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Each member of the U.S. president’s cabinet serves at the pleasure of the president and the same is true in the case of the United States Secretary of Defense which position is in the top tier of the Executive Office serving the country’s leader. The other two top tier cabinet positions are, of course, the Secretary of State and the Chief of Staff. All of whom serve at the president’s discretion.
That said, General Jim Mattis has done an excellent job as the U.S. Defense Secretary and there are questions as to why such a capable individual should find it necessary to retire from a position to which he was obviously well-suited. Also, the question exists whether the president influenced that decision or whether General Mattis was fired and the term “retiring” was used to convey proper respect to a long-serving military member who earned every honour he ever received.
Obviously, the president and the secretary had a difference on policy, that goes without saying. But under the U.S. Constitution, a U.S. president can pursue any foreign or domestic policy he chooses and he or she doesn’t need the approval of his cabinet.
(Of course, it’s better if they do approve)
U.S. cabinet officers serve the president, not the other way around. Therefore, in case of a difference of opinion the president wins, every time, and it must always be that way.
Even such notable soldiers as General Douglas MacArthur who tried to bully U.S. president Harry S. Truman into militarily attacking China — thereby dramatically enlarging the Korean War — was finally forced to step down famously saying, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away” find themselves subject to the U.S. president’s discretion by virtue of the laws of the United States and its Constitution.
Still, it could be instructive in some way to examine the reasons behind such events to ascertain whether a systemic problem exists that must be dealt with, or to find whether these events occurred due to some other reason.
Let’s look at the Syrian situation in the context of American military involvement, because in the case of president Trump and secretary Mattis it’s almost surely the issue that divided them:
- Syria has been involved in a civil war since 2011 and was the last country in the region to feel the effects of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
- No country is allowed under international law to intervene militarily in another country’s civil war without being invited by the lawful government of that country. Countries can’t unilaterally insert themselves into the midst of civil wars. That’s black letter international law. It’s 100% non-negotiable.
- Which the Americans did. As did their allies (some European countries).
- Russia and Iran on the other hand were invited by the lawful government of Syria and that invitation was made publicly. It’s a matter of public record.
- The legal exception to involvement by non-invited parties occurs if the UN Security Council approves military actions; Where the UN Security Council votes to apply sanctions or approve military force, military intervention becomes legal under international law. However, the UN Security Council didn’t approve military force by the U.S. and its allies against Syrian government forces or non-government forces (terrorists). Yet, the U.S. and its allies militarily attacked targets in Syria without the proper and legal authorizations required by international law.
- Though such actions clearly broke international law, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad didn’t seem to mind. Yes, he did complain at first, but as soon as the Americans and their European allies lessened their attacks on terrorist targets in Syria, Bashar Al-Assad suddenly stopped complaining. To many people (and it might even hold up in international court if it ever comes to that) this clearly registered as tacit approval for America and her allies to conduct military operations against ISIS inside Syria for the duration of the Syrian civil war.
With me so far? Few people would dispute points 1 through 6 above.
No doubt that U.S. president Trump and U.S. secretary of defense Mattis were 100% aligned in regards to U.S. policy in Syria since the confirmation of General Jim Mattis on January 20, 2017.
Any difference of opinion between the two is therefore recent and easy to discern.
American Involvement in Syria: Part II
Since about November of 2018 it appears that the battle against ISIS is largely won in Syria.
From now on, it’s going to be a mopping-up operation with exponentially increasing chances for American and Russian forces to clash (accidentally or otherwise) in the ever-smaller areas formerly controlled by terrorist groups.
Not only American and Russian of course, many countries operate inside Syria fighting terrorists and thereby assist the Syrian government (even if assisting the Syrian regime isn’t one of their objectives) and some terrorists might decide to meddle with the foreign forces fighting them.
Any individual who feels they have something against America or Europe who happens to have access to a rifle, a rocket launcher, or other weapons system may feel entitled under Jihadi rules to shoot down an American fighter or bomber jet, helicopter, or perhaps take out a number of U.S. soldiers who may be sleeping in a tent or non-hardened building.
