More than any other presidency in modern history, Donald Trump's has been a veritable sociopolitical wrecking ball, deliberately stoking conflict by playing to xenophobic and racist currents in American society and debasing its political discourse. That fact has been widely discussed. But Trump's attacks on the system of the global U.S. military presence and commitments have gotten far less notice.
He has complained bitterly, both in public and in private meetings with aides, about the suite of permanent wars that the Pentagon has been fighting for many years across the Greater Middle East and Africa, as well as about deployments and commitments to South Korea and NATO. This has resulted in an unprecedented struggle between a sitting president and the national security state over a global U.S. military empire that has been sacrosanct in American politics since early in the Cold War.
And now Bob Woodward's "Fear: Trump in the White House" has provided dramatic new details about that struggle.
Trump's Advisers Take Him Into 'the Tank'
Trump had entered the White House with a clear commitment to ending U.S. military interventions, based on a worldview in which fighting wars in the pursuit of military dominance has no place. In the last speech of his "victory tour" in December 2016, Trump vowed, "We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we knew nothing about, that we shouldn't be involved with." Instead of investing in wars, he said, he would invest in rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure.
In a meeting with his national security team in the summer of 2017, in which Secretary of Defense James Mattis recommended new military measures against Islamic State affiliates in North Africa, Trump expressed his frustration with the unending wars. "You guys want me to send troops everywhere," Trump said, according to a Washington Post report. "What's the justification?"
Mattis replied, "Sir, we're doing it to prevent a bomb from going off in Times Square," to which Trump angrily retorted that the same argument could be made about virtually any country on the planet.
Trump had even given ambassadors the power to call a temporary halt to drone strikes, according to the Post story, causing further consternation at the Pentagon.
Trump's national security team became so alarmed about his questioning of U.S. military engagements and forward deployment of troops that they felt something had to be done to turn him around. Mattis proposed to take Trump away from the White House into "the Tank" at the Pentagon, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff held their meetings, hoping to drive home their arguments more effectively.
It was there, on July 20, 2017, that Mattis, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior officials sought to impress on Trump the vital importance of maintaining existing U.S. worldwide military commitments and deployments. Mattis used the standard Bush and Obama administration rhetoric of globalism, according to the meeting notes provided to Woodward. He asserted that the "rules-based, international democratic order"—the term used to describe the global structure of U.S. military and military power—had brought security and prosperity. Tillerson, ignoring decades of U.S. destabilizing wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, chimed in, saying, "This is what has kept the peace for 70 years."