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Why we should worry that the only restraint on Trump is three unelected generals

John Kelly, James Mattis and HR McMaster form a triumvirate of power at the heart of US democracy.

Donald Trump calls them “my generals”: retired marine corps generals John Kelly and James Mattis – the White House chief of staff and the defence secretary, respectively – and serving US army general HR McMaster, the national security adviser. Today, these three men form an unelected triumvirate of power at the heart of American democracy. “Connected by their faith in order and global norms,” reported the Washington Post on 22 August, “these military leaders are rapidly consolidating power throughout the executive branch as they counsel a volatile president.”

To be clear: their power is unprecedented. “This is the only time in modern presidential history when we’ve had a small number of people from the uniformed world hold this much influence over the chief executive,” John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA, told the Post. “They are right now playing an extraordinary role.”

Is it an extraordinarily positive or negative role, though? The consensus view, among not just top Republicans but leading Democrats, is that the generals are acting as crucial bulwarks against Trumpian extremism and recklessness. “We should be reassured that there are competent professionals who want to make smart choices” around the president, says the Democratic senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

Members of the media, on both right and left, seem to agree. “Trump’s generals can save the world from war – and stop the crazy,” read a headline in Newsweek. News website Axios dubbed them the “committee to save America”. All three men have been the recipients of gushing profiles; references to “soldier scholars” abound.

Consider me a sceptic. Where, after all, is the evidence that this trio of military men have succeeded in restraining or moderating Trump? In recent weeks, on Kelly’s watch, Trump has pandered to white supremacists in Charlottesville; revived a false story about the killing of Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in pig blood; pardoned the racist Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio; and – at the time of writing – decided to end the DACA programme, which provides protection for young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children.

Before that, on Mattis and McMaster’s watch, Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, threatened to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, alienated long-standing US security allies across the world – from Nato to Qatar to, most recently, South Korea – and escalated his war of words with North Korea. (“Fire and fury”, anyone?)

These military men don’t seem to be immune to some Trumpian tendencies themselves. Kelly is on record telling members of Congress who were critical of the administration’s harsh approach to deportations to either change the law or “shut up” and was caught on a hot mic joking with Trump that he should use a sword “on the press, sir”.

On foreign policy, all three men collectively pushed the president to abandon his earlier, well-documented opposition to sending more American troops to fight in Afghanistan. Thanks to Mattis, Kelly and McMaster, the US is now doubling down on an unwinnable war. (The idea, incidentally, that sending a mere 4,000 extra troops to fight the Taliban will bring America’s longest conflict to a close is beyond laughable.)

Meanwhile, Trump’s hawkish rhetoric on North Korea has been matched by his supposedly sober advisers. Mattis talks of a “massive military response” and “total annihilation”. McMaster has claimed “classic deterrence theory” does not work with North Korea, despite plenty of experts – including Susan Rice, who served as national security adviser under Barack Obama – believing the United States can contain a nuclear-armed North Korea. Do we really expect a bunch of hawkish generals to stand between us and World War III?

Maybe. Perhaps they will even learn how to restrain Trump at home, too. Yet there are bigger issues at stake: should generals, whether serving or retired, be exercising so much influence over an elected president? Particularly in a country such as the United States that has always stressed the importance of civilian control over the military?

This feels like the birth of a militarised presidency. The Associated Press revealed in August that Mattis and Kelly have privately agreed “that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House”. Neither Mattis nor Kelly were elected. So what gives them the right to “keep tabs” on an elected president in this way? And what kind of precedent does this set?

Without the generals, their defenders claim, Trump would be unchecked and unrestrained; able and willing to launch nuclear Armageddon with the push of a button. This is both disingenuous and absurd. If Trump is a danger to the world – and to quote another retired US general, James Clapper, former director of National Intelligence, it is “pretty damn scary” that someone as “unfit” as Trump has access to the nuclear codes – then his cabinet members, including the three generals, should resign en masse. That might force the vice-president and congressional Republicans to consider removing him from office, either via the 25th amendment or via impeachment.

Even the seemingly Teflon Trump would be threatened by the political fallout from losing not one, or two, but all three of his prized military men at once. It would also be an honourable way for this trio of feted generals to prove they truly are the committee to save America, rather than the committee to save Trump… from himself. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist