The resignation of Secretary of Defense Mattis leaves the United States in the midst of one of the great governmental crises of our history, one in which the character of the President and his relationship to the government make it more or less impossible for our system to function. The first such crisis occurred in 1841 after the death of William Henry Harrison, when his successor John Tyler turned out to be a Democrat rather than a Whig and had to dispense with his whole cabinet. The second occurred during the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1, when key members of President Buchanan's cabinet cooperated with seceding southern states while the President did nothing. The third occurred in the Administration of Andrew Johnson, beginning just five years later, when he, like Tyler, turned out to be utterly at odds with the party that had made him its vice presidential candidates The fourth occurred in 1919-20 when President Wilson had an incapacitating stroke. And the last was in 1973-4, when Watergate isolated President Nixon, who succumbed to his own demons, but hung on for more than a year after his guilt was fairly clearly established and his eventual ruin, in retrospect, very likely. Each of these crises only came to an end when the President left office.
Donald Trump, like Richard Nixon in his last year, now lives in his own world, a bubble within which he is a lonely hero saving his country despite the opposition of an army of enemies. Unlike Nixon, he can turn on the television any time (and now does so, it seems, for as much as three hours on most mornings) and hear Fox News commentators echo is view of himself and the world. But like Nixon--indeed, even more than Nixon--he can't trust anyone around him. He is too disorganized to plan and execute a decision on his own, but when someone else--such as his son-in-law Jared Kushner--manages to make something happen, Trump resents the idea that he himself was not responsible. Anyone who disagrees with him is merely standing in his way out of spite, he thinks, and needs to be fired--including the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. The big question before us is whether Trump will indeed act on his feelings and persuade either his acting or presumptive Attorney General--Matthew Whitaker or William Barr--to fire Rod Rosenstein and Robert Mueller, while pardoning some or all of the men who have already been convicted. I still think the odds are about 50-50 that he will, and that will trigger a real constitutional crisis, forcing the House of Representatives to impeach him, if he does.
Meanwhile, however, the President last week took a decision that may have great historical significance.
I believe that politics can never be reduced to a simple morality play, since society needs government to function at home, amass and spend resources, and carry on relations with foreign nations. Even with a moral and intellectual incompetent in the White House, life, and government, go on. So it is that this week may mark a milestone in recent history--the beginning of the end, it seems, of one of the defining crusades (and I use that word advisedly) of our era: the neoconservative attempt to use American military power to reshape the Middle East. Two specific developments mark the shift. First, President Trump, overruling his whole administration, announced that the US would pull its 2000 troops out of Syria. Secondly, the Weekly Standard, the official organ of neoconservative foreign policy, lost its financial angel and closed its doors. So ends, perhaps, the era of "the Global War on Terrorism," "the Long War," "the Fourth World War," and all the other postmodern conflicts that wrecked the United States, American politics, and large parts of the Arab world over the last 17 years. I can't say that I am sorry.
This conflict, like every great war, had both long-term and immediate causes. Since at least 1950 or so, as my friend Andrew Bacevich has pointed out for decades, the United States foreign policy establishment has reflexively believed that the United States must take an interest in any conflict anywhere in the world, and that American military power can solve it. Even Vietnam did not shake that establishment's commitment to that view, although it did inculcate caution in our military leadership for a couple of decades. During the 1970s the US became alarmed by the rise of political Islam in Iran and elsewhere, and the pro-Israeli lobby in the US became stronger and stronger in subsequent decades while Israel's politics moved to the right. Neoconservatism--born in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967--saw the fall of Communism as a vindication of its belief in US power and adopted the view that democracy--and US influence--was destined to rule the world. Paul Wolfowitz put that view into a confidential memo early in the first Bush Administration, and came back into power in 2001 determined to implement it. Then came 9/11.
