In covering President Donald Trump’s recent pregnant comments about Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, The Wall Street Journal tucked away in its story an observation that hints at the president’s foreign policy direction. In an interview for CBS’s 60 Minutes, the president described Mattis as “sort of a Democrat if you want to know the truth” and suggested he wouldn’t be surprised if his military chief left his post soon. After calling him “a good guy” and saying the two “get along very well,” Trump added, “He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves…. That’s Washington.”
Actually that’s Trump. He demands total and utter loyalty from his people and gives none in return. In just his first 14 months as president, he hired three national security advisors, reflecting the unstable relationships he often has with his top aides. Following the 60 Minutes interview, Washington was of course abuzz with speculation about what all this might mean for Mattis’s fate and who might be the successor if Mattis were to quit or be fired. It was just the kind of fodder Washington loves—human drama revealing Trump’s legendary inconstancy amid prospective new turmoil in the capital.
But far more significant than Mattis’s future or Trump’s love of chaos was a sentence embedded in the Journal‘s report. After noting that recent polls indicated that Mattis enjoys strong support from the American people, reporter Nancy A. Youssef writes: “But his influence within the administration has waned in recent months, particularly following the arrival of John Bolton as national security adviser and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state.”
The significance here is that Bolton and Pompeo represent just about everything Trump ran against during his 2016 presidential campaign. He ran against the country’s foreign policy establishment and its rush to war in Iraq; its support of NATO’s provocative eastward expansion; its abiding hostility toward Russia; its destabilization of the Middle East through ill-conceived and ill-fated activities in Iraq, Libya, and Syria; its ongoing and seemingly endless war in Afghanistan; and its enthusiasm for regime change and nation-building around the world. Bolton and Pompeo represent precisely those kinds of policies and actions as well as the general foreign policy outlook that spawned them.
Trump gave every indication during the campaign that he would reverse those policies and avoid those kinds of actions. He even went so far, in his inimitable way, of accusing the Bush administration of lying to the American people in taking the country to war in Iraq, as opposed to making a reckless and stupid, though honest, mistake about that country’s weapons of mass destruction. He said it would be great to get along with Russia and criticized NATO’s aggressive eastward push. He said our aim in Syria should be to combat Islamist extremism, not depose Bashar al-Assad as its leader. In promulgating his America First approach, he specifically eschewed any interest in nation-building abroad.
The one area where he seemed to embrace America’s post-Cold War aggressiveness was in his attitude toward Iran. But even there he seemed less bellicose than many of his Republican opponents in the 2016 primaries, who said they would rip up the Iran nuclear deal on their first day in office. Trump, by contrast, said it was a bad deal but one he would seek to improve.
Still, generally speaking, anyone listening to Trump carefully before the election would have been justified in concluding that, if he meant what he said, he would reverse America’s post-Cold War foreign policy as practiced by George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Now we know he didn’t mean what he said, and the latest tiff over the fate of Mattis crystallizes that reality. It’s not that Mattis represents the kind of anti-establishment outlook that Trump projected during the campaign; in fact, he is a thoroughgoing product of that establishment. He said Iran was the main threat to stability in the Middle East. He supported sending arms to the Syrian rebels. He decried Russia’s intent to “break NATO apart.”
Thus any neutral observer, at the time of Mattis’s selection as defense secretary, might have concluded that he was more bent on an adventurous American foreign policy than his boss. But it turned out to be just the opposite. There are two reasons for this. First, Mattis is cautious by nature, and he seems to have taken Trump at his word that he didn’t want any more unnecessary American wars of choice. Hence he opposed the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal prior to Trump’s decision to pull America out of it. That action greatly increased the chances that America and Iran could find themselves on a path to war. Mattis also redeployed some military resources from the Middle East to other areas designed to check actions by Russia and China, which he considered greater threats to U.S. security.
And second, it turns out that Trump has no true convictions when it comes to world affairs. He brilliantly discerned the frustrations of many Americans over the foreign policy of the previous 16 years and hit just the right notes to leverage those frustrations during the campaign. But his actual foreign policy has manifested a lack of consistent and strong philosophy. Consider his approach to NATO. During the campaign he criticized the alliance’s eastward push and aggressive approach to Russia; then as president he accepted NATO’s inclusion of tiny Montenegro, a slap at the Russians; then later he suggested Montenegro’s NATO status could force the U.S. into a major conflagration if that small nation, which he described as aggressive, got itself into a conflict with a non-NATO neighbor. Such inconsistencies are not the actions of a man with strong convictions. They are hallmarks of someone who is winging it on the basis of little knowledge.
That seems to have presented a marvelous opportunity to Bolton and Pompeo, whose philosophy and convictions are stark and visible to all. Bolton has made clear his desire for America to bring about regime change in Iran and North Korea. He supported the Iraq war and has never wavered in the face of subsequent events. He has advocated a preemptive strike against North Korea. Pompeo harbors similar views. He favored withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and has waxed bellicose on both Iran and Russia.
Thus a conflict was probably inevitable between Mattis and these more recent administration arrivals. The New York Times speculates that Bolton likely undermined Mattis’s standing in Trump’s eyes. Writes the paper: “Mr. Bolton, an ideological conservative whose views on foreign policy are more hawkish than those of Mr. Mattis, appears to have deepened the president’s suspicions that his defense secretary’s view of the world is more like those of Democrats than his own.”
The paper didn’t clarify the basis of this speculation, but it makes sense. Bolton and Pompeo are gut fighters who go for the jugular. Trump is malleable, susceptible to obsequious manipulation. Mattis is an old-style military man with a play-it-straight mentality and a discomfort with guile. Thus it appears we may be seeing before our eyes the transformation of Trump the anti-establishment candidate into Trump the presidential neocon.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is a writer-at-large for The American Conservative. His latest book is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.