the sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing he has strong-to-in­tense sup­port on Capi­tol Hill, where John McCain, the chair­man of the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, let it be known at the start of the ad­min­is­tra­tion that he would serve as Mat­tis’s pro­tec­tor. Mat­tis has also been es­pe­cially pop­u­lar within the mil­i­tary. Be­fore his ap­point­ment, he said that he would speak his mind when his views dif­fered from those of Trump. He ex­plained, for ex­am­ple, why he op­poses the use of tor­ture.

With greater job se­cu­rity than the other “adults,” Mat­tis seems to have as­sumed the role of re­mind­ing Amer­i­cans and the rest of the world that the Amer­i­can govern­ment ex­isted be­fore Trump and will sur­vive him. At a con­fer­ence in Sin­ga­pore in June, when asked if Amer­ica were re­treat­ing from its role in the world, he in­voked a quote rou­tinely mis­at­tributed to Churchill about Amer­ica: “Bear with us,” Mat­tis told the au­di­ence. “Once we have ex­hausted all pos­si­ble al­ter­na­tives, the Amer­i­cans will do the right thing.”

In con­trast, McMaster and Kelly work at staff jobs in­side the White House, where they must deal with Trump day af­ter day. Af­ter he was ap­pointed White House chief of staff in late July, Kelly sought to im­pose or­der, con­trol­ling who gets to see Trump and re­strict­ing what ma­te­ri­als are given to him. But there were quickly signs that Kelly’s dis­ci­pline cam­paign could go only so far. He could not stop Trump from say­ing out­ra­geous things in public on the spur of the mo­ment; Trump’s out­burst equat­ing the two sides in the Char­lottesville protests came at what was sup­posed to be a press con­fer­ence on in­fra­struc­ture, and it left Kelly star­ing at the floor. It was not long be­fore some of Trump’s friends let it be known that the pres­i­dent was chaf­ing against Kelly’s re­stric­tions. In his re­cent book, The Gate­keep­ers, Chris Whip­ple writes that the po­si­tion of White House chief of staff “is what may well be the tough­est job in Wash­ing­ton—so ar­du­ous that the av­er­age ten­ure is a lit­tle more than eigh­teen months.”4 At this junc­ture, it seems ex­tremely un­likely that Kelly will raise the av­er­age.

As na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, McMaster has had to han­dle es­pe­cially ac­ri­mo­nious dis­putes in­side the White House over is­sues rang­ing from trade and im­mi­gra­tion to Amer­ica’s role in the world. At the same time, he has had to wres­tle with per­son­nel bat­tles that ex­tend be­yond the usual ones among cab­i­net sec­re­taries. He has had to deal with var­i­ous White House fig­ures, in­clud­ing Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kush­ner, whom Trump set up as a miniczar over for­eign-pol­icy is­sues rang­ing

from the Mid­dle East to Mex­ico and China. Above all, McMaster waged a months-long bat­tle with Stephen Ban­non, the leader of the pop­ulist wing of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, un­til Ban­non fi­nally de­parted in mid-Au­gust. Tiller­son has been the most baf­fling of the “adults.” He had years of ex­pe­ri­ence run­ning one of Amer­ica’s lead­ing cor­po­ra­tions but is serv­ing as a clas­sic ex­am­ple of why such ex­pe­ri­ence does not nec­es­sar­ily pre­pare one for a top cab­i­net post. He came to the po­si­tion of sec­re­tary of state with more es­tab­lish­ment cre­den­tials (or at least job ref­er­ences) than any of the other “adults”; lu­mi­nar­ies of past Repub­li­can ad­min­is­tra­tions, such as Robert Gates, Con­doleezza Rice, and James Baker all sup­ported him. Yet Tiller­son has gone fur­ther than any­one else on the for­eign pol­icy team to cre­ate a rad­i­cal break with the past. His de­ter­mined, pro­longed ef­forts to pare down the State Depart­ment—by sup­port­ing bud­get cuts, re­or­ga­niz­ing po­si­tions out of ex­is­tence, and, above all, choos­ing to leave ma­jor jobs un­filled—have left the na­tion’s lead­ing di­plo­mats shocked and de­mor­al­ized, wan­der­ing around the silent halls past one empty of­fice af­ter an­other. In­deed, whether in­ten­tion­ally or not, Tiller­son has done much to carry out Ban­non’s pop­ulist call of last Fe­bru­ary for the “de­con­struc­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tive state.”