For a terrorist, the opportunity to create a war between Russia and America, or between Russia and Europe (however unlikely that may, or may not be) might prove too tempting and numbers of them on multiple occasions might soon decide to employ themselves on suicide missions to accomplish that objective.
‘Targets of Opportunity’ are what every American and European military person will now represent to Jihadis at this stage — whereas prior to November 2018 they were too busy trying to stay alive to get involved in planning traps so that (nominal allies, in Syria, at least) America and Russia might find themselves in a ground or air fight against the other. Such danger that represents!
American Involvement in Syria: Part III
Even after the American troops (numbering only 2000 personnel) leave Syria there are still a number of ways to influence events in that country.
a) Soft Power
b) Hard Power
Soft power is the application of diplomacy. The UN is the most likely place for this to happen and America has a strong presence at the United Nations. At this point in the Syrian civil war, America’s best option is UN-backed diplomacy and its 2nd-best option remains direct diplomacy between the nations that are in some way involved with Syria.
Hard power is the application of military force. The U.S. military is the most powerful on Earth but that doesn’t mean the United States should be bombing just for the sake of bombing.
If there are better options than that, those should take precedence over military actions that could result in the unwanted and unnecessary problems of military conflict happening by accident between the U.S. and Russia, or between the U.S. and Iran (or between the U.S. and any other countries operating in Syria) or between the Americans and the Syrians.
None of that is going to help bring peace in Syria.
A final thought about U.S. Hard Power being applied in Syria following the pullout of America’s 2000-strong ground and air force is that the US Navy can deliver as many missiles as the president chooses to targets in Syria from the Mediterranean Sea, anytime the president wants. This has been done in the past with regards to purported chemical attacks that occurred in Syria and is something the Navy trains for every day of the year. Likewise with the U.S. Air Force, which can deliver as many bombs or missiles to terrorist targets inside Syria as the president chooses.
And none of them are going to accidentally bomb Russian or Syrian government positions due to the prior notification protocols common among the world’s major military forces that operate in conflict zones.
Conducting military operations inside Syria is still against international law (therefore I’m not advocating for such operations!) unless Bashir Al-Assad approves of it in advance (and it’s possible he might need help if he gets surrounded by terrorists again) and it’s still in America’s interests to have the democratically elected Bashir Al-Assad government in charge of Syria vs. any number of shady terrorist groups — but at least the lives of 2000 American troops won’t be unnecessarily at risk.
They don’t mind necessary risk, but they hate unnecessary risk. Wouldn’t you?
“Two Men Look Out Through the Same Bars – One Sees Mud, the Other, Stars”
In the final stage of the Syrian Civil War, U.S. president Trump likely sees a case of diminishing returns in Syria, with a growing threat of accidental conflict with America’s nominal allies (Russia, Syria and even Iran — as far as the Syrian conflict is concerned) He sees the potential for a sudden Jihadi attack comparable to the Marine barracks attack in Beirut (1983) that killed 241 U.S. Marines that could undo the good work done by U.S forces in the country especially if a large number of U.S. troops were to be killed in such an attack whether by design or accident; He sees that Syria’s allies are poised and able to complete the task at their cost in both lives and treasure, and he sees that America isn’t going to gain anything further by staying.
ISIS will be defeated in Syria due in large part due to American involvement and no matter how long America stays it isn’t likely to get more recognition for its work fighting terrorism there than it’s already gotten.
In short, for all the right reasons, president Trump decided that U.S. forces should leave Syria — and U.S. Navy aircraft carriers or U.S. Air Force bombers could still deliver a message to terrorist groups operating inside Syria at a moment’s notice.
And from the perspective of Jim Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, he has resigned for all the right reasons. If you can’t agree on policy (and it is the job of the president to decide policy, not the SecDef) then it’s right to leave. No doubt that General Mattis felt there was more good that American forces could still do inside Syria (even though they weren’t invited and aren’t there legally) and that having U.S. forces on the ground was a stabilizing force in the country. It was that for certain.
But now that Bashar Al-Assad’s tacit approval of unasked-for American ‘assistance’ is almost certainly about to come to an end president Trump has made the right policy move on Syria.
And the president still retains the option of US Navy or Air Force attacks on terrorist targets inside Syria — while removing only the increasingly imperilled ground force option.
‘Timing is everything’ they say.
- A look back at the deadly 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut (abc.com)
It’s happened in previous decades and it’s happening again. Unelected Americans working within a U.S. Administration are (apparently) circumventing the will of a democratically elected U.S. president.
It happened to president Reagan, to president Carter, to president Nixon, to president Kennedy (ushering in the loss of innocence in America, and destroying a noble family in the process) and it happened to Ike Eisenhower who was America’s five-star general and Supreme Allied Commander in WWII before becoming the president of the United States. And all these U.S. presidents were legally voted into office by American citizens via a rigorous democratic process.
America has a problem.
Were the Unnamed Operatives Elected to be President, or Was the President Elected to be the President?
Of course Donald Trump was elected to lead the American people, to have the privileges of the highest executive office in the land, and to hold the most powerful keys of the country’s armed forces.
In defense of the unnamed operatives; There’s no doubt that such people interfere in the proper operation of the White House for the most altruistic of reasons and believe wholeheartedly that they’re doing the right thing for the United States and feel very patriotic about the actions they take. Certainly they’re risking their careers to stand up for what they believe is ‘right’ for America.
Therefore, I sincerely and profoundly admire the motivations of such operatives, but the simple fact is they’re wrong to subvert the will of American voters who voted — not for political operatives to run the country — but for Donald Trump to run the country.
Whether I like or hate President Donald Trump as a person (or like or hate his policies) or whether I’m his biggest backer on both counts (I’m not) this discussion must be about democracy in America and who is, and who isn’t, allowed to tamper with the process.
Maybe Trump Is All The Anonymous Operatives Say He Is: Regardless, He’s Still the President
What if President Donald Trump really is everything his detractors say; “Amoral, Impetuous, Adversarial, Petty, Half-Baked, Ill-Informed, and Occasionally Reckless” or his worst sin I suspect, not being under their control as they would like?
These operatives want him under some kind of control — not because he is bad for the country — but because he’s big, powerful, and scary, and such people need to be kept under control! (Don’t they?)
In an anonymous Op/Ed posted at the New York Times today the operative or operatives wrote, “It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”
Shocking that any unelected official would say it in any country about any leader — let alone in the United States of America — one of the best democratic nations in the world.
In some countries, writing or speaking such words might get you arbitrarily imprisoned for a number of years, it might get you dead, or it might be the reason you hideout in another country for the next 25-years.
Yes, I ‘get’ that he is big, powerful, and scary, and he doesn’t negotiate using the same tried and true methods as previous American presidents. And to some people that means they must step in to control the situation — because to them — it means the president is out of control.
Or is it they just don’t recognize that the guy really is some kind of weird genius who, using the weirdest methods possible (to them) gets his way (which to Donald Trump, means getting America’s way) and is a breath of fresh air to American politics.
He isn’t like the last holder of that office, nor will Donald Trump be like his successor whomever that may be. He’s a one-off, unique communicator, and definitely an agent of change for the country.
But in their own way, so were Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and many others. Such a disparate and talented group of individuals American presidents are — and each one in his own way cut across boundaries to do great things for the country they love. You have to admire them as individuals regardless of which side of politics you’re on.
Whether you like Trump’s style or not, he is accomplishing things for the country. Bombastic, irreverent, loud and in charge, or however you want to term his style, he gets results and bad press — although I’ve seen harsher media coverage of a U.S. president.
All administrations have their chaotic moments. Most however, have plenty of experienced politicians working for them who know how to cover it with the White House press corps. But such is not the case with the Trump White House. Many people who work there are ultra-patriotic Americans who would take a bullet for their country, yet they might not have decades of beltway experience to guide them around Washington’s invisible traps.
But as long as Trump feels he is accomplishing good things for the country, he’ll stay on as the country’s leader. But he’s the kind of person who would resign if he ever felt he wasn’t contributing to America’s success. Such is his love for the country.
He’s the President for as Long as ‘We The People’ Say He Is
Barring ill health or accident, Trump is the President for the next 2 1/2 years.
