Grasping at straws; or, Mad Dog may be an adult in the room...


For two months we have been asking "How did this happen?" In less than a week grim reality will set its hooks ever deeper into the dark soul of a nation that made "Moscow Don"* Trump its president, compelling us to seek out what glimmers of hope we can find lest we surrender to despair. Sometimes hope bubbles up from an unanticipated spring.

Several cabinet nominees have expressed views at odds with positions taken by the president-elect. How meaningful this may be is problematic, as the president-elect himself has often enough expressed views at odds with positions he previously trumpeted. It would be one thing if Trump's contradictory statements stemmed from sober reflection and reevaluation. It is quite another when they are a consequence of incoherence, shallowness, indifference to truth and facts, and a talented demagogue's instinct for delivering to an audience what it wishes to hear. As for the nominees, would a reasonable person question that their statements this week before various Senate committees were carefully tailored for their audience?

Which brings us to General James "Mad Dog" Mattis, slated to be our next Secretary of Defense. The prospect of a marine known as "Mad Dog" at the helm of the Department of Defense gives us pause, as does the appointment of an officer so recently retired from military service that it requires special dispensation from Congress. Even so, I am cautiously optimistic. After all, Trump could have done worse, as he indeed did with nominees to head Energy, Education, and the EPA, among others.

Mattis's hawkishness, and a deep, longstanding hostility to Iran are at least somewhat offset by his reputation as a scholar-general. His testimony before the Senate and other public statements show a thoughtful man who is not on board with the president-elect when it comes to international alliances, Russia, Muslims, torture, and even the nuclear treaty with Iran: "I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement — it's not a friendship treaty. But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies." (Ackerman and Herb).

Mattis’s emphasis on partnerships with Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East places him at odds with the Trump camp’s willingness to denounce Islam as synonymous with terrorism. Mattis has instead said terrorists hide behind “false religious garb”. (Ackerman and Jacobs)

He spoke bluntly about Russia and Putin in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I think right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we [are dealing] with, with Mr Putin. We recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance." (Ackerman and Gambino). "He says he is all for engagement with Russia but... described Moscow as 'raising grave concerns on several fronts.'" (Ackerman and Herb).

Nor does he share Trump's cavalier attitude toward US alliances with other nations, dubbing Trump's suggestion that NATO may be obsolete kooky, and stating straightfowardly:

Because history is very compelling. Nations with allies are stronger than nations without allies. It’s simple arithmetic. But calling them freeloaders, or railroading them or ignoring them — not just this administration, it’s been going on for a time now — is simply not the way to restore America’s options so that we can resolve a lot of these issues using diplomatic tools and not bleed ourselves to death.

. . .

Now, I’ve fought a lot of times. I have never fought in an all-American formation. Where I’ve fought, we’ve had Muslim background troops inside of my formation. So this kind of thing [talk about banning Muslims from entering the US) is causing us great damage right now, and it’s sending shock waves through this international system. (Marinucci)

On torture, he reportedly told Trump, "I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture." (Ackerman and Jacobs).

The substance and tenor of Mattis's testimony is refreshing. Not I am without reservations, but he seems to be a man with whom one can respectfully disagree. Time will tell if this assessment holds up. Even if it does hold up, how much weight Mattis will carry with Trump and hardliners in Congress remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it cannot be a bad thing to have someone in the Cabinet who thinks this way and has a history of outspokenness that gives reason to hope that he will not hesitate to dissent loudly and publicly when reason and conscience dictate.

Trump on Pharma

Sometimes even Trump says the right thing. His criticism of the pharamaceutical industry is welcome, as are proposals for Medicare to negotiate drug prices and to make it easier to import drugs at cheaper prices (Hunter and Campos). This may turn out to be empty talk, as it runs counter to Republican ideology and is not likely to get far in the Ryan-McConnell Congress. For the present we will take what we can get and hope that the press and the public hold the president's feet to the fire when the rubber meets the road.

*"Moscow Don" is not my coinage. I owe it to Joy-Ann Reid (The Questions Donald Trump Needs to Answer About Russia, The Daily Beast). "Just call him 'Moscow Don'..."

References

Spencer Ackerman and Lauren Gambino, Russia is trying to smash Nato, James Mattis says in confirmation hearing,The Guardian, January 12, 2017

Spencer Ackerman and Ben Jacobs, Donald Trump nominates James 'Mad Dog' Mattis as secretary of defense, The Guardian, December 2, 2016

Senate Committee Questions Gen. James Mattis In Defense Confirmation Hearing, NPR: All Things Considered, January 12, 2017

Caroline Hunter and Rodrigo Campos, Trump says pharma 'getting away with murder,' stocks slide, Reuters, January 11, 2017

Robert Langreth, Caroline Chin, and Jared S. Hopkins, Trump pharma bomb has industry leaders hunkered down in shock, Chicago Tribune, January 12, 2017

January 12, 2017

Carla Marinucci, A rare look at Mattis' views on Trump, foreign policy and warfare, Politico, December 16, 2016

Austin Wright and Jeremy Herb, Mattis breaks with Trump on Iran, Russia, Politico, January 12, 2017

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