Is it blatant dishonesty or a convenient bout of amnesia? It’s hard to tell. What I do know is this: the supposed American devotion to alliances, now being celebrated by those who deem the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis as heralding the end of Western civilization, is a load of malarkey.
The canonization of Mattis as a secular saint was underway in record time. In The New York Times, David Sanger describes Mattis as “the last senior official in the administration deeply invested in the world order that the United States has led for the 73 years since World War II, and the global footprint needed to keep that order together.” Here the tradition of Marshall, Acheson, and Kennan ostensibly ends and the precipice beckons.
To the wise and seasoned defense secretary, Sanger writes, “alliances were a force-multiplier.” To the foolish and impetuous commander-in-chief, “they are mostly a burden.” To drive the point home, Sanger recruits Robert Kagan, who obligingly chides President Donald Trump for treating allies as “freeloaders who can go to hell if they don’t get on board.”
Treating allies with disrespect is no doubt a terrible thing. Yet not so very long ago it was Kagan and his fellow neoconservatives who were telling allies unwilling to get onboard to go to hell. The moment was the run up to the Iraq war. The George W. Bush administration was urging American allies to join our mission. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein would initiate a great crusade to democratize the Middle East. What could possibly go wrong?
Apparently failing to appreciate that Washington’s operative definition of ally is “we decide, you agree, photo op to follow,” the Krauts and the Frogs refused to go along.
To which Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld replied: so what? In their view, allies were window dressing—nice to have if convenient, but utterly expendable if they dared to interfere with the exercise of American global leadership. Regarding Iraq, the Bush administration did not hide the fact that the United States would go it alone if necessary. “Coalition of the willing” was the phrase devised to gussy up what was little more than a policy of naked unilateralism.
The Germans? Ingrates who had managed to forget their debt to the United States, dating from 1945 and continuing through the Cold War. And the French? “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Together the two European nations formed an “axis of weasel.” They could both go to hell.
As it actually took shape, the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld coalition of the willing consisted mostly of the United Kingdom, led into war by a prime minister subsequently derided by his own countrymen as George Bush’s “poodle.” Tagging along were various other military contingents, together mustering firepower roughly equivalent to that of the Joplin, Missouri Police Department. Not a lot of capability, but since the war was sure to end up as a great romp—or so its proponents believed—none of this was expected to matter. The mighty forces of the United States would make short work of anyone foolish enough to resist. The favored term was “cakewalk.”
As is so often the case in war, things did not go as expected, to put it mildly. The reckless U.S. invasion of Iraq set in train a sequence of events leading—wouldn’t you know it—to the election of a president promising to put “America First.”
Donald Trump is a fool. Let there be no doubt on that score. But let there also be no confusion about how the United States got into the mess in which it finds itself today. Back in 2002 and 2003, various warmongers decided that noncompliant allies could “go to hell.” They got their wish and we live with the consequences.
Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.