A decade earlier, in 1991, William Strauss and Neil Howe had first predicted that the United States would come together to meet a great crisis sometime in the first 10-15 years of the 21st century. The nation would put partisan divides behind it and coalesce, imposing more uniformity of thought and action, as it had after 1774, 1860, and 1933. Most of us have forgotten, I think, how closely the Bush II Administration followed that script after 9/11 and how receptive the country was. The nation adopted the goal of ending terrorism and the regimes that supported it. Not only neoconservatives, but nearly the whole Democratic establishment, lined up behind the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The venerable Robert Byrd, a GI, opposed the Iraq War, but the presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton supported it. So did the editorial boards of our major newspapers. No one could possibly argue, in 2003, that the Administration did not have the country behind it.
The problem, of course, was that we had no more chance of turning Iraq into a functioning, pro-American democracy than our parents had had of doing the same in South Vietnam. Yet we embarked upon that project with a fraction of the resources we sent to Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration thought it could combine the war with tax cuts, and created a permanent deficit that has been with us until this day and which crippled the federal government when it had a real crisis to deal with in 2008-10. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of them threw away the chance to rebuild trust in government by embarking upona fool's errand.
One of my best posts on this blog, in 2007, documented Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard's cheerleading for the Iraq war during its first four years. I didn't spend any time in how wrong he had been about the wisdom of the war before it began, but I showed how he had constantly predicted victory just around the corner, while things got worse and worse. That post was written at the height of the "surge," General Petraeus's temporarily successful attempt to quiet things down in the Sunni portions of Iraq, when Kristol was once again claiming that triumph was at hand. It wasn't: only Americans, who were not going to remain forever, made the political deals with the Sunnis that brought about a temporary peace. They did quiet things down enough for Barack Obama, who had opposed the war, to withdraw American forces within a few years. But they left the Shi'ite government still at odds with the Sunni minority, and ISIS arose as a result, forcing the US to assist the Iraqi government in a new military campaign. Meanwhile the Arab spring had broken out, and the Obama Administration (and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) had adopted its predecessor's goal of democratizing the Middle East. Their project too has ended in spectacular failure in Egypt, where a military coup restored the old regime, and in Libya, where the elimination of Qaddafi brought chaos and a refugee crisis that has destabilized European politics.
The crusade in the Middle East had profound institutional consequences. A new military-industrial-intelligence complex sprang up in suburban northern Virginia and Maryland, one that remains largely under the radar, and the US military was reconfigured, giving contractors a much greater role. The military rediscovered counterinsurgency--which never had more than temporary successes in Iraq or Afghanistan. The government created the Guantanamo prison, where it still holds captives. And the philosophy behind the new wars--that the US had to kill Islamic extremists anywhere they pop up--has led us into new campaigns in Pakistan and Africa, killing people who pose no conceivable threat to the US. But the crusade lost all resonance among the American people at large years ago.
In my review a few months ago of Bob Woodward's new book, I noted that Donald Trump apparently had some sound instincts about the futility of many overseas US involvements, including Afghanistan. He had however allowed establishment types like Lindsay Graham--who explained to him, paraphrasing Bacevich, that there would always be evil in the world for the United States to fight--to prevail upon him to continue that war. But now, apparently, he has had enough in Syria, and he has declared victory and ordered the boys brought home. Whatever his motives--which may include doing a favor for Vladimir Putin--I think that was a sound decision. Under Obama we undertook one of our fruitless searches for good guys in a foreign civil war, and refused to face the fact that Bashir Assad was too strong to be overthrown. We need a reality-based foreign policy.
This doesn't mean, of course, that Trump is disengaging from the Middle East. Jared Kushner has enmeshed us in close partnerships with Netanyahu in Israle and Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and the Administration seems united in its hostility to Iran. But these seem to be ties among allied families, rather than strategic decisions. The crusade in the Middle East was the centerpiece of the foreign policy of the Boom generation, and shows how little long-term influence the Vietnam War actually had on the so-called strategists of my generation, who rejected any lessons that suggested that they might not be able to get anything they wanted merely by wishing for it. Trump--the third Boomer President--may now put that crusade in reverse. That will not be an unwelcome development.