May 21st, 2019


Around they go

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published April 4,2018

Around they go 
Jabin Botsford for The Washington Post

Once upon a better time, a wiser president of these less than United States of America made certain that the representatives of all contending views were separately but equally represented in his circle of advisers.

Happily, a natural and beneficial rivalry exists between any modern president's national security adviser (John Bolton as of April 9) and his secretary of defense (James Mattis at the moment).

As for the Fourth Estate, the representatives of a free if not rambunctious press seem happy to hold all the contestants' coats while they slug it out. But all the news hounds may be disappointed if Secretary Mattis manages to stay above the fray and stick with his statesmanlike attitude.

This is a fight all could lose if they don't maintain at least a semblance of mutual respect and cooperation. And all could win if they'll get along.

"I look forward to working with him," said Secretary Mattis of Ambassador Bolton, "no reservations, no concerns at all. Last time I checked he's an American. I'm not in the least bit concerned." He brings to mind a boy affecting an air of nonchalance as he walks past a graveyard.

John Bolton knows very well where all the bodies are buried, but he doesn't seem about to start digging them up, for he knows one of them could be his own political persona if he starts making scenes instead of sense. So he tells the press: "I'll tell you right up front: It's going to be a partnership. That's the normal thing you want unless you want groupthink."

But there's little chance of any such uniformity developing, given how highly assorted this crew is. Better a variety of flowers than a field of dead weeds. Groupthink this country already has enough of.

There's too much at stake for the country and the world to be distracted by Washington's intramural contests.

For one thing, delicate negotiations with North Korea's Kim Jong Un await. Negotiations that, according to President Trump, could end in fire and fury unless the North Koreans are stopped from developing a nuclear missile that could strike this country.

Or as Admiral James Stavridis of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University expressed it: "For the military I have three words: Sharpen your swords. (Bolton) is someone who is going to reach for the military instrument."

But maybe he won't have to if the North Korean regime can be brought to see the light, as remote a possibility as that may sound now. But never give up hoping that peace will break out. For as a German statesman of note named Bismarck once observed, G od looks after fools, drunkards and the United States of America.

Secretary Mattis has wisely kept silent about all the shake-ups in Washington during this president's brief but tumultuous tenure. But there's no justification for his breaking out with Trumpian volubility now.

As he put it the other day, fending off the press corps' questions, "I understand why you're asking, but I'm just pointing out that in most parts of the world, this is a Washington, D.C., story." And best it remain so. Why show our hand when state secrets should for once stay state secrets?

The consensus of opinion about Secretary Mattis is that his specialty is staying out of the spotlight. Washington has enough characters who like to see their names and faces in the paper. It scarcely needs another.

And the less our secretary of defense says publicly, the more points he's likely to win with the president and public opinion in this country. His specialty is saying little and doing a lot. If only more American politicians followed his sterling example.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.