Paul Pillar

Why the Adults are Not Reining in Trump

Sometimes some of the adults, although useful restraints on the president on most matters, share his predilections and prejudices on others.  This is true of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, particularly on anything having to do with Iran, against which he is waging almost a personal vendetta.

On some issues, adults may not see things the same way as Trump but there is a sort of malevolent convergence in which the president and his advisers go along with the same unproductive policy for different reasons.  This may be true of policy toward Afghanistan.  Trump, who once averred that the United States “should have kept the oil” from Iraq, is now interested in getting U.S. hands on Afghanistan's mineral resources.  It is unlikely that most of the adults share that kind of crude mercantilist view, and they probably see the major downside of the United States presenting its overseas military operations as intended to grab other people’s mineral wealth.  But the same adults, including Mattis and McMaster, favor continuation of the U.S. military expedition in Afghanistan to achieve something that can be called “victory” and to pursue the obsolete notion that Afghanistan is a unique key in determining terrorist threats in the West.  Thus America’s longest war continues, with Trump craving minerals and his generals wanting to continue the effort for other reasons.

Trump, in imitating Kim Jong-un’s incendiary rhetoric, is still a long way from duplicating the ruthless North Korean dictatorship, in which even family members get executed when they fall out of favor.  But there is some further resemblance in the difficulty in speaking truth to power, and in the likelihood that such speaking will make a difference.  Even if surrounded by able hands, much policy will still reflect the whims and weaknesses of the man at the top. 

Image: Reuters

Pages