For all the at­ten­tion given to the per­sonal qual­i­ties of the “adults” (that is, their abil­ity to pre­serve a mod­icum of sta­bil­ity within the ad­min­is­tra­tion amidst the Trumpian tur­moil), their views have at­tracted far less scru­tiny. It can be ar­gued that what the “adults” be­lieve about var­i­ous for­eign-pol­icy is­sues is more im­por­tant than it was for their pre­de­ces­sors in past ad­min­is­tra­tions, be­cause Trump him­self seems to care lit­tle about pol­icy, cer­tainly not about its de­tails or com­plex­i­ties. He op­er­ates in the public realm of words, tweets, and ca­ble shows, leav­ing hard pol­i­cy­mak­ing to un­der­lings. In­deed, some­times there seems to be a com­plete dis­con­nect be­tween Trump’s show-busi­ness pres­i­dency and what is ac­tu­ally tran­spir­ing in­side the fed­eral govern­ment, as when Trump is­sued a seem­ing ban on trans­gen­ders in the mil­i­tary on Twit­ter, while Mat­tis both lim­ited its scope and de­layed it from tak­ing ef­fect.

The “adults” have a record of be­liefs and ac­tions that, in any other ad­min­is­tra­tion, would stand out more. Kelly, now in the White House, was early on—as sec­re­tary of home­land se­cu­rity—a strong sup­porter of Trump’s or­der to limit im­mi­gra­tion from Mus­lim coun­tries into the United States. Tiller­son seems to have an es­pe­cially rosy view of Putin’s Rus­sia, as well as an ob­vi­ous aver­sion to is­sues of hu­man rights and democ­racy. McMaster, along with Gary Cohn, the direc­tor of the Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil, last spring wrote the star­tling Wall Street Jour­nal Op-Ed that gave a Hobbe­sian un­der­pin­ning to Trump’s “Amer­ica First” world­view: “The pres­i­dent em­barked on his first for­eign trip with a clear-eyed out­look that the world is not a ‘global com­mu­nity’ but an arena where na­tions, non­govern­men­tal ac­tors and busi­nesses en­gage and com­pete for ad­van­tage.”5

It is the un­der­ly­ing for­eign-pol­icy views and ex­pe­ri­ences of the three “adults” with mil­i­tary back­grounds— Mat­tis, McMaster, and Kelly—that are the most im­por­tant and the least cov­ered. What counts above all are their views on is­sues con­cern­ing armed con­flict. Be­cause they come from the mil­i­tary, there have been oc­ca­sional sug­ges­tions that they will some­how bring the United States into new wars. As will be seen, there is solid ground for con­cern about their mil­i­tary back­grounds, but the sim­plis­tic fear that their mil­i­tary ser­vice might lead them to sup­port the use of force seems mis­placed. Most of Amer­ica’s dis­as­trous or ill-fated mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions—Viet­nam, Ge­orge W. Bush’s war in Iraq, Libya—were spear­headed by civil­ians. The no­tion that mil­i­tary of­fi­cers are Wash­ing­ton’s lead­ing hawks dates back to the era when Air Force Gen­eral Cur­tis LeMay tried to per­suade Pres­i­dent Kennedy to bomb Cuba. But the stereo­type has less va­lid­ity to­day, when mil­i­tary lead­ers seem in­tensely aware of the risks of stum­bling into war. Be­fore com­ing to the White House, McMaster was known pri­mar­ily as the author of the book Dere­lic­tion of Duty, an ac­count of Amer­ica’s in­volve­ment in Viet­nam. McMaster’s con­clu­sion was blunt and stark:

The war in Viet­nam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or on the col­lege cam­puses. It was lost in Wash­ing­ton, D.C .... The disas­ter in Viet­nam was not the re­sult of im­per­sonal forces but a uniquely hu­man fail­ure, the re­spon­si­bil­ity for which was shared by Pres­i­dent John­son and his prin­ci­pal mil­i­tary and civil­ian ad­vis­ers.6

The three “adults” from the mil­i­tary do seem to share a kind of col­lec­tive view, based on their ex­pe­ri­ences in uni­form. All of them fought on the ground in Amer­ica’s post-Septem­ber 11 con­flicts. Mat­tis was the com­man­der in charge of Amer­ica’s wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Kelly served un­der Mat­tis in Iraq; his own son was killed in com­bat in Afghanistan. McMaster com­manded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an es­say about Afghanistan in 2012, McMaster wrote: “The dif­fer­ence be­tween how the war is briefed in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and in Kabul, ver­sus how it is waged in the field, can­not be starker.”7 It is this per­spec­tive, the re­sult of be­ing long­time out­siders to Wash­ing­ton, that dis­tin­guishes the cur­rent group of “adults” from pre­vi­ous gen­er­als and ad­mi­rals who moved into civil­ian posts. Most of the mil­i­tary lead­ers of­ten men­tioned as their pre­de­ces­sors—for ex­am­ple, Alexan­der Haig, the for­mer White House chief of staff and sec­re­tary of state; or Brent Scowcroft, the two-time na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser; or Colin Pow­ell, the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and sec­re­tary of state—rose to promi­nence largely through their long ser­vice in Wash­ing­ton. All of these pre­de­ces­sors had pow­er­ful civil­ian men­tors who, over time, pro­moted them to se­nior po­si­tions (Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for Haig and Scowcroft, De­fense Sec­re­taries Cas­par Wein­berger and Frank Car­lucci for Pow­ell). But Trump’s “adults,” as a group, have been mostly sol­diers, not staff of­fi­cers in the Haig model. As a re­sult, their dis­po­si­tion seems to be not so much to en­ter into new wars as to find ways to win the wars Amer­ica has al­ready en­tered— the wars in which they them­selves have fought. If there is a sin­gle ma­jor is­sue on which they have clearly pre­vailed over Trump’s own ini­tial in­stincts, it was the de­ci­sion in Au­gust to send new Amer­i­can troops to Afghanistan.

