Elephants in the Room

Practical Advice for Trump from Across the Aisle

Our friends over at the new Shadow Government are off to a good start.

US President Donald Trump waves as he walks to the Oval Office with Vice President Mike Pence after a visit to the Department of Homeland Security at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 25, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump waves as he walks to the Oval Office with Vice President Mike Pence after a visit to the Department of Homeland Security at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 25, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Our friends over at the new Shadow Government are off to a good start with a healthy laundry list of 17 recommendations for the new administration. To my read, every one of the recommendations is a thoughtful and practical piece of wisdom, and most are offered without the snark that effectively stamps “burn before reading” on any outside recommendation.

Some will be more welcome than others — I suspect that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn will agree that it is crucial to get the National Security Council process down right, whereas there is probably a lively debate within the Donald Trump team right now on what is the best way to make the initial approach to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. While the advice to meet him halfway is sensible, I could imagine the Trump team wanting to open the bidding a bit closer to the Trump side of the table.

Some of the advice invites follow-up inquiry. Tamara Wittes has a wise warning about the dangers of moving too quickly during a rapidly evolving crisis, and she prefaces the warning with an acknowledgement that critics of the Barack Obama administration often faulted it for moving too slowly. The challenge is finding the Goldilocks middle way that is neither too fast nor too slow. How to find it? Wittes hints at one way: Know yourself and lean against your reflexes. Hal Brands adds an additional way: Do some contingency planning and crisis simulations to get a sense of your own style and what you do and do not know. My own two cents is that this is an area where the wisdom and art of statecraft come in. Part of what makes a good leader is the ability to read correctly whether any given case is one in which the costs of delay exceed the risks of acting prematurely, or vice versa. The right answer in case A may be the wrong answer in case B. This is something that presidents and their national security teams usually learn through trial and error.

There is only one item that struck me as wrong — not wrongheaded, but just not what I would have recommended given the exigencies of the moment. Yet that happens to be the one piece of advice the Trump team has already embraced.

Derek Chollet begins the list by recommending that Secretary of Defense James Mattis deploy his considerable personal authority and prestige in a global reassurance tour focussed on U.S. allies and partners around the world. Chollet argues that U.S. allies and partners are deeply unsettled by what they perceive to be a rocky transition with huge uncertainties about the future trajectory of U.S. policy. Of all the members of Trump’s team, Mattis has the most global street credibility (my term, not Chollet’s, but I am sure he would agree), so a global tour would go a long way to pouring oil on troubled waters. Effectively, of the next four weeks, Chollet is recommending that Mattis spend about two on the road, first in Asia and the Middle East, and then, after a brief interlude, back to Europe.

I understand the thinking behind this, and so evidently does Mattis, for he announced that he will do what Chollet recommends. (Well, he didn’t say “I will do what Chollet recommends” — Shadow Government is not that influential — but he is going on the trip).

This is an understandable decision, but it is not without costs and risks. The opportunity cost of such travel is lost face time between Mattis and his boss, Trump, and with the other national security principals and senior White House staff — at precisely the moment when they are developing the formal and informal rules of the road that will govern the interagency process, along with the interpersonal trust that will make honoring those rules more likely. Being absent will also make it that much harder for Mattis to flesh out his own team of subordinates. I would place both of those objectives a bit higher than the admittedly high-priority objective of shoring up allied and partner confidence in American leadership.

There also be dragons abroad in the form of unavoidable press availabilities that maximize the number of times Mattis would be pressed to respond to this or that statement from someone else in the administration (or possibly only a surrogate or an old campaign quote). Over time, as the Trump team fleshes out its grand strategy and regional strategies, we can expect more message discipline, but in the meantime there are a lot of dangling threads for reporters to pull on. Of course, disposing of some of them is what Chollet has in mind for this trip in the first place, but as a practical matter I think it has the potential to get Mattis out of synch with other people in the administration too often and too early, before the underlying policies get debated and settled.

However, Mattis evidently weighed the costs and benefits otherwise, so kudos to Chollet for getting a few hours out in front of the administration.

Indeed, members of Trump’s team would be wise to consider and debate every single Shadow Government recommendation. Even if they do not accept them all, they will learn some important things about themselves and their new responsibilities in the process.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

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