Today, amid the chaos of a presidential transition that would be laughable were it not so frightening, the Senate voted 81-17 to approve a bill that would “provide for an exception to a limitation against appointment of persons as Secretary of Defense within seven years of relief from active duty as a regular commissioned officer of the Armed Forces.” The bill would apply only to the appointment of James “Mad Dog” Mattis — Trump’s pick for the position.
As John Cassidy noted in The New Yorker, there was once speculation that Mattis’ mere three years of civilian life could hold up his appointment. Now it appears to be but a minor speed bump. This was a test of our congressional leaders’ resolve in the face of Trump’s absconding long-held norms, and they failed miserably. Moreover, they were glad to do so. Cassidy writes:
What happened? Had the members of the Committee, which is led by Arizona’s John McCain, a Republican, succumbed to the nihilistic spirit of the moment, the belief, exemplified by Trump’s campaign, that it is time to cast off antiquated democratic niceties, such as requiring the military to report to civilian leadership? To the contrary. The confirmation hearing that McCain held on Thursday demonstrated that many members of the committee, particularly the Democratic ones, are hoping that Mattis will act as a bulwark against Trump, the authoritarian tendencies he represents, and some of his scarier counsels, particularly Michael Flynn, a former three-star general slated to be Trump’s national-security adviser.
When we talk about the normalization of Trump and our sinking standards for the presidency, this is what we mean. Our senators were falling over themselves to heap praise on a man who a) doesn’t meet the requirements to hold the position of Secretary of Defense, and b) violates the proclaimed principles of many Democrats.
Such a transgression would likely be met with strong opposition — especially were the parties swapped in this scenario — in any other case. But as our representatives grasp at the slightest of silver linings, making an exception for the likes of Mattis seems the reasonable decision. After all, he’s an intellectual, right?
Actually, no. He’s a hawk and a warmonger who threatens to toss the United States into more pointless wars around the globe. Any “progressive” claiming opposition to the USA’s aggressive and inhumane foreign policy should be staunchly against the appointment of Mattis.
Take, for instance, his position on Iran and ISIS. Mark Perry wrote last year:
“I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief,” he said. “Iran is not an enemy of ISIS; they have a lot to gain from the turmoil that ISIS creates.” What Mattis said next was eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush’s claim that because Al Qaeda wasn’t attacking Saddam Hussein, the two must be linked: “I would just point out one question for you to look into,” Mattis intoned. “What is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One. That is Iran. That is more than happenstance, I’m sure.”
Or maybe not. Mattis’ ISIS-is-Iran claim is breathtakingly short on facts. The Iranians are arming Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, who are fighting ISIS in Mosul, and Tehran has made little secret of its opposition to the Sunni terrorist group. Back in July, Iranian television said its government had uncovered an ISIS plot to set off bombs in Tehran, leading to the arrest of 10 terrorist operatives. “The U.S. has lots of disagreements with Iran,” a senior Pentagon civilian official told me on Friday, “but what to do about ISIS isn’t one of them. We want them defeated, and so do they.”
Linking ISIS and Iran is worrisome for other reasons—as it seems to put the Tehran government back in America’s cross hairs, as the first step in rekindling Bush’s “axis of evil,” where nations and governments were seen as forming a common anti-American front, despite their differences. “It’s just not that simple,” this senior Pentagon civilian official told me, “and Jim Mattis ought to know that. He’s been kicking around the region for a long time; he knows how complicated it is.”
Perhaps Mattis’ desire to conflate complicated political situations of diverse Middle Eastern countries can be traced to his related beliefs about Islam. The cheery folks over at The Federalist (believers in the magic of the words “radical Islam”) sure seem to like what he has to say. So it’s strange that liberals would think a man who doesn’t believe that Islam is “in the best interest of the United States” would make a good leader of America’s more than 5,000 Muslim troops. But here we are.
Today’s 81-17 vote was an indication of how much ground Democrats are already willing to sacrifice in the hopes of finding a sliver of political leverage to use against Trump. Is Mattis going to stand up to Trump? He’s certainly not going to defend the values of peace and diplomacy we as leftists should strive for. Any resistance he might offer is likely to be a shallow concession for appearances while he carries out actions we once would have seen as irredeemable.
I send my sincerest thanks to the senators who decided not to capitulate to Trump’s trampling of norms. I appreciate that Senators Warren, Booker, Gillibrand, Murphy, Sanders and others saw the dangers of “Mad Dog” Mattis. And I am extremely disappointed in the 29 Democratic senators, including Sen. Al Franken and Sen. Amy Klobuchar from my state of Minnesota, who revealed their cowardice today.
Of course the chances of blocking the bill were slim. The truth is that Democrats lack the power they need to truly get in the way of what Trump wants to do. However, now is the time to demonstrate — if only to send a message — that Democrats will contend every action Trump takes for as long as he is president. If sitting Democratic senators don’t grow the spines to do so soon, they should expect primary challenges from candidates who know what it means to fight.