In a per­cep­tive de­scrip­tion of the out­look of Mat­tis, McMaster, and Kelly, vet­eran de­fense cor­re­spon­dent James Kit­field wrote that they aim “to cor­rect what se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cers see as the mis­takes of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.”8 Those mis­takes, from the mil­i­tary view­point, in­clude the com­plete with­drawal of Amer­i­can troops from Iraq af­ter a 2012 dead­line, leav­ing a vac­uum that was filled by the Is­lamic State; the set­ting of a time limit for Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan; and Obama’s fail­ure to en­force the red line he drew against the use of chem­i­cal weapons in Syria. (The “adults” were in­stru­men­tal in Trump’s de­ci­sion to launch Tom­a­hawk mis­siles against Syria last April when Bashar al-As­sad’s forces again used such weapons.9) Be­yond this de­sire for suc­cess­ful out­comes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the on­go­ing war with ISIS, the views of Trump’s “adults” are more vague and less pre­dictable. They seem to fa­vor gen­er­ally tougher ap­proaches to Iran, par­tic­u­larly in com­par­i­son with the poli­cies of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Mat­tis, in a long in­ter­view with a high school news­pa­per last spring, called Iran’s govern­ment “a mur­der­ous regime” and “cer­tainly the most desta­bi­liz­ing in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East.”10 So far, how­ever, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has not with­drawn from the nu­clear agree­ment Obama ne­go­ti­ated with Iran.

Yet there is lit­tle that sug­gests what these three gen­er­als think about China or North Korea. Like US mil­i­tary of­fi­cers in gen­eral, they tend to fa­vor pre­serv­ing and strength­en­ing Amer­ica’s ex­ist­ing mil­i­tary al­liances. That, in it­self, cre­ates the sort of ten­sion with Trump that was ap­par­ent dur­ing the pres­i­dent’s first visit to Europe.

The most trou­bling ques­tion about Trump’s “adults” is not so much what they be­lieve but why most of them

come from the mil­i­tary. There have never been so many mil­i­tary lead­ers at the top lev­els of Amer­ica’s for­eign­pol­icy ap­pa­ra­tus. Many in this coun­try do not re­al­ize how strong the stric­tures have been in the past against mil­i­tary of­fi­cers serv­ing in se­nior civil­ian posts. The rea­sons for the old rules start, above all, with con­cerns about civil­ian con­trol of the mil­i­tary, but they go fur­ther, to the im­pact within the mil­i­tary it­self. If mil­i­tary lead­ers are al­lowed to take top civil­ian posts, the ar­gu­ment goes, it opens the way for those of­fi­cers to take a civil­ian (or “po­lit­i­cal”) route to mil­i­tary pro­mo­tion. The clas­sic ex­am­ple is Haig, who en­tered the Nixon White House in 1969 as a colonel and left in 1974 as a four-star gen­eral. When Scowcroft be­came na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser in 1975, he chose to re­sign from the Air Force. “For a se­nior White House of­fi­cial to re­tain a mil­i­tary com­mis­sion would, [Scowcroft] thought, di­vide his loy­alty be­tween his mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­ors and the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent,” wrote his bi­og­ra­pher, Bartholomew Spar­row.11 Twelve years later, the re­port of the con­gres­sional com­mit­tees in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Iran­con­tra af­fair specif­i­cally urged that the job of na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser be held by a civil­ian. None­the­less, since that rec­om­men­da­tion, var­i­ous pres­i­dents have ap­pointed one or an­other ac­tive-duty or re­tired mil­i­tary of­fi­cer to serve along with the civil­ians in top lead­er­ship ranks: Pow­ell was Ron­ald Rea­gan’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Scowcroft was Ge­orge H.W. Bush’s, and re­tired Ma­rine Com­man­dant James Jones was Obama’s.

