It’s not secret that Jim Mattis and Donald Trump had issues working together. I was surprised to read that Mattis wanted to scrap Trump’s “America First” policy, and while I couldn’t get the full article from Foreign Affairs, the snippets I read said his main criticisms were:
- Characterizing Afghanistan and Iraq as “forever wars”
- Undermining our allies
- Bad views on China
Let’s give the man his due and ask the question: is he right?
We’ve been in Afghanistan (officially) since 2001, and Iraq since 2003, although we withdrew all forces in 2011 per our Status of Forces agreement, and were invited back again in 2014. The Iraqi parliament has been working since early 2020 to get US troops to leave. In sum total, we’ve been in Afghanistan for 19 years (and counting), and Iraq for 8 plus 6 years, total of 14 years, assuming we leave this year.
In comparison, World War Two was from 1939-1945 (6 years), Vietnam was 1964-1975 (if you pick Gulf of Tonkin as the start, 11 years), Korea was 1950-1953 (3 years). The longest of these, Vietnam, has been characterized as a “forever war” before, so its no surprise that to the average American, Iraq and Afghanistan look like forever wars.
But are they investments in peace and stability? I’ve heard them compared to our time in Germany and Japan shortly after World War 2. We’re still technically stationing military in both countries. In Germany, our occupation started in 1945, but by 1949 we had already formed West Germany, and by 1955, West Germany was a member of NATO, and our forces were no longer “occupying” Germany. Japan was similar, with our occupation ending in the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952. While we are still in those countries today, we aren’t there to occupy or provide security. In fact, we expected significant insurgency issues (such as Germany’s Werwolf program), yet they never materialized.
Contrast that to Afghanistan and Iraq, where our troops are providing significant combat support and basic policing. That’s a massive difference between the two, and not dissimilar to Vietnam, where we still had to provide basic protection against an insurgency because of the host government’s inability to perform it themselves.
So to recap, if you militarily stay in country and have to fight an insurgency inside the borders, it feels like a forever war. If you stay and the country does its own policing, it doesn’t feel like a forever war. Or, from a military perspective, if you can’t bring your family to your new duty station, it might feel like a war zone.
What about undermining our allies? President Trump has been on record saying a lot of mean things. The Foreign Policy article argues that he is “undermining the foundations of an international order manifestly advantageous to U.S. interests, reflecting a basic ignorance of the extent to which both robust alliances and international institutions provide vital strategic depth.”
So the question is, has Trump undermined our alliances? Is the international order we have now worse off than before? The United States has mutual defense pacts with NATO, Australia, New Zealand, The Phillipines, Japan, Republic of Korea and the Rio Treaty with a smattering of South American nations. It also supports Taiwan, but the treaty is a bit vague as to whether we would respond to a PRC invasion.
Here we’re probably batting 500 at best. President Trump has worked to expand relationships with India and Japan, and has maintained a normal course with Australia and New Zealand. Trump’s push to pull out of Korea isn’t new, we’ve asked the Koreans to own their defense before. His attempts at directly negotiating with North Korea put us on a much better path to peace…I never thought I’d see a sitting President shake the North Korean dictator’s hands ever. Our relationship with South America hasn’t expanded much militarily or economically, and I’d call that a negative. The economic treaties throughout the world are mixed. In some cases, it got better (USMCA), in other cases, it stagnated (TPP).
NATO is a mixed bag. On one hand, he pushed for and got much needed investment by NATO nations in their own defense, something that nearly every previous Secretary of Defense and President has been asking for years. On the other hand, Europe wanted an Iranian deal so they could get back to buying oil, while Trump wanted to stop Iranian aggression in the Middle East. There’s no resolution to that short of Iran dropping its nuclear weapons program (it didn’t) or Europe or the US dropping their arguments (neither side has). Trump’s response of neutralizing the Israeli issue, first with the UAE and Bahrain and (maybe) with Saudi Arabia is some out of the box thinking. I would argue that NATO is stronger now than before, but some of the individual countries like Germany aren’t happy with the US.
Overall, point to Mattis on this one. Negotiating hard makes sense, but it could have been done with some more finesse, and creating hard feelings isn’t worth it in many cases.
Mattis’ comments on China are odd, given his time as Secretary of Defense and his shift towards Great Power Competition. From the Foreign Affairs article:
“Crucially, the United States should not press countries to choose outright between the two powers,” they said. “A ‘with us or against us’ approach plays to China’s advantage because the economic prosperity of U.S. allies and partners hinges on strong trade and investment relationships with Beijing.”
So, we should work with China? I’d be all about it, and so was William Cohen, opening up US military relations with the PLA in 1999. How did that work for us? China continued to steal technology, threaten its neighbors, build fake islands in the South China Sea, bury US industry with practices illegal to the WTO, and in general act in ways completely at odds of the US. The only difference between Russia and China is that China is happy to pay for this influence. When they needed a port in Sri Lanka, the Chinese invested their own money and worked with Sri Lanka, right up to the point the Sri Lankans couldn’t pay back a loan. China is happy to flex its muscles on every deal it makes, from the one-sided Vatican recognition to its territorial dispute with India. Unlike most other countries, there is no good faith in any of the past deals China made.
The Cohen Group has been happy to look the other way. Yes, there is a ton of money in China. Plenty of Americans are making money in China. Our hope in 1999 was that as China grew, it would naturally democratize. That wasn’t a bad call back then. It’s a terrible call now. The Cohen Group continues to look past this however. It’s founder, William Cohen, not only sided against Trump in 2016, he also has personal connections with the late John McCain and was his best man after he dumped his first wife.
Jim Mattis joining a group of academics that are already naturally anti-Trump and pro-China, and then coming out with a pro-China statement, isn’t that surprising. If we continue to view China like we did in 1999, then yes, everything Trump is doing is a terrible idea. But the last 20 years have shown that Afghanistan is not Germany, NATO wasn’t ready for high-end conflict, and China’s One Party system is happy to crush the United States if we let it do so. If the Cohen Group is happy to make money from this world view, good for them, but don’t be surprised when it doesn’t jive with the average American.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.