The position of the American president is, by careful design, the person elected to carry out the will of the people and is the person most responsible for, and the most responsive to, United States citizens. It goes with the office.
The president of the United States works for the American people and his loyalty must be to them, and ultimately is accountable only to them. But those who work for the president, work for the president and are accountable to the president, not to voters.
Therefore, if these operatives feel they can do a better job as president, they should submit their resignation (and, if they feel the need) post a copy in the New York Times outlining the reasons they worked to subvert the decisions of the elected president, and at the next election run for the top job themselves.
It’s an honourable way to register their disappointment with the nation’s chief executive.
Q: What could be worse than another Cold War between the United States and Russia?
A: Nothing. There isn’t anything that could be worse than another Cold War breaking out between nuclear armed superpowers that could conceivably destroy all life on the planet many times over. At the push of a button.
Boom! In an instant we’d be blinded by a flash and our bodies would heat up to 3 million degrees within seconds and everyone on Earth would end up floating around as carbon dust at 100,000 feet before finally settling down on top of the nuclear-winter snow that would cover the entire planet for about 40-years. (Nuclear weapons experts call that snow/radioactive carbon dust mixture, ‘grey goo’)
It’s a miracle it didn’t happen during the 40-year long Cold War, but we came within seconds of such annihilation many times over the course of those perilous four decades.
What the Helsinki Meeting Represents
For some people, the meeting between America’s President Trump and Russia’s President Putin represents an opportunity to catch either president in some sort of verbal gaffe, or to capture a sound-bite and milk it for all it’s worth — while for others, a meeting between the two major nuclear powers represents the best opportunity in the 21st-century to reverse the downward spiral in relations between the two nuclear hyperpowers.
That’s what is at stake here.
Anything else (and that means everything else!) just isn’t important when you’re playing at that level.
Whether 12 or 13 Russians may or may not have interfered in the 2016 U.S. election is orders of magnitude less important than the chance of nuclear war breaking out between the nuclear superpowers.
Also orders of magnitude less important is the purported (but not proven) collusion between Trump’s people and certain Russian citizens who may, or may not be spies or some kind of fixers or operators, and also orders of magnitude less important is Hillary’s purported carelessness in using a non-government (and therefore, non-secure) server to send or receive classified emails that Russian agents (purportedly) were able to hack and read. (That’s a lot of ‘purportedly’s’ — but everyone in America is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law)
And yes, those are all very interesting stories that will probably have a long shelf life and keep reporters buzzing until a bigger story replaces them.
But let’s not get distracted by sensational headlines, nor should we be complacent and forget what’s really at stake.
The leaders of two nuclear powers met, apparently had a businesslike and friendly meeting, and important matters were discussed. That in itself was almost a miracle after the goings-on between the two superpowers over the past decade, which between them, possess over 13,300 nuclear warheads, while the rest of the declared nuclear powers in the world account for a total of 1065 nuclear weapons.
Building On A Successful Helsinki Meeting
Rather than let the present momentum lapse, President Trump and President Putin must ‘strike while the iron is hot’ and schedule some arms control talks.
“If not us, who? If not now, when?” — President John F. Kennedy
In 1963, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which banned atmospheric atomic and nuclear bomb testing) was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union and in 1996 was passed by the UN General Assembly.
The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) was signed and ratified by both sides in 1972 which paved the way for SALT II in 1979 which was signed by both parties in 1979 but not ratified due to unrelenting bad press in the United States. However, both sides decided to adhere to the terms of SALT II even though it was never ratified. Which is the only reason we see near-parity in nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles between the United States and Russia today.
To keep the present momentum going, SALT II could be re-signed and ratified to pave the way for a SALT III treaty to be created — as per the original plan.
The logic of the SALT agreements is clear: The SALT I treaty limited Anti-Ballistic Missile sites and froze the number of missiles each side could possess, while SALT II established numerical equality in nuclear weapon delivery systems and also limited the number of Multiple, Independent Re-entry Vehicles (bombs) per missile, while the proposed SALT III was designed to draw down and place firm and verifiable caps on the nuclear bomb arsenals of both the United States and the Soviet Union to around 2400 each.
