9 November 2017
WASHINGTON, DC, is a revealingly gossipy place. A favourite tale of the Donald Trump era involves a pact that the generals working for the president are supposed to have sworn. As described by ambassadors, senators and foreign-policy panjandrums, the generals have agreed that one of their number will remain in America at all times, to prevent a war being started by intemperate presidential tweets.
The details change. Sometimes, it is said, the pact involves James Mattis, the defence secretary, aligning travel with the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a fellow retired four-star Marine general. Others say Mr Mattis is in cahoots with Joseph Dunford, a serving four-star Marine general and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, or with H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser (an army lieutenant-general still on active service but shouldering a mere three stars). Still others insist the pact includes the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, a former oil man and a rare civilian among the so-called “grown-ups” who run national-security policy for Mr Trump.
Mr Mattis has told aides that no such pact exists. The Economist recently travelled to South Korea with the defence secretary on the same day that General Dunford was also in Seoul, and Mr Tillerson was in Geneva. The durability of this urban legend is telling, however. […]