Defense Secretary James Mattis announced a dramatic shift in military policy last week, and it threatens to plunge the world into new forms of conflict.
The secretary, known as “Mad Dog” Mattis when he was a four-star Marine general, now commands the most powerful military force in human history. Mattis insists the nickname came from the press. That may be true, although generals are notoriously canny about their own publicity.
Whatever the nickname’s provenance, Mattis is not “mad.” He is, in fact, a rational and articulate spokesperson for the national security ideology that has dominated American political life since the end of World War II. That’s disturbing in a very different way.
Mattis, a clear-eyed cold warrior, has just announced the start of a new cold war.
Mattis made his announcement in a speech to the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mattis began the speech by paying tribute to what his prepared remarks called the “character” of Paul Nitze, a noted Cold War hawk. Together with fellow cold warriors Richard Pipes and Paul Wolfowitz, Nitze created "Team B," a private Cold War think tank whose sole purpose was to overrule the CIA’s more modest estimates of the Soviet military threat.
Nitze’s “background,” according to Mattis' text, made the SAIS “a fitting place” to unveil the administration’s new national defense strategy. That’s true, although perhaps not for the reasons Mattis may think.
Team B’s estimates were “grossly inaccurate,” as former Reagan defense official Lawrence Korb noted in a 2004 Los Angeles Times op-ed; even the CIA's more modest estimates of Soviet power turned out to be overstated. Nevertheless, its findings were “widely leaked to the press” shortly before Jimmy Carter became president.
Team B's backers got the military spending they wanted, with a buildup that began under Carter and accelerated under Ronald Reagan. Wolfowitz and his fellow neoconservatives eventually used equally spurious data to drum up support for the invasion of Iraq, with catastrophic consequences.
As president-elect, Donald Trump promised an end to “intervention and chaos” and insisted that “our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying ISIS.” With this speech, Trump’s administration has fallen even more in line with the bipartisan consensus of the last eighty years.
Axis of Adults
Not long ago, the generals on Donald Trump’s team were being lauded by pundits and politicians as the “adults in the room,” or the “axis of adults,” who would prevent him from doing anything reckless. The commentary on Trump's three former generals - Mattis, John Kelly, and H.R. McMaster - bordered on the hagiographic at times.
“They are everything our commander-in-chief is not,” Daniel Kurtz-Phelan gushed in New York Magazine of Mattis and the other ex-generals on Trump’s team: “steady-handed, competent and decent professionals, truthful and generally cogent communicators.”
Kelly’s true colors became more apparent while he was Homeland Secretary, when he acted with surprising brutality against immigrants and their families and made wild and unfounded claims about a “nation under attack” from Islamic terrorism. (The 94 people killed in the US by terrorists since 9/11 is essentially equal to the daily death toll from gun violence.) Later, as White House Chief of Staff, Kelly distorted American history in order to make sympathetic comments about pro-slavery forces in the Civil War. One historian said his comments reflected “profound ignorance.”
The other designated “adult,” McMaster, is the National Security Advisor who once wrote a highly influential work on military ethics entitled “Dereliction of Duty.” But McMaster, who is notoriously hawkish on North Korea, has reportedly been relegated by Trump to the children’s table and is currently denying rumors of an imminent departure.
The Warrior Monk
That leaves Mattis. According to Kurtz-Phelan, Mattis was “known as both tough and cerebral, a ‘warrior monk’ who goes home to bachelor’s quarters to read history, he retired in 2013 after overseeing military operations in the Middle East as head of Central Command.”
To repeat: generals are notoriously canny about their own publicity
Mattis’ appointment as Defense Secretary was largely welcomed by Democrats in Washington. His nomination received 81 Senate votes, after Democrats expressed the hope that he would act as a check on Trump’s worst impulses, or serve as the “anti-Trump,” in the words of a Politico headline.
“Adults in the room” is an old Washington expression. It has routinely been applied to political insiders who prove willing to ignore popular opinion in order to carry out the Beltway consensus of the day. "Centrists' who want to cut popular and necessary social programs are a prime example.
The term suits Mattis, whose speech reflects a longstanding bipartisan consensus about national security – one that is hawkish, profligate, and indifferent to the suffering of others.
The New Cold War
In the SAIS speech, Mattis declared that “Great Power competition between nations (is) becoming a reality once again.” He continued: “Though we will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists … Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”
Nitze named China and Russia as the primary threat, describing them as “nations that … seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models, pursuing veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic and security decisions.” He also cited North Korea and Iran, describing them as “rogue nations” that “persist in taking outlaw actions that threaten regional and even global stability.”
The “peace dividend,” the cut in defense spending that many people expected at the end of the first Cold War, is now officially dead. Counterterrorism, once said to be the top priority for recent US military policy, requires less investment in high-cost weaponry, including ships, aircraft, missiles, and nuclear arms than traditional war.
Mattis has now declared, however, that the primary goal of the US military is to prepare for state-to-state conflict with “Great Powers” and "rogue nations." If that goal isn’t challenged, it will be much harder to argue against massive investment in cost-intensive military technology.
In a question-and-answer session after the speech, Mattis declared that his number-one priority is a “safe and effective nuclear deterrent,” followed by a “decisive conventional force.”
The founding members of “Team B” would be pleased.
Sky High and Soaring
Mattis also complained about “spending caps” and declared that the US military is “overstretched and under-resourced.” That is, by all rational measures, an extraordinary statement. The United States is responsible for 36 percent of the world’s total military spending.
