President Trump excited many non-interventionists when he publicly announced that he was ordering an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Quite quickly, however, Trump bent to pressure and agreed to extend the withdrawal deadline to four months. That caused me to write an article on January 2 entitled “It’s Too Soon to Celebrate Trump’s Syria Withdrawal.”
Then came the stunning announcement by National Security Advisor John Bolton declaring that no U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Syria until ISIS has been totally defeated and only after Turkey has promised not to attack Kurdish forces, which have assisted Trump with his Syria intervention. Bolton’s announcement necessarily means that Trump’s deadline has now been extended far beyond the four-month extension. Indeed, for all practical purposes it implies that U.S. troops are going to remain in Syria indefinitely, the very thing that Trump initially said he was going to end immediately.
The question naturally arises: Who’s in charge here — Trump or Bolton? Wouldn’t one ordinarily think that it’s the president, not the person working for the president, who gives the orders with respect to U.S. troops?
The real answer is that neither Bolton nor Trump is in charge. The entity in charge of U.S. foreign policy is the national-security establishment, which consists of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA. They, not Trump or Bolton, decide whether and when U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Syria or anywhere else. They are clearly the ones who have decided that U.S. troops shall remain in Syria.
I highly recommend a book entitled National Security and Double Government by Michael J. Glennon: professor of law at Tufts University. The book explains how the national-security branch is where the real power of the federal government lies. The Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA permit the other three branches to maintain the veneer of power and permit them some latitude but in the final analysis, it is the national-security branch that is actually calling the shots.
It never really made sense that Trump would hire Bolton. He’s one of the fiercest foreign interventionists in the conservative movement. While Trump never professed to be a principled non-interventionist during his presidential campaign, his perspectives on foreign interventionism were extremely at odds with those of Bolton.
By the same token, the fact that Trump immediately surrounded himself with generals after taking office didn’t make much sense either, given Trump’s anti-foreign-wars, America First campaign rhetoric.
So, why did Trump do it? Why did he hire Bolton and all those generals rather than hire people whose views more closely resembled those of Trump?
There exists the possibility that Bolton and those generals weren’t hired by Trump — that there were instead hired by the national-security establishment and sent to work in the White House to keep a tight rein on Trump. That would certainly explain why Bolton would feel comfortable issuing an order contradicting the president. If he was placed in his White House position by the Pentagon and the CIA, he wouldn’t have to concern himself with upsetting the president by issuing a contradictory order. He would simply be carrying out the orders of his real boss, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA.
It is extremely difficult for any of us to realize the tremendous pressure that the national-security establishment can bring against a president to ensure that he doesn’t go off the national-security state reservation.
Consider the federal judiciary. It wasn’t long after the U.S. government was converted into a national-security state after World War II that the judiciary caved and adopted a policy of extreme deference to the national-security establishment. That’s why we have ended up with a government that wields the totalitarian powers of kidnapping, indefinite detention, torture, coups, regime-change operations, and even assassination, all legal thanks to the federal judiciary, which simply decided to overlook the fact that none of those actions are authorized by the U.S. Constitution.
Consider the members of Congress. They don’t dare take on the national-security establishment. The military will threaten to cancel projects or close bases in their districts, which will cause the local media to go ballistic and label that member of Congress as ineffective.
The only president who has had the courage and fortitude to take on the national-security establishment directly was President Kennedy. Not only did he reputably vow to tear the CIA into a thousand pieces after its Bay of Pigs fiasco, he also threw down the gauntlet at his Peace Speech at American University in June 1963, where, without consulting or advising the Pentagon or the CIA, publicly declared an end to the Cold War and then proceeded to enter into secret negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro to normalize relations between the United States and the communist world. He also ordered a partial withdrawal of 1,000 troops from Vietnam, which was considered much worse than Trump’s Syria withdrawal, and told close aides that he intended to pull all of them out after winning the 1964 election.
It’s not difficult to understand the extremely adverse reaction of the national-security establishment to Kennedy’s actions. They considered him to be an incompetent, foolish, cowardly, and even treasonous president who was leading America to disaster at the hands of the communists. Take the U.S. national-security establishment’s current anti-Russia mindset with respect to Trump and multiply it by about 1,000 to see how they felt about Kennedy. Also, see FFF’s ebook JFK’s War with the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy Was Assassinated by Douglas Horne.
Kennedy was fully aware of the danger of taking on the national-security establishment in such a direct way, especially with respect to foreign policy and its official attitude toward Russia and the rest of the Soviet Union. For one thing, he had listened to President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, where Ike warned about the dangers that the “military-industrial complex” posed to the liberties and democratic processes of the American people. Kennedy had also played a major role in causing the novel Seven Days in May, which posited a military takeover by the Pentagon, to be made into a Hollywood movie. He wanted the movie to serve as a warning to the American people. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, his brother Robert Kennedy told a Soviet diplomat that the president was facing the possibility of a military coup over his handling of the crisis. And Kennedy had once told a friend that if the national-security establishment were to conclude that he was unable or unwilling to take a strong enough stand against the Soviet Union, they wouldn’t hesitate to remove him from office. And, of course, the CIA had done precisely that to the prime minister of Iran in 1953, the president of Guatemala in 1954, and the president of Congo in 1961.
While Trump is periodically willing to make waves, he clearly does not want to go as far as Kennedy did in confronting the national-security establishment. Just look at how he has folded on Syria.