- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
Recent executive actions by President Donald Trump — a temporary travel ban on individuals from certain countries and a memo organizing the interagency national security process — reaffirm several well-established rules of governing.
1) Elections have consequences. The immigration action is a variant of what candidate Trump promised to do many times. So, while it is certainly fair to raise questions about whether the action is sound on legal and ethical grounds, it is not right to suggest that it is either a shock or an abuse of Trump’s electoral mandate. Of course, presidential candidates make many promises and only fulfill some of them, so I can understand why observers were hoping that Trump would rethink some of his pledges in light of the realities of governing. Indeed, there is some evidence that is happening. The administration has already adjusted its position on how the new rules apply to green card holders. Strong judicial challenges, along with the disruptions and confusion the new rules have caused in key sectors (including mine: higher education), will likely force the administration to clarify, and perhaps revise, still further. This feels very much like a work in progress rather than a settled matter.
2) Actions need to be assessed in their strategic context. Trump and his team have been pretty clear about what they intend these new rules to accomplish: The administration hopes that they will make it even harder for individuals who want to harm the United States to carry out such attacks. That is the same motivation behind the tight vetting process the Department of Homeland Security has developed over the past 15 years. It is possible that existing policies need improvement, so it would be reasonable for the Trump administration to order a comprehensive review of the vetting procedures to identify ways to make them better. But every action has both intended and unintended effects, as well as primary, secondary, and tertiary effects — and beyond. Part of good strategy is rigorously assessing those unintended and second-order effects, and where possible, mitigating them. Where they cannot be mitigated, it is the job of strategy to situate the cost-benefit calculation in a larger picture that explains why these unintended costs are worth incurring.
Trump has offered a partial answer — the priority of protecting the homeland — but he has also emphasized boosting prosperity at home. Will the confusion and outrage over the new rules result in a greater measure of lost prosperity than the country is likely to gain in added security? Similarly, part of a comprehensive war against terrorists inspired by radical Islamist ideology are lines of action directed at winning the war of ideas — advancing a strategic narrative that undermines the enemy. How do the new travel restrictions intersect with that effort? It is not enough to assert answers to these questions. The answers need to be backed up by careful strategic analysis, which brings me to —
3) Process matters. In a good decision-making process, a full interagency team sorts through the various campaign promises and establishes a rough prioritization. The team should also subject the early actions to a rigorous scrubbing, thereby getting the full benefit of feedback from all affected parties and making sure that objections from internal (and external) critics have been taken into account and considered fairly.
Especially when you know that a policy will be controversial, it is all the more important to have it buttoned down. The critics, then, can still lament it, but they cannot claim that the administration failed to think the matter through. Trump’s decision to re-implement the Mexico City policy restricting federal funding from organizations that promote abortion abroad is a good example of a policy that is controversial, but that has been repeatedly vetted by past administrations and so does not produce the same response that the new travel bans have produced. The rigorous vetting of policy has the primary benefit of avoiding mistakes of commission and omission and a secondary benefit of preparing the administration to explain the decision in ways that clarify rather than confuse, which brings me to —
4) Strategic communications matter. Strategic communications is not strategy. Winning the 24-hour news cycle is not the same as having a successful strategy. Confusing those two was a common mistake of the Barack Obama administration. However, the Obama administration did invest extraordinary efforts in thinking through how to explain decisions and working the communications environment to maximum advantage. When the administration failed at this, it failed spectacularly, as in the case of Benghazi or the Bowe Berghdahl hostage negotiations, but more often than not the Obama White House drove media coverage of prepared announcements in ways that were congenial to its interests.
The rollout of National Security Presidential Memorandum 2, which documents how the Trump administration intends to organize the interagency national security process, raises questions about how the Trump team is managing strategic communications. Trump’s memo is a near-verbatim copy of a comparable memo promulgated by the George W. Bush administration in 2001. Tump made some inconsequential changes designed to reflect the creation of new entities (e.g. the director of national intelligence), and then there was a very significant change — the addition of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon to the committee. A strong rollout would have emphasized the continuity and explained the changes. In particular, given the great lengths to which the Bush administration went to avoid the appearance of politicizing national security — and given how much criticism the Obama administration received for its more casual approach, which gave every appearance of politicizing national security — a strong rollout would have led with talking points explaining and justifying each particular change. Then, when the media misreported key facts — for instance, the bogus charge of “downgrading” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — all of the relevant departments and agencies would be armed with the facts and ready to rebut. If that happened yesterday, I missed it.
The new normal apparently is a highly turbulent media environment that includes a fair bit of overreaction. In such an environment, it is even more important that the White House vets carefully its big decisions, makes decisions that support a larger strategy, and rolls decisions out in ways that reassure people that vetting and strategic planning took place. The Trump administration is not there yet.
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