WASHINGTON -- The White House is going to get more and more "interesting" as more and more things stand to almost certainly go awry, and probably a-wrong.
With Steve Bannon and his "creative" radical deconstructionists whispering into one of the president's ears, Reince Priebus balancing precariously in the center of the tottering political seesaw that is the Oval Office, and the military men standing ramrod straight on the leader's other side, dying to undo the mistakes of the past, we get a picture that rather characterizes, in miniature, the competing interests in the nation today.
Of all these groups, by far the most interesting is destined to be the military men, for they are deeply angry inside. They have never gotten past their humiliation over Vietnam, and now they're stuck with Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are, under President Trump, faced with the virtually impossible task of dealing with America at constant war.
Take, for instance, the case of Gen. H.R. McMaster, the bald-pated officer with such a serious demeanor that a smile seems like a foreign invasion, who has now been named national security adviser, arguably the most important whisperer in the president's other ear.
Gen. McMaster is not the go-along-to-get-along kind of military officer we've been accustomed to since World War II. From all indications, he is a man of unquestioned integrity who says -- and worse, writes! -- exactly what he thinks, to the horror of many.
He brings to mind a small dinner of eight or 10 people I attended, given by the respected Marine Gen. James Jones, then supreme allied commander of NATO, at his glorious residence in Mons, Belgium. It must have been about 2003 or '04, and the Iraq and Afghan wars already hung over us.
At dinner, I asked Gen. Jones why no one in the Pentagon spoke out against these wars that, like Vietnam, could only be won by utterly destroying the country involved. "It's because, if they speak out, they have to leave the military," he explained, referring to the pattern at the time, "and nobody wants to do that."
But H.R. McMaster didn't play by those rules. Instead, 20 years ago, he wrote a penetrating book on Vietnam, analyzing four major decisions between 1963 and 1965 that led the U.S. ever more hopelessly into the war's anti-colonial quagmire. Not only does the book, tellingly titled "Dereliction of Duty," reveal how the military chiefs virtually never raised critical questions about the war's escalation (as Gen. Jones had warned us that night in Belgium), but how American presidents, in particular John Kennedy, but even more so, the thin-skinned Lyndon Johnson, refused any anti-war advice, almost entirely for selfish political reasons.
But it is one thing to write critically after a war, and another to be thrown, as McMaster is now, into a new and far more complex cauldron of war, being half-won, half-lost and half God only knows what. His chore is not the relatively easy task of starting a war, as it was for the George W. Bush administration in 2001. His profoundly more difficult chore is trying to placate a president who wants "winning" at any cost, to get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya, Yemen, Somalia, etc.) and to do it all with "honor."
How is he going to do it? The problem is, he can't.
This week the White House tentatively revealed plans to ask for $54 billion more (a 10 percent raise) in the defense budget. President Trump says it is to "protect" us. But the fact is our humongous military spending, and its concomitant use to invade countries from Asia to the Middle East for no rational reason, is endangering us.
There is also a lot of talk from the Pentagon about sending American ground troops to Syria and sending more to Iraq. This would complicate the question of what Americans really want from their military even further.
Of course, Gen. McMaster is working alongside other military men in the administration, honorable and free-thinking men like Gen. James Mattis, secretary of defense, and Gen. John Kelly, head of Homeland Security. It will be interesting to see what and how they will do, now that they are in powerful positions, but under an obstreperous, win-at–all-cost president like Trump.
In the end, the security questions America faces are far deeper than these good men and their original thinking have plumbed. What are America's interests? Why are we in faraway countries like Afghanistan and Yemen, where we have no interests whatsoever? Why do we not have a strategy to lay out and back up American military moves across the globe?
If these men can even begin to answer such questions, then they will truly have served their country.