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Donald Trump and Defence Secretary Gen Mattis will usher in bold new era in US foreign policy

To understand how the Donald Trump presidency will work out for the United States, it would help to follow and analyse the selection of his Cabinet members. Trump's pick for defence secretary is retired General James Mattis, from the US Marines. Mattis' last appointment was in the US Central Command, and his area of responsibility extended from Pakistan to West Asia. A bachelor who is considered very well read, Mattis has a colourful nickname: The "Mad Dog". He is also known to be a straight shooter.

Mattis will head the Pentagon, which is always an influential voice in the US' foreign policy paradigm. It has a large budget and has footprints all over the world, particularly in troubled regions. Its military leadership is well-versed in international relations, domestic popularity of the US military and bipartisan support for soldiers in US-elected bodies.

Under Barack Obama's presidency, the White House has often felt constrained by the military leadership and pushed back hard against it. Obama's decisions, like withdrawal from Iraq, giving a cut-off date while approving additional deployment in Afghanistan, trying to manipulate the vice-chairman of the Chief of Staff Committee to situate the appreciation process in sending additional troops to Afghanistan, LGBT policy, etc are all examples of the push back.

 Donald Trump and Defence Secretary Gen Mattis will usher in bold new era in US foreign policy

US President-elect Donald Trump with General James Mattis. AFP

The frustration expressed by Stanley McChrystal with the White House staff, which led to his sacking, is well-documented. It's said that Mattis had posed some tough questions to Obama on his Iran policy on a forum where many others too were present. General Flynn, the then director general of defence intelligence agency was eased out by Obama amid allegations of leadership deficiencies. General Dempsey as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff for four years, on the other hand, was frequently caught between the White House and his fellow colleagues, who felt that the chairman had become too much of an Obama man.

Throughout his election campaign, Trump repeatedly chided Obama for ignoring professional military advice as also claiming that he knew more than the generals.

Mattis is widely respected for his professionalism and cerebral competence. Ideologically, he is as conservative as a hawk. He opposed the Iran deal, which the Obama administration was perusing since 2010. Under Mattis, the Pentagon's traditional influence in decision making will be restored, both at the White House as well as the State Department.

In this regard, it's imperative that India's Defence Ministry and the armed services engage with Pentagon in a cogent and diligent manner and with due preparation.

The State Department in Washington DC had two high profile heads during Obama's presidency — Hilary Clinton and John Kerry — and therefore had relatively smooth relations. But while Foggy Bottom had two heads in eight years, Pentagon had four, a number of them highly critical of the White House and its comments. US Diplomats of the past often complained against the military hierarchy for not giving it its due. This complaint is likely to reemerge and may even cause friction. But then, Trump's leadership encourages differences of opinion among key advisors. It would lead to differing views emerging from Pentagon, Foggy Bottoms and White House, all with obvious positive and negative implications.

Mattis' appointment also brings out the fact that the military education system designed by Pentagon for its leadership is working. Almost every US armed forces institution, such as War Colleges and Staff Colleges have Foreign Service officers to guide the emerging military leadership in international relations. Similarly, almost all consequential diplomats have military advisers in uniform where they get a ringside view of the happenings. South Block ought to take note of the same.

The tele-conversation between President-elect and the President of Taiwan has shaken up the status quo in East Asia. This indicates that for the incoming administration, there are no holy cows. Ronald Reagan as President-elect too had questioned the rationale of one China policy of Beijing. At the time, China had utilised the elder Bush, vice-president elect to prevent Reagan from following up after assuming the mantle. Today, China is far stronger, and Pence is no Bush.

Notwithstanding, it clearly indicates that Trump is not going to be constrained by the past. Obama's China policy attempted to marginalise China in trade, build a human rights case, and soft-pedal military issues like South China Sea. But by dumping TPP, engaging the East Asian regimes and picking a hawkish SEC DEF, Trump is moving in the opposite direction on all three pillars of the so-called Asian Pivot of Obama. China created new facts on ground while the US dithered under Obama. Even Asian allies like the Philippines have decided to make peace with China, unsure of American support.

China has been displaying patience and may react at the time of its choosing. It needs to be noted that China had one Korea policy, yet rise of South Korea made Beijing establish relations with both Koreas simultaneously. The US has followed its 'one China' policy since 1971. Yet, Washington has continues to provide arms to Taiwan. The incoming administration feels that the time has come to generate additional leverage against China.

The framers of the US Constitution were apprehensive of having a standing army and its costs. The political leadership in US has a history of understanding the need to keep civilian control over the armed forces in an unmistakable manner. American Presidents have always managed to enforce civilian control — from MacArthur during the Korean War to Stanley MacChrystal in Afghanistan. The last US General to US Secretary of Defence was the legendary General Marshal, prior to taking over the Marshal Plan in Europe after the Second World War.

Post this appointment, Congress framed a law, wherein the US General or Admiral would need a cooling period of seven years to take over the Cabinet appointment at Pentagon. Mattis would need a waiver from this law to assume the appointment, which with Republican House and Senate, alongwith the standing of the General, ought not to be a problem.

Recent statements by Trump on China articulate a policy review on one China policy. The US policy in the Gulf and West Asia, the Foreign Secretary of India said in an address recently needs continuous and careful observation. It may be early to start laying out the likely impact on India or likely future course, except that it is definitely not going to stay the same.

Indian interaction at the higher military-to-military level with the US is limited and controlled. All US senior serving officers meet the RM or Foreign Secretary. The visiting US generals insist and ensure that the US Defence Attache accompanies him at all meetings in the Indian Defence Ministry. The US works with multiple pawns. It uses State Department, Secretary of Defence, Combatant Command Commanders in Pacific and Central Commands, and respective chiefs to engage India.

India on the other hand must decide if the current system of educating its officers is adequate or do we learn to progress from other's examples and experiences. It is imperative for an officer to rise in the higher ranks to serve in joint services environment as also earn doctorate from premier civil university on merit for being considered for starred ranks.

The author, a retired Major-General, has served in the special forces and is a former defence attaché of India in the US and Canada

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Updated Date: Dec 21, 2016 10:48:26 IST