Compared to President Donald Trump, anyone looks good.
This is why the former CEO of one of the largest oil companies on the planet, who is now our secretary of state, can come off as a voice of reason for simply saying "the president speaks for himself" when discussing Trump's lack of condemnation of white supremacist violence.
This is also why Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a war criminal, can come off looking good for telling some US soldiers, "Our country, right now, it's got problems that we don't have in the military. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it."
These two men have been lauded across the media over the past couple of weeks, thanks to these muted statements. Yet, all it takes is a quick unpacking of each of them to remember who and what we are dealing with in the Trump administration -- regardless of their attempts to distance themselves from the president.
The State Department's Funeral
Max Bergmann served in the State Department for six years, from 2011 to 2017. In a June article for Politico, Bergmann wrote of his experience of the Trump administration, and specifically Rex Tillerson, taking over the State Department.
Writing of a January 20 visit to DC to attend a departure ceremony for a former colleague, Bergmann said the event "felt more like a funeral, not for the departing colleague, but for the dying organization they were leaving behind."
Bergmann said everyone he spoke with described the State Department as "a disaster," in "chaos," and "terrible," and the leadership as "totally incompetent." Bergmann himself said, "I've never seen anything like this." He described Tillerson canceling the incoming class of foreign service officers, blocking all lateral transfers, and informing office managers that three people must depart before they could hire one person.
"Tillerson's actions amount to a geostrategic own-goal, weakening America by preventing America from showing up," Bergmann wrote. The Department is now run by a "tiny clique of ideologues who know nothing about the department," wrote Bergmann, adding, "it's hard to stop an agency from destroying itself."
He described Tillerson's work at the State Department as a "demolition effort," and concluded, "He is quickly becoming one of the worst and most destructive secretaries of state in the history of our country."
Fast forward to late August, when Foreign Policy, not exactly the bastion of left-wing politics, ran an article titled, "Time Is Up on Rex Tillerson," by Max Boot. It's accompanied by a photo of the man looking like he is sitting on a toilet having a very bad time of it.
The subtitle of the article is not exactly subtle, either: "Having proved a failure at every aspect of being secretary of state, he should do the country a favor and resign." Boot calls Tillerson "quite possibly the most ineffectual secretary of state since America's rise to global prominence in 1898."
The article outlines numerous, egregious examples of Tillerson's destructive actions in the department. For example, he refused to spend $60 million that was already appropriated to Congress to fund his department's efforts to counter ISIS and Russian propaganda (perhaps unsurprising, given that Tillerson has longstanding ties to Putin). Tillerson has displayed gross ineptitude as a manager, instituting a hiring freeze and refusing to fill senior jobs. And of course, we can't forget Tillerson's abject failure at reining in Trump's "fire and fury" type of rhetoric against North Korea.
Equally disturbingly, Tillerson is eliminating the State Department's arctic and climate envoys, along with dozens of other high-level diplomatic positions. Given that the envoys provided a voice of reason to the Trump administration regarding climate disruption's impacts in the Arctic, this is bad news. The move also sends the message to the rest of the world that the US simply no longer cares about climate impacts in the Arctic; the envoys represented the US in multilateral diplomatic talks about the future of the region. It also shows the US is no longer interested in diplomacy there, which is equally worrying, given that it is only a matter of time before several countries begin racing to drill for Arctic oil and gas as the ice melts away.
Pundits who praise Tillerson are condoning dangerous actions -- and inactions -- that will reverberate long into the future.
The War Criminal
The praise of Mattis for his comments about getting "back to understanding and respecting each other" is also misplaced, to say the least.
Let us not forget that Mattis is a war criminal. This writer witnessed war crimes committed under his leadership in Fallujah first-hand.
Mattis was in charge of the 1st Marine Division in Iraq during both US sieges of Fallujah in 2004, during which thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered and white phosphorous was used in areas where they knew civilians were located, which is a war crime, along with the widespread use of depleted uranium munitions.
The extremely well-documented Haditha massacre in Iraq, in which 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians were slaughtered by US soldiers, was aided and abetted by Mattis' dismissing all of the charges leveled against the marines accused of the slaughtering of the civilians.
Mattis is also an Islamophobe who has said of killing people in Iraq, "It's fun to shoot some people. You know, it's a hell of a hoot."
Moreover, let us remember that Afghanistan, the single longest war in US history, is now the full responsibility of Mattis -- and Trump recently announced the US will be sending thousands more troops there.
Despite praise often being sung around Mattis' supposed battlefield genius, he is now under some fire for asserting he has the ability to turn around the US's "forever war," as strategists and analysts alike eschew the hubris of his claim.
This is the same type of hubris that was displayed by the British, followed by the Soviet Union -- empires that were literally bled out of Afghanistan, a country that has often been referred to as "the graveyard of empires."
On August 31, Mattis signed the order to send nearly 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan.