The Generals Can’t Save Us Either

In Military and War On
- Updated

We should all be a bit dispirited these days. At the beginning of the administration, most Democrats (myself included), and even a few Republicans, publicly hoped that a cadre of generals and former generals — Mr. Mattis, John Kelly at Homeland Security, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster at the National Security Council (who replaced retired Gen. Michael Flynn, a Trump loyalist) — would check Mr. Trump’s worse instincts. On Friday, Mr. Trump moved Mr. Kelly into the White House to serve as his chief of staff, replacing Reince Priebus, asserting that his military background would bring order to a tumultuous executive.

But six months later, it seems that hope was misplaced. The generals have done little to curb Mr. Trump, let alone give some shape to a dangerously incoherent foreign policy.

Consider North Korea: As Pyongyang defiantly ignored Mr. Trump’s martial strutting, he indicated that the United States was counting on the Chinese to bring financial pressure; praised the skills of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader; and offered to negotiate. A few months later, Mr. Trump has already ditched that approach, closing the door on the Chinese and going back to military threats.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Mr. Trump has sown confusion about American policy toward Syria; incited regional isolation of Qatar, home to an important American military base; and encouraged a destabilizing confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

During Mr. Trump’s maladroit visit to Europe, he declined to affirm the country’s commitment to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty — the linchpin of Europe’s collective security — and hectored European NATO members to spend more on defense. Although he has walked back the gaffe, trans-Atlantic relations remain shaky.

Most recently, Mr. Trump last week announced that transgender Americans would be barred from military service — catching the Pentagon by surprise and upending a long-running internal review process. After each of these episodes, stories leak about how the generals were either outgunned by advisers like Stephen Bannon or, more often, just left out of the loop.

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