The General Who Might Be Tasked With Talking Trump Out of Catastrophic War

Martin did a good job of capturing what it means that John Bolton has been named as Trump’s national security adviser when he wrote that we are approaching “the most dangerous moment since the Cuban missile crisis.” Either of these two men alone are a threat to the planet, but together they pose an even more significant danger.

Combined with Bolton’s assumption that every challenge is an excuse for war, we have an administration that is perhaps best described with this:

The root of the problem is not a lack of sophistication or experience in Trump’s national security team. It is more basic than that: No one, from Mattis on down, could say what terms the United States would accept in any of these negotiations. And that is because not a single person in the government can confidently say what Trump will say or do tomorrow. This unpredictability came up again and again in my conversations with foreign diplomats. Several of them said it has profoundly rattled governments that have long looked to the United States — whatever their differences with it — to abide by its commitments and thereby undergird a wider sense of global order.

That comes from an expose on Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis by Robert Worth. He asks the question: “Can Jim Mattis hold the line in Trump’s ‘war cabinet?'” The answer to that question could come as soon as next month.

Trump is preparing for what promises to be a surreal one-on-one encounter with North Korea’s dictator. He agreed to the meeting — proposed by a South Korean envoy in the Oval Office — despite a warning from Mattis and McMaster about the risks. There are many…Timing is another problem. The next deadline for waiving sanctions against Iran as part of the nuclear deal is also in May, and Mike Pompeo has made clear many times that he sees the deal as a “disastrous” mistake that should be torn up. If that happens, Iranian officials have said they could start producing enriched uranium within days. The risk of a war between Israel, Hezbollah and Iran, which is already high, might escalate. And the repercussions in Pyongyang would be immediate. “If you’re trying to get a deal with North Korea, good luck getting it if they see you walking away from a deal you made previously with Iran,” I was told by Andrew Exum, a former Army officer who served in the Pentagon during the Obama administration.

That covers the possibility of a war between Israel, Hezbollah and Iran—in which it would be impossible for the United States to stay neutral. What about North Korea?

President Trump’s impromptu decision in early March to hold face-to-face talks with Kim Jong-un sets up a host of risks and an almost-impossible timeline. If the talks fail, lower-level diplomatic channels — usually held as a precursor to a leadership summit — could also collapse, raising the chances of war…All this is happening with the State Department still desperately understaffed and in the midst of a transition. Trump, his aides say, is feeling newly liberated to ignore cautious advice, and his nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is said to be fully in tune with his rowdier impulses…If events spin out of control, Mattis could be forced to choose between his loyalty to the chain of command and the moral imperative to avert a catastrophic war.

“This gets to a fundamental question,” I was told by a retired senior officer who knows him well. “Can Mattis win the president over in the most important debate we’ve had in decades, maybe centuries? I believe there is a moral hazard with this president, he will take everybody to the cliff. … If Mattis is able to prevail, that is what God put him on earth to do. It’s that serious.”

A completely unpredictable president combined with advisors who have been advocating war with both Iran and North Korea pretty much captures “the most important debate we’ve had in decades, maybe centuries.” The question of whether Mattis would choose his loyalty to the chain of command or averting catastrophic war(s) could very well be on the table.

The fact that we are forced to rely on Mattis, who was too much of a warmonger for the Obama administration, to stand in the breach of this kind of madness is hard to imagine. In any other situation I wouldn’t want to be placing my bets on this general. But that is the kind of extremism we now live with when it comes to the president and his war cabinet. May the goddess bless Mattis if he is able to talk these lunatics away from the cliff.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.