Imagine if Vladimir Putin, Donald J. Trump and Xi Jinping all put retired generals in charge of their presidential offices.
Actually, with one of them, no imagination is needed. Trump has not just one, but two retired Marine generals, plus an active Army three-star general wielding probably the most influence in the United States government, at least as far as global security matters are concerned.
In recent months, Defense Secretary James Mattis, 66, has been rattling sabers across Asia, with allied bombings against Islamic State (IS), the new US buildup in Afghanistan, the Seventh Fleet’s sailings near Beijing’s reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, and last week’s military exercises with South Korea, amid continued frictions over the North’s ballistic missile tests.
Mattis is the highest-ranking retired general to lead the Pentagon. US Army Lt. General Herbert Raymond McMaster is national security adviser. And Mattis’s fellow Marine John Kelly has made his own history across town.
This month the erstwhile homeland security secretary moved to the White House to replace Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff. That makes Kelly the first military man to hold the hugely influential post in four decades, and one of only three ex-soldiers among 30-odd appointees since then-President Harry Truman named the first in 1946.
So, while the Donald pledged in his campaign to pull back America from conflicts and defense commitments abroad, the man overseeing US forces and the one managing the White House are battle-tested vets, while his top security adviser is still in army service. Guess what that may do to American foreign policy and force deployment.
For Washington Post foreign affairs writer Adam Taylor, it’s nothing short of role reversal: from “Donald the Dove” to “Hawk-in-Chief”. Already, Trump has done the opposite of two things he said he would do during last year’s election campaign.
Trump had warned then-President Barack Obama against attacking Syria. But in April, while hosting Chinese leader Xi at the Trump Group’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump swiftly ordered missile strikes against a Syrian airbase over a reported gas attack against a rebel town. The US-led coalition has since intensified its military action against IS in Syria, tripling the civilian deaths from its attacks.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, Trump’s promised US pullout has turned into a major buildup, as he gave Mattis the go-ahead to add 3,900 more soldiers to the 8,400 US troops, and granted more autonomy for commanders.
Plus: Washington is pressing Islamabad to close bases on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border used by the extremist Taliban fighting the Kabul regime.
Perhaps, the first sign that Trump was not a dovish president was his $54-billion boost to the Pentagon’s budget, while cutting other government spending. For a time, he sought to rein in North Korea’s ambition to build a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) able to hit the continental US by pressing Xi to wag the finger at Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.
But when Kim recently launched two ICBMs with range reportedly encompassing North America, Trump toughened sanctions against Chinese and other firms dealing with Pyongyang in violation of UN sanctions.
North Korea warned of firing missiles at the waters around the US base in Guam, and Trump threatened Kim with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Pyongyang canceled the missile launch, but warned it could still go ahead if America committed aggression.
Scared already? There’s more.
When Venezuela erupted in turmoil this month after controversial polls elected a new assembly empowered to change the Constitution, Trump said he would not rule out US military intervention to address the crisis.
Russia opposed external intervention in Venezuela. But more than Trump’s Venezuela comment, Moscow is far more disturbed by Mattis’s remarks on his visit to Ukraine last week.
Raising an option the Obama administration nixed as too provocative to Russia, Mattis spoke of possibly providing defensive weapons to Ukraine. It has been under Russian pressure since Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and sent arms and secret troops to ethnic Russian separatists battling the Kiev government.
Closer to home, the Korean cauldron got hotter last week, when Pyongyang launched several short-range missiles amid US-South Korea military exercises. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned the launches, but still sought talks with Pyongyang.
US Navy vessels have staged freedom-of-navigation sailings near artificial islands reclaimed by China. For its part, Beijing announced it will continue with long-range air force drills, which cause concern, if not alarm, in Taipei and Tokyo.
Trump’s tougher military posture may be partly an attempt to shore up popular support amid mounting domestic political woes. But whatever the reason, whether generals in the White House or domestic and foreign troubles, the Donald’s saber-rattling abroad cannot but rattle countries and markets.
And it looks set to get worse.
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