In Washington, they call them the “Axis of Adults” — Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the UN.
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 of the president, which includes his Wall Street friends Gary Cohen and Dina Habib Powell, who is deputy national security adviser. There is also a rival wing led by Donald Trump’s top adviser, the hawkish Steve Bannon.
The so-called 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 seems to have 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. But how will these generals influence the administration, the Department of State 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” for 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 with foreign policy makers behind the scenes. However, he has been keen on downplaying his informal role. Despite this, 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 US’ recent military strike on a Syrian air base in response to the regime’s probable use of chemical weapons was a “dress rehearsal” for the US national security team, but added that the questions that now arise include: What next? What is the endgame? What will come after, beyond the goal of defeating Daesh?
Petraeus’ view is that the goal must be to end the bloodletting. He believes that a singular strike, though important, will not scare Syrian President Assad. His opinion is that the military solution in Syria is pursued by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin and Assad in partnership with Iran’s Qods Force and the other militias commanded by Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani. For this reason, it is important to create military conditions and a momentum that can be favorable for the US to push forward its positions and preserve its interests. Petraeus believes Syria, like Humpty Dumpty from the nursery rhyme, will be 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 that security zones will gradually take 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 the Axis of Adults in Washington has underscored the importance of generals like Petraeus and Stanley A. McChrystal, a veteran of the Gulf War, the Iraq War and Afghanistan, and also a number of lesser-known colonels currently working in US departments such as Derek Harvey and Joel Rayburn.
The source says that these high-level military brass, who operated in Iraq and Afghanistan, “understand the relationship between Shiite 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, the source explained.
McMaster, according to the source, has thoroughly studied the relationship between the two regimes, and the extremists in Syria and Iraq, and this has left a critical impact on his 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 Daesh, or any radical group, without putting an end to the endemic corruption in countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. This was the main point of contention between McMaster and former President Barack Obama. McMaster wanted the US to focus on long-term efforts to reform the Afghan government under Hamid Karzai and the Iraqi government under Nouri Al-Maliki rather than appease them, but Obama opted for appeasement because he was fixated on accomplishing American withdrawal from the two countries and also on appeasing Iran.
The Axis of Adults considers Iran to be the 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 and 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, which are wickedly bent on creating a rift between Sunnis and Shiites,” the source said. For this reason, he continued, there is a real departure from the philosophy of 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 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 Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to confidently move against corruption, 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 Kushner on his visit to Iraq, in addition to a list containing the names of Shiite figures Iran wants to assassinate using Hezbollah, according to another source.
It considers Tehran to be the first and foremost saboteur of US interests in the region, especially in Iraq. This axis knows the details of the close collaboration between Iran and Syria in starting the fire and then offering to put it out, just like a pyromaniac fireman.
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 air base 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 now a determination to break Hezbollah’s hold in many places, including over the Lebanese state, in the very near future. However, the source refused to reveal the means to achieve this that are being considered by the Trump administration. The source did, however, say “all of them,” meaning economic means, airport-related means, 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 Al-Abadi and Vladimir Putin in Iraq and Syria, respectively.
Day after day, an idea is emerging in US decision-making circles that those who want a serious partnership with America in defeating Daesh must choose between the US and Iran. This is addressed to Al-Abadi in Iraq and Putin when it comes to Syria, who should decide what to do with Iran and its influence in the two countries. Indeed, the conjecture that if you break it you buy it has made its way to 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, but Iraq and Russia in Syria may well face a protracted quagmire if they do not decide soon where their best interests lie.
Trump is not drafting these policies arbitrarily, or tweeting them at dawn or in the afternoon. These policies are designed by the Axis of Adults, which Trump is now keen to consult with not just during official meetings but also informally, at 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 regarding its role in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon have very serious dimensions.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the UN. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP — the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.