The U.S. military budget is larger than that of the next ten biggest spenders – put together. It is four times bigger than China’s and nearly ten times bigger than Russia’s. China, Mattis’ leading Great Power threat, spends 13 percent of the global total, while Russia spends 4.1 percent. If the United States cannot defend itself from these nations, even with these disparities in spending, the military has a serious management problem.
The disparity is even more striking when this country’s share of the world’s military spending is contrasted with its 4 percent share of the world’s population.
Congress shows no sign of changing the status quo any time soon. When Trump requested a substantial increase in military spending, Republicans on Capitol Hill – and most Democrats – responded by giving him even more than he had requested.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Congress appropriates military funds with alacrity and generosity. It appropriates poverty funds with miserliness and grudging reluctance.”
It is against this backdrop that Mattis’ characterization of the military as “under-resourced” must be viewed. Despite the massive disparities in spending, Mattis insists that “our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare, air, land, sea, space and cyberspace, and it is continuing to erode.”
That statement does not have the ring of truth. But, if Mattis is right, is he the right person to fix it?
Meet James Mattis
By all accounts, Mattis excelled at military service. Overall, he appears to have taken a humane, hands-on, and reasonably intelligent approach to military leadership. Moderate remarks he has made as Defense Secretary been welcomed by liberals as a rare break from the racist rhetoric flowing from the White House.
Nevertheless, there is some cause for serious concern. One at least on occasion, Mattis made intemperate remarks about Afghan civilians. Ethical questions have also been raised about Mattis’ relationship to Theranos, the now-discredited blood testing company which he helped while in the military – and whose board he joined when he left. The board’s now-apparent negligence in the face of seemingly obvious flaws and fakery has been the subject of informed commentary.
Before he took office, Congress had to grant Gen. Mattis a waiver from the law which states generals must wait seven years before serving as defense secretary. Given the current climate of unqualified admiration for generals – a sentiment, incidentally, that's not shared by many of the World War II veterans I’ve met – Mattis got his waiver.
Conflict of Interest
Mattis didn’t need a waiver for having been on the board of defense contractor General Dynamics. He should have – and it should not have been granted.
The conflict of interest is financial, of course, but it is not only that. In 2016, Mattis’ last full year on the board, General Dynamics reportedly did nearly $19 billion worth of business with the US government. Total revenues included $6.6 billion for aircraft, over $5 billion for nuclear submarines, more than $8 billion for command-and-control and IT services, and $2.4 billion for wheeled combat vehicles.
There is an inherent conflict between the insular perspective of the privileged insider and the public interest’s much broader range of needs. And post-retirement paydays aren’t the only problem. The promise of future riches can color the decisions senior military officers make while they are in uniform – and, in Mattis’ case, while he runs the Defense Department.
Mattis may very well see himself as a person of integrity – and, to be fair, he may act with integrity according to his own standards. But those standards are the problem. It’s hard for a government official to maintain objectivity about the corporate activity he she oversees after years spent working and socializing with their executives– and becoming wealthy by their side. Mattis may have believed he had the country’s best interests at heart when he called for this change of strategy. It will still be very, very good for business
Hopefully, liberals will one day find the appointment of a defense contractor to lead the military as objectionable as the appointment a Goldman Sachs executive to lead the Treasury Department – and for similar reasons.
Wanted: Real Resistance
The new cold war promises to be as expensive, as dangerous, and as pointless as the last one. Negotiation with Russia, the world’s second-largest superpower, seems to be out of the question. Democrats oppose it because the intelligence services have reported that Russia interfered in the last election. Republicans oppose it because they’re predisposed to dislike all negotiation.
Tensions were already on the rise in 2016, before Trump took office, after U.S.-backed NATO troops began conducting maneuvers and taking positions on Russia’s front line. In that sense, Mattis is simply making an existing state of cold-war hostility official.
The stance toward China, which Mattis has named as the leading threat, is paradoxical at best. On one hand, the Secretary of Defense has declared that we must be prepared to wage full-scale war against it if the need arises – and that we are not yet able to do so. On the other hand, the US trade deficit with China reached an all-time high in 2017. Washington’s “adults in the room” scorn any attempt to rectify this imbalance as “protectionism” and “trade war.” But actual war with the most populous nation on earth is apparently not out of the question.
There was a large and vibrant movement against the last cold war. Left-leaning movements held rallies against runaway militarism, and even most mainstream Democrats supported negotiations and “détente.” It remains to be seen whether “the Resistance” will oppose the new cold war or fall in line behind those Democrats who are currently waxing sentimental about George W. Bush.
“I found myself agreeing on a panel with Bill Kristol,” MSNBC’s Joy Reid recently said of the neoconservative Iraq war promoter. “I agree more with (hard-right columnist) Jennifer Rubin, (Bush speechwriter) David Frum, and (hawkish commentator) Max Boot than I do with some people on the far left.”
I believe her. Last August, Reid tweeted: “Mattis doing the job of leadership his boss can't and won't do.”
We need new and humane values and goals for our military and foreign policy. Nevertheless, Democrats like Reid continue to marginalize the voices of sanity while exalting the same “adults in the room” that nearly caused a global conflagration in the last century. If this continues, the “resistance” will fail to protect the world from from a grave threat to our nation and the world. The new cold war can only be stopped by a mass movement of people who are willing to stand against the reckless rush into chaos.