And another bus heaves into view…
I think that the first time I came across James Mattis was when reading Chris Mackey’s 2004 memoir The Interrogators, in which Mackey (a sergeant in the US army) described his experiences interrogating Al Qaeda and Taleban prisoners in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. According to Mackey, at one point, then Marine Corps Major General James Mattis turned up at his interrogation centre near Kandahar one day and made a speech which went roughly like this:
You are helping us to kill the enemy. Let’s not make any mistakes about this. Let’s not try to sugarcoat it. You are assisting my marines to kill evil. To bayonet it, to grenade it, to shoot, it with machine guns, to cut its eyes out and shit in the sockets. And you can take pride in that. You can take pride in knowing that you had a hand in gouging out the eyes and cutting out the tongue of evil.
As somebody who was trained as a military interrogator, I found this more than a little disturbing. This isn’t the sort of language you want to use if you want your interrogators to treat their prisoners with the respect required by the laws of war. Suffice it to say that after reading this, subsequent scandals such as Abu Ghraib didn’t come as a big surprise.
No doubt Mattis is a formidable soldier. But I’ve never understood why people think that generals are suitable political leaders. Leading men in combat and making judgments about the nature of the international order, threats to national security, national strategy, and the like are entire separate things, and to be frank Mattis never showed himself to have particularly good judgement on any of the latter. Instead he stood out as a proponent of ever expanding defence expenditure and the prolongation of wars for which he offered no obvious path to victory. Quite how America benefited from the policies he supported, I cannot fathom.
So it is that I can’t share the general belief that his resignation yesterday is a severe loss for the United States. Moreover, I think that the reaction to his resignation and to the event which provoked it reveals something rather disturbing about the American attitude to war and peace.
As a candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump took a lot of provocative positions. There were very few of them which a good Western liberal like myself could support. But two did make sense: that it was in America’s interests to improve its relations with Russia; and that America’s endless wars in the Middle East and Central Asia were harming the United States without bringing any benefits, and so ought to be ended. To my mind, both of these propositions are blindingly obvious, but in the odd atmosphere of American politics, they were viewed as downright dangerous. Trump’s support of better relations with Russia has resulted in him being denounced as a traitor, a paid agent of the Kremlin. And his idea that America ought to bring its wars to an end has seen him being condemned as foolish and irresponsible.
Once elected, Trump rapidly turned his back on these views. His government imposed more and more sanctions on Russia, and Trump filled his cabinet with hawks like Mattis, Pompeo, and Bolton, and then proceeded to pursue reckless policies such as ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran. Those who hoped that Trump would bring peace were cruelly disappointed.
Until this week, when Trump suddenly declared victory in Syria and announced that he was ordering American troops to leave that country and return home. One might imagine that this would be a cause for celebration. American interference in Syria has had catastrophic consequences. On the assumption that the government of Bashar al-Assad was doomed, the United States funnelled weapons and money to a range of opposition groups who in some cases ended up fighting themselves, and in other cases defected to join ISIS, taking their American weapons with them. They failed to overthrow Assad, but did weaken him enough to open the way for ISIS to spread across a large part of Syria. Only after the Russian intervention in Syria began in late 2015 did ISIS finally begin to retreat. Now with ISIS largely defeated, any pretence that there is a legitimate reason for American troops to be in Syria has disappeared. Trump’s decision to get out is entirely warranted.
Yet it has led to howls of protest. Leading Republicans responded to the announcements of the troop withdrawal and Mattis’s resignation by saying that, ‘we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation,’ and that they were ‘legitimately frightened for the country’, as if ISIS were now going to be suddenly landing its troops on Roanoke Island. But it isn’t only Republicans who have been complaining. The reaction among Democrats has been equally outraged. Democratic Senator Mark Warner, for instance, described the situation as ‘scary’, while CNN (not noted for its love of the Republican Party) declared that Washington was ‘shaken, saddened, scared’, and the New York Times ran headlines such as ‘US Exit (from Syria) Seen as Betrayal of the Kurds, and a Boon for ISIS.’
There was a time when going to war was seen as a measure to be taken only in extremis. Unfortunately, lacking serious military competitors following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western powers decided to use the ‘unipolar moment’ to flex their muscles, with the result that they got mired in a series of apparently never-ending wars. Instead of discrediting the idea of war, these had the opposite effect – they habituated the political classes to it, so that now waging war has become normal and making peace is seen as ‘scary’. Conventional judgements about the national interest, international law, and the ethics of war have been turned on their head.
There’s not much to like about Trump, but the one (actually very significant) thing in his favour is that he professes a desire to put a stop to all this. It would be wrong to say that Trump has been a ‘peace president’. He has, after all, continued American involvement in wars such as that in Yemen. But, to date he has yet to start a new one. This is actually quite remarkable. Barack Obama launched a war against Libya and got American involved in the wars in Yemen and Syria. His predecessor, George W. Bush, invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Before Bush, Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia, and before him George H.W. Bush fought the first Gulf War. And of course, Bush Senior’s predecessor Ronald Reagan invaded Panama and Grenada. One has go to back 40 years to Jimmy Carter to find a president who didn’t start a war. So, despite what I said above, by American standards Trump is indeed a peace president and, if he keeps it up, far more deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize than Obama ever was. The fact that so many find this worrisome indicates that something has gone seriously wrong not only with our understanding of the world but also with our moral compass.