Did you notice that we’ve had a military takeover of our government?
It happened so rapidly and so easily that it didn’t register on me for a couple of weeks. It hasn’t gone totally unobserved – for example, here – but no one else seems to think it’s ominous. I do.
Maybe I’m attuned to this because I’ve been reading about ancient Rome lately. The Roman Republic was brought to an end by two Triumvirates – successive alliances of three warlords – the First Triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus and the Second Triumvirate of Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus. Our American Triumvirate is composed of warlords named Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster, and they appear to be in the driver’s seat, for the present, anyway.
Military coups are generally very bad things, but on rare occasions they can be beneficial. Thus, Kemal Ataturk’s overthrow of the Ottoman Empire was on the whole good. The German military’s putsch of July, 1944 against Adolph Hitler would’ve been extremely good, if it had been successful. Sisi’s coup in Egypt in 2013 was certainly un-democratic, but order was restored and the Muslim Brotherhood removed from power, both of which were in themselves positive developments. It’s entirely possible that the American people will ultimately have cause to thank the three generals who are now in command of our country, but it’s certainly not a good sign for our political system that their intervention seems to have been necessary.
There are significant differences between the ancient Roman Triumvirates and their contemporary American lookalikes. Caesar and his colleagues and rivals were all bloodstained would-be tyrants, each with his own loyal army, who rose to supremacy by means of force and violence. Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster came to the fore through the normal processes of bureaucratic advancement and political preferment, and broke no laws to arrive at their current positions. They serve at the pleasure of the President, who can, at will, remove any or all of them. They aren’t – yet – an existential threat to our democracy. We can only hope they never become one.
There’s a standard reason, or excuse, that’s ordinarily offered when the military leadership assumes social control – the need to re-establish order. Usually, this means the country is in a chaotic condition for some reason, convulsed by riots, rebellions, or communal hostilities. In our case, the chaos was concentrated at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but society was disturbed by it, and the situation called for the imposition of some sort of discipline. The generals obliged.
It’s no secret how this situation evolved. Trump came into office without the vaguest idea of what Presidents are supposed to do. Far from a cohesive team, his staff was haphazardly put together from disparate elements who frequently disliked each other, and mostly were as ignorant as their boss in the ways of Washington D.C. It’s no wonder the Administration immediately imploded in a morass of ineffectiveness and recrimination. Something pretty drastic had to be done.
Trump, like other chickenhawks, is in awe of the military – they’re really macho in a way he’d like to be, but doesn’t know how. It makes sense that he’d want a general to straighten out the mess in the West Wing. Enter General Kelly, plucked from DHS to become Chief of Staff. And it’s indicative that General Kelly’s first priority has been to purge General McMaster’s critics on the NSC staff and elsewhere. The White House is looking a lot more strac these days.
It’s likewise indicative that when General Kelly was still DHS Secretary, he and General Mattis over at DOD made a deal that they would not both leave the country at the same time, so that one would always be around to keep an eye on you-know-who. Mattis and Kelly are both Marines; they’re the same age and have often served together. McMaster is Army and younger, but he’s cut from the same cloth. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but this Triumvirate fell into place so smoothly that it’s tempting to suspect some behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
I think it’s pretty safe to predict that – as long as the three generals don’t have a falling-out – they’ll control the policy-making process of the Trump Administration for the foreseeable future. This won’t be entirely a bad thing. These are three bright guys – they’ve four Masters’ degrees and a Ph.D. between them – and they’ve all seen combat. They’ve a typically gung-ho military attitude, of course, but they seem to understand that the world is a complex place, and that finesse is needed in warfare, as in any other field of activity. Our country could do a lot worse.
The problem is that, just like a coup d’état in a banana republic, this development marks a breakdown of regular politics in the United States. The military leadership has, politely but firmly, taken the reins of power from the hands of elected officials. Nothing like this has happened before in our history. The normal political process has failed to provide a government that can govern. Trump’s vagaries are only part of the problem. Our civilian politicians have been in a state of dysfunction for a decade or more. We’re fortunate that this particular set of generals appears only interested in crafting national security policy, and not in prolonging their own rule.
Next time we might not be so lucky.
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P.S. I’m taking next week off. My next post will be on Monday, September 25.