With Trump, this pat­tern has been re­versed. There are few civil­ians at the top of the na­tional-se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus, while present or for­mer mil­i­tary lead­ers oc­cupy the po­si­tions of na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, de­fense sec­re­tary, and White House chief of staff. Mat­tis this year be­came the first for­mer mil­i­tary leader to serve as sec­re­tary of de­fense since Ge­orge Mar­shall was ap­pointed to the job in 1950.

The as­cen­dance of Trump’s gen­er­als has raised alarms that the mil­i­tary might be try­ing to take over the coun­try. “Is a Mil­i­tary Coup in the Cards?” blared one Newsweek head­line this sum­mer, af­ter a video went vi­ral show­ing Mat­tis telling some Amer­i­can troops, “Our coun­try, right now, it’s got prob­lems that we don’t have in the mil­i­tary. You just hold the line un­til our coun­try gets back to un­der­stand­ing and re­spect­ing each other and show­ing it.” It turned out that those re­marks were not new; Mat­tis had, on other oc­ca­sions, de­cried the po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions in Amer­ica and urged those in the mil­i­tary to “hold the line.”12

But for now there is scant ev­i­dence that the mil­i­tary is push­ing to in­crease its po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence. Trump’s three gen­er­als didn’t seek out the civil­ian jobs they now hold, col­lec­tively or in­di­vid­u­ally. Trump chose to put them there. The chances are that some of them won’t stay for long, ei­ther; there have al­ready been oc­ca­sional re­ports that McMaster or Kelly will be fired or quit. (It is a fair and con­tin­u­ing ques­tion whether the proper course for an “adult” in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is to re­sign from it.)

The un­der­ly­ing, longer-term prob­lem is the lack of civil­ian in­flu­ence on for­eign pol­icy. Even if the gen­er­als leave, Trump may choose other mil­i­tary lead­ers to re­place them, rather than ap­point civil­ian lead­ers who might emerge as dis­senters, chal­lengers, or ri­vals. It is hard to re­mem­ber now, but when Trump was cre­at­ing his for­eign­pol­icy team, he talked with cen­trist Repub­li­cans (Mitt Rom­ney), right-wing Repub­li­cans (John Bolton), and proTrump Repub­li­cans (Newt Gin­grich) be­fore re­ject­ing all of them, along with var­i­ous other for­eign pol­icy spe­cial­ists, turn­ing in­stead to Tiller­son and the gen­er­als. More­over, this dearth in civil­ian lead­er­ship will last longer than Trump’s ini­tial choices and ap­point­ments: Tiller­son’s fail­ure to fill many State Depart­ment jobs means that there are fewer civil­ians in sec­ond-level po­si­tions gain­ing the valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence they could use to shape Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy in the fu­ture.

In a re­cent in­sight­ful book based on her ex­pe­ri­ences in the Pen­tagon un­der Obama, How Ev­ery­thing Be­came War and the Mil­i­tary Be­came Ev­ery­thing,13 Rosa Brooks de­scribes how the mil­i­tary has come to dom­i­nate Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy over­seas be­cause it pos­sesses the money and per­son­nel to do what the State Depart­ment can­not. “It’s a vi­cious cir­cle: as civil­ian ca­pac­ity has de­clined, the mil­i­tary has stepped into the breach,” Brooks wrote.

Un­der Trump, this phe­nom­e­non is now spread­ing from US op­er­a­tions abroad to the top lev­els of lead­er­ship in Wash­ing­ton. Af­ter the racist vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville and Trump’s in­cen­di­ary com­ments about it, the lead­ers of Amer­ica’s five mil­i­tary ser­vices— that is, the in­di­vid­ual mem­bers of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—pub­lished state­ments con­demn­ing racist ha­tred. They had strong and le­git­i­mate mil­i­tary rea­sons to do so, in or­der to make cer­tain there was no racial up­heaval among the troops. Nev­er­the­less, it was a lit­tle un­set­tling. In the past, Amer­ica did not have to rely upon its mil­i­tary lead­ers to calm pas­sions or make sooth­ing state­ments, be­cause those are the sorts of things that usu­ally come from pres­i­dents and top civil­ian lead­ers. Such state­ments raise, mo­men­tar­ily, the specter of coun­tries like Turkey or Egypt or Thailand, where the mil­i­tary as­sumes an obli­ga­tion to step in for the good of the coun­try when civil­ian gov­ern­ments have col­lapsed.

For now, such com­par­isons seem re­mote. But what has been most dis­turb­ing this year is the sub­tle link that is be­ing cre­ated in Amer­i­can con­scious­ness be­tween the phrases “mil­i­tary lead­ers” or “gen­er­als” and the phrases “adults” or “grownups in the room.” Hav­ing mil­i­tary fig­ures act as “adults” may some­how sug­gest that civil­ians lack the ca­pac­ity to gov­ern on their own, or even that civil­ians act like chil­dren. That, in Trump’s case, would be sadly ac­cu­rate. —Septem­ber 28, 2017

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