They call them in Washington the Axis of Adults: Defense secretary Jim Mattis, secretary of state Rex Tillerson, secretary of homeland secretary John Kelly, national security adviser Herbert McMaster, CIA director Mike Pompeo, and the envoy to the UN Nikki Haley. These are the pillars of the Trump-Pence administration, if not the pillars of the state. Other influential stakeholders exist. There is the wing led by Jared Kushner, son in law to the president, which includes his Wall Street friends like Gary Cohen, and Dina Habib Powell, deputy National Security Advisor. And there is a rival wing led by Trump’s top adviser the hawkish Steve Bannon.
The Axis of Adults has taken advantage of the tension between the two in the White House to make inroads into Trump’s heart and mind. In recent weeks, Trump has become more ‘presidential’, closely consulting with these pillars of the administration, in a departure from the arbitrariness that had marked his first days in the White House. However, the question that arises here is this: How will these generals influence the administration, the state department, and the envoy to the UN in shaping a coherent foreign policy, and what underpins their strategic thinking when it comes to international relations?
David Petraus, the retired four-star general, knows what cloth they are cut from. He has described these generals as an exceptional team. He has said that their thinking is not confined to military matters but is strategic and political par excellence. Addressing the Asia Society in New York, Petraeus said Nikki Haley was “simply spectacular”, by standing up to Russia and “shaming people with style.” Of Mattis, his friend, he said he is one of the most “awesome” political and military strategists, and he had similar words of praise for Tillerson, Pompeo, Kelly, and McMaster.
Petraeus is an influential actor who holds sway on foreign policy makers behind the scenes, but he has been keen on downplaying his informal role. However, the ideas he expresses in private and public sessions are noteworthy and useful in identifying patterns in the administration’s thinking.
In public remarks, Petraeus said the U.S. military strike on Shuayrat airbase in response to the regime’s probable use of chemical weapons was a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the U.S. national security team, but that the question that comes after is: what next? What is the endgame? What will come after, beyond the goal of defeating ISIS?
Petraeus’s view is that the goal must be to end the bloodletting. He believes that a singular strike, though important, will not scare Assad. His opinion is that the military solution in Syria is pursued by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in partnership with Iran’s Qods Force and the other militias commanded by Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani. For this reason, it is important to create military conditions and a momentum that can be favorable for the United States to push forward its positions and preserve its interests. Petraeus believes Syria, like Humpty Dumpty from the nursery rhyme, is difficult to put back together again, at least in the coming period, because the conflict there may last for more than a generation. Therefore, he predicts there will be security zones gradually taking shape along the borders with Jordan and Turkey.
The bottom line for Petraeus, when it comes to Russia, is that there should be a strategic dialogue with Moscow as part of the quest for a solution. But he also stresses the importance of a limited military presence in Syria – there are around 1,000 US troops there at present – with emphasis on reconnaissance assets. The US took a long time to restore its momentum on the ground, and it is important to preserve this, according to the retired US general.
A source familiar with the thinking of this Axis of Adults in Washington has underscored the importance of not just generals like David Petraeus and Allen McChrystal, veteran of the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and Afghanistan, but also a number of lesser known colonels currently working in US departments, colonels like Derek Harvey and Joel Rayburn.
The source says that all these high-level military brass, who operated in Iraq and Afghanistan, “understand the relationship between Shia fundamentalism and Sunni fundamentalism.” The crux of their thinking is based on their uncovering of the secret connection between these fundamentalists and extremists, and the involvement of the Syrian regime with Iran to foil the US project in Iraq, as the source explained.
McMaster, according to the source, has studied thoroughly the relationship between the two regimes, and the jihadists in Syria and Iraq, and this has left a critical impact on this strategic thinking and vision.
Another fundamental idea in his thinking is the need to uproot corruption as the basis of the Iraq and Afghanistan projects. The source also said that McMaster is adamant there can be no progress in the fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS, or any radical group, without putting an end to the corruption endemic to countries like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. This was the main point of contention between McMaster and former president Obama. McMaster wanted the US to focus on long-term efforts to reform the Afghan government under Karzai and the Iraqi government under Maliki rather than appease them, but Obama in the end opted for appeasement because he was fixated on accomplishing the US withdrawal from the two countries and also appease Iran.
The Axis of Adults considers Iran to be first and foremost saboteur of US interests in the region, especially in Iraq. They know the details of the close collaboration between Tehran and Damascus, in starting the fire then offering to put it out, just like a pyromaniac fireman.
“The generals understand the real story which explains their hatred for the Iranian and Syrian regimes, who are wickedly bent on creating a rift between Sunnis and Shias,” the source said. For this reason, he continued, there is a real departure from the philosophy of Barack Obama, whose administration had deliberately fueled sectarian wars in the Arab region under Iran’s aegis, according to the source. The Axis of Adults in the Trump administration wants to disarm Iran’s instruments abroad used to protect and export the revolutionary regime, and this indeed marks a strategic shift from Obama’s policy.
The informed source is of the view that the Trump administration has decided to provide ‘protection’ to the Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi to confidently move against corruption and play the role of a real partner and restore a strategic relationship between the US and Iraq. This was one of the top messages carried by Jared Kushner in his Iraq visit, in addition to a list containing the names of Shia figures Iran wants to assassinate using Hezbollah, according to another source.
This source said that any talk of a US-Russian understanding regarding an Iranian role in Syria, one that for example includes offering Tehran a corridor and an airbase in Syria, will not be acceptable to the pillars of the Trump administration, because the principle of facilitating a link between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon is anathema to them. He added that there is a determination now to break Hezbollah’s sway in many places, including over the Lebanese state, in the very near future. However, the source refused to reveal the means to achieve this being considered by the Trump administration, but said “all of them,” meaning economic means, the airport, sanctions, the Lebanese Army, and the involvement of the US Treasury and Homeland Security departments. This may be an accurate reading of the thinking of the pillars of the administration or it could be a rushed one, but it is clear there are new American ideas on how to deal with Iran and Hezbollah, and with the government of Haider Abadi and Vladimir Putin in Iraq and Syria respectively.
Day after day, an idea is emerging in US decision-making circles holding that those who want serious partnership with America in defeating ISIS must choose between the US and Iran. This is addressed to Abadi in Iraq and Putin in Syria, who hsould decide what to do with Iran and her influence in the two countries. Indeed, the conjecture that if you break it you buy it has made its way to the US policy discourse, to encourage partnership but warn against the implications of rejecting it. In other words, the US will only be involved as much as it wants to be involved, but Iraq and Russia in Syria may well face a protracted quagmire if they do not decide soon where their best interest lies.
Donald Trump is not drafting these policies arbitrarily, or tweeting them at dawn or in the afternoon. They are the policies designed by the Axis of Adults, whom Trump is now keen to consult not just during official meetings but also informally, around breakfast or dinner, three times a week. There is a serious administration in Washington drafting coherent policies and strategies, and the messages it is sending to Iran in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon have very serious dimensions.