Before the present momentum between the two leaders fade, both men should push their respective administrations to re-commit to SALT II (as a formality) and ratify it before the end of 2018.
That would allow the necessary time to author a fresh SALT III agreement and schedule a signing ceremony for both SALT II and SALT III at the same time.
It’s not rocket science, it’s politics. But previous leaders just couldn’t get it done. Both sides have wanted to do this for almost 40-years, but (very suspiciously) something always cropped-up at the last minute to prevent forward progress on this most important of geopolitical issues.
“Things don’t happen, things are made to happen.” — President John F. Kennedy
Turning Nuclear Bombs into Electricity
At the end of the Cold War a deal was struck between the United States and Russia whereby excess nuclear bombs (remember; any number of nuclear bombs higher than 2400 for the United States and for Russia is complete overkill from a strategic defense perspective) were sold-off to nuclear power plants and used to produce many years worth of high grade, clean electricity.
The program was called the Megatons to Megawatts program and was called one of the greatest diplomatic achievements ever by Harvard’s Matthew Bunn.
The problem is that it had just begun to hit its stride when President Barack Obama cancelled the program unilaterally, and after not much fanfare (only one NPR article) M2M ended.
Assuming both superpowers want to pare-down their nuclear arsenals to 2400 each, that leaves them with 4050 bombs (United States) and 4450 (Russia) to dispose-of. That’s 8500 bombs-worth of clean nuclear power, folks! For example, that’s enough nuclear fuel to power America until the year 2100 at present rates of nuclear fuel usage.
It’s a shame that this noble program was ended long before the most amount of good could be obtained from the Megatons to Megawatts program.
Right now, President Trump could phone President Putin and offer to resume this super-successful program — and he might find a willing partner in Putin who seemed fine with M2M until it was suddenly cancelled in 2013.
Building on success is so much better than re-inventing the wheel, as the saying goes.
A Plug for the Big 5 – as Opposed to the G7
The trouble with the G7 is that the United States GDP, military, number of nuclear bombs, and balance of trade (and in many other metrics) is bigger than all the other G7 nations combined! The U.S. is just too big! It’s the proverbial elephant in the room. The other countries just can’t relate, so they overcompensate.
The recent problems between the U.S. and other G7 members at the recent Charlevoix G7 summit are systemic — the fault isn’t with any of the members. Whatsoever.
And now is as good a time as any for the United States to champion the creation of a new organization, an organization dedicated to superpowers and near-superpowers like Russia, China, Japan, and the EU. Alternatively, if one of those countries or blocs didn’t want to join, The Commonwealth of Nations bloc could join instead.
In such an organization, members would find that the problems that superpowers and near-superpowers encounter would be similar problems and that solutions might also be found to be similar. At best, the world’s major powers could work together on their common problems, while middle powers could create the middle-power ‘Next-20’ Group, or N20.
In that way, superpowers and near-superpowers would be grouped together (logical) and middle powers would be grouped together (also logical) and the previously noted systemic problems would disappear, allowing politicians to roll up their sleeves and get to work on common issues instead of struggling with one giant stuck in a group of middle powers.
Read about the astonishing differences between the U.S. and the other G7 powers here.
Geopolitical Momentum is Vital and Precious – It Must Never Be Wasted
Now that the two presidents have had their first major meeting that seemed to go very well, it’s time to capitalize on the goodwill before events sweep away those good feelings and opportunities bigger than the sky are (again) allowed to slip away!
Whether the next phone call between the two men is about restarting the highly-successful Megatons to Megawatts program, or plans to meet with President Xi Jinping to discuss the Big 5 organization, or build onto the world-changing SALT treaties — or to discuss some other plan the two presidents discussed — now is the time to build on the initial meeting success and thereby positively change the conversation between superpowers and change the entire conversation that is happening in the global media because no other, better story appears to replace all that sniping.
One of the ways leaders lead effectively is to know when it’s time to change the conversation the media is having with itself and with its viewers.
I respectfully suggest, that time is NOW.