The American Empire Is Now Effectively Being Run by Generals

Last Thursday, the well-connected political scientist Ian Bremmer tweeted the following: “Heard from Defense Min of a US ally: Mattis & Tillerson said they make relevant policy decisions & ignore Trump because he’s not in charge.” In other words, national security policy is being set not by the duly-elected president of the United States but by a career army officer and the former CEO of ExxonMobil.

This isn’t entirely bad news. As I’ve written, Trump is uniquely malleable, ignorant, and ill-suited for the role of shaping U.S. foreign policy. As long as he’s commander-in-chief, it’s at least a little reassuring to know that a man of his temperament is not the one making these kinds of life-and-death decisions.

What is concerning is that in the absence of a real president at least theoretically accountable to the public, the American empire is now effectively being run by generals, including both Secretary of Defense Mattis and his ally, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Trump inherited from Barack Obama undeclared but nonetheless bloody wars in at least seven countries— Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. In each conflict, U.S. military officials have sought, and continue to seek, military solutions.

As Daniel Bessner wrote in n+1 after surveying McMaster’s entire body of scholarship, “In all his writings, McMaster has never considered why, exactly, our adversaries might detest us.” Rather, “His history is a circumscribed one, rooted in the belief that US hegemony necessarily makes the world a better place.”

McMaster, like Mattis, holds an unquestioning faith in the righteousness of American military power. And despite what some anti-imperialist writers on the far right and far left may have hoped during Trump’s campaign last year, McMaster’s vision is exactly what the Trump administration has delivered. 

It’s easy to overlook with an exploding Russia scandal, a Republican party-wide push to gut Medicaid, and the almost-daily outrages the president doles out in 140-character installments, but the Trump Administration has ramped up violence overseas. Upon taking office, Trump moved quickly to overturn Obama-era rules designed to limit civilian casualties in airstrikes. “Some of the Obama administration rules were getting in the way of good strikes,” one administration official told NBC News. The predictable result is that the military is now free to massacre people at will and apologize later, or not at all.

In Afghanistan, where the American occupation is well into its 16th year, the Pentagon is sending 4,000 additional troops, after dropping the largest non-nuclear bomb in history on an ISIS complex in April. In May, U.S. forces killed 105 civilians in a single airstrike on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. In Yemen, the U.S.-supported Saudi war has caused a growing famine and cholera epidemic, none of which dissuaded the U.S. Senate from voting 53-47 last week in favor of the Trump Administration’s massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia. In Somalia, the U.S. recently killed 8 people in airstrikes, to which the terrorist group Al-Shabab responded by massacring at least 31 people in a bombing and restaurant siege in Mogadishu days later. Meanwhile in Syria, the U.S. has bowed to the Washington foreign policy establishment consensus Obama resisted, launching airstrikes against the Assad regime and killing four children

Just last week, U.S. airstrikes in Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS, killed hundreds of civilians and displaced as many as 160,000 people. Now Russia is forcefully condemning the U.S. for shooting down a Syrian warplane and threatening to target U.S. planes, raising the specter of World War III—exactly what many purported isolationists feared might happen under Hillary Clinton. 

There’s every reason to expect more stories like this for the foreseeable future, whether it’s the administration’s continuing push for regime change in Iran or its sudden isolation of Qatar from other Gulf monarchies allied with the United States. It’s as if the administration wants to be at war with the entire Middle East at once, and almost no one in Washington is pushing back. Anyone who voted for Trump expecting a non-interventionist is now confronted with perhaps the most wantonly pro-war presidency since the height of the Cold War. 

It’s tempting to pin this all on Trump, who ricocheted during the campaign last year from criticisms of past U.S. interventions to calls for war crimes against Muslims. But all he’s really done is remove the select brakes the Obama administration had placed on the Washington foreign policy establishment. None other than Hillary Clinton endorsed airstrikes against Assad shortly before they were launched. Mattis and McMaster enjoy the enthusiastic support of the Senate’s most consistent warmongers, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, neither of whom was especially eager to make America great again. Far from making a radical break with the past, Trump has simply allowed the policies established by George W. Bush after 9/11 and largely continued by Obama to accelerate toward their logical conclusion: an unlimited, borderless war against much of the Muslim world, in which the only discernible strategy is mass carnage.

One way or another, the Trump presidency will eventually end, and perhaps much sooner than January 2021. When it does, the next president will likely inherit even more open-ended military commitments than Trump did, as well as potential blowback in the form of a new generation radicalized by indiscriminate U.S. bombings. Ideally, they will use what is sure to be regarded as Trump’s disastrous tenure as an opportunity to fundamentally reevaluate the U.S. role in the world and to begin to reestablish limits on what the military can do overseas. But if recent history is any guide, they will continue to defer to the military, and it will be mostly Muslim civilians who pay the price.


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