The wheels are falling off Donald Trump’s foreign policy, and the adults aren’t at the wheel.
- By Max BootMax Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”
Back in 2001, during the “end of history” interregnum between the Cold War and 9/11, Henry Kissinger published a book called Does America Need a Foreign Policy? It was obviously a rhetorical question coming from a master of diplomacy. But now it is a very real issue, because the United States under President Donald Trump does not actually seem to have a foreign policy. Or, to be exact, it has several foreign policies — and it is not obvious whether anyone, including the president himself, speaks for the entire administration.
On Feb. 15, for example, Trump was asked, during a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whether he still supported a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. His insouciant reply? “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.” This immediately prompted news coverage that, as a New York Times article had it, “President Trump jettisoned two decades of diplomatic orthodoxy on Wednesday by declaring that the United States would no longer insist on the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.”
But had Trump meant to do that? His remarks sounded as if they were being improvised off the top of his head. Did they actually denote a change of policy? Sure enough, 24 hours later, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told reporters that “the two-state solution is what we support. Anybody that wants to say the United States does not support the two-state solution — that would be an error,” thus suggesting that the president was mistaken about his own administration’s policies. It soon emerged, thanks to Politico’s reporting, that the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had not been consulted or even informed beforehand about what was, in theory at least, a momentous policy shift: “At the White House, there was little thought about notifying the nation’s top diplomat because, as one senior staffer put it, ‘everyone knows Jared [Kushner] is running point on the Israel stuff.’”
This was not, of course, an isolated incident. Trump’s recently fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn, apparently did consult with the Department of Defense prior to announcing, ominously, on Feb. 1 that Iran was being put “on notice,” whatever that means. But, according to a New Yorker profile of Flynn, the Pentagon’s attempts to soften some of his language and to take out criticism of the Barack Obama administration were simply ignored. And there clearly was no preparation at either the Defense Department or Central Command to back up this ultimatum that could result in war with Iran. “Planning is trying to keep up with the rhetoric,” a “senior defense official” told Nicholas Schmidle of the New Yorker.
So much for the hopes that Trump’s seasoned cabinet appointees — especially retired Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security, retired Gen. James Mattis at Defense, and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson at State — could direct administration policy on a more mainstream course. Perhaps they will exert a bigger influence down the road, especially now that they will have a valuable ally in the new national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, but so far their impact has been decidedly limited. They have had to fight for influence with Steve Bannon, the white nationalist ideologue who has been inexplicably granted a place on the National Security Council’s top-level Principals Committee, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who has been granted nebulous authority over areas such as Mexico and Israel. Bannon has even created his own shadow NSC, called the Strategic Initiatives Group, staffed by people such as the anti-Muslim extremist Sebastian Gorka.
Bannon showed just how much power he wields when he vetoed Tillerson’s choice for deputy secretary of state — Elliott Abrams. One suspects that, from Bannon’s standpoint, Abrams had multiple strikes against him: Not only is he Jewish and a “neocon,” hence hostile to isolationism and nativism, but he has vast policymaking experience stretching back to the Ronald Reagan administration. Bannon, who has never served in government outside his time as a junior naval officer decades ago, must have known Abrams would be a formidable bureaucratic adversary — one who could make up for Tillerson’s own lack of policymaking background. So Bannon apparently sabotaged Abrams’s nomination by putting before Trump a single article that Abrams had written last year critical of him. That this is not just about loyalty to the president is obvious from the fact that Rick Perry, who once called Trump a “cancer on conservatism,” was appointed as energy secretary. But then nobody in the White House cares who runs the Energy Department or considers Perry any kind of threat. Abrams was different — and thus he could not be allowed to join the administration.
President Bannon’s insistence on maintaining control also appears to be behind the problems the administration is having in finding a new national security advisor to replace Flynn. The first choice — retired Vice Adm. Bob Harward — turned down the post after Trump made it clear that he would not be allowed to pick his own deputy (for some reason Harward did not think that K.T. McFarland was qualified despite her years of pithy Fox News commentary) or to get any guarantees of a clear chain of command that would exclude interference from Bannon and Kushner. This was, among other things, a message that Mattis, who is close to Harward and recommended him, does not exercise any more sway than Tillerson over key administration appointments.
Retired Gen. David Petraeus, another highly qualified pick, was said to have withdrawn from consideration next after he made similar demands. An anonymous official revealed the insular and arrogant White House mindset when he told the Wall Street Journal: “It is dumb to demand Flynn’s people go. Why are you creating embarrassment? If you make that a precondition, you are not a loyal soldier and you don’t deserve the job.” This is reminiscent of the misplaced self-confidence of the “best and brightest” of the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations — only Trump and his circle are far from bright or the best at anything other than bamboozling those who credulously place faith in them.
Trump finally selected as his national security advisor H.R. McMaster, a serving officer who would have had difficulty in turning down the commander in chief, or conditioning his acceptance on certain conditions as Harward did. McMaster is one of the outstanding officers of his generation, a rare combination of soldier and scholar who has literally written the book — Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam — on the need for the military to speak truth to its political masters. It is hard to imagine a better choice for the post, yet even McMaster will have difficulty bringing any order to American foreign policy as long as Bannon and Kushner continue to pursue their own policies and as long as the president continues to make incendiary and ill-considered statements that needlessly aggravate friendly states — most recently Sweden — while calling into question basic American foreign-policy commitments. Trump may think the White House is a “fine-tuned machine,” but it is in fact a jalopy whose wheels are falling off while it’s going 60 mph, and it’s far from clear that even McMaster can perform the needed repairs en route.
Foreign officials watching this amazing and dispiriting spectacle are left in the uncomfortable position of not knowing who if anyone actually speaks for the United States. This became obvious over the weekend when Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense Mattis, among others, traveled to the Munich Security Conference to offer reassurance that the United States would remain committed to NATO and opposed to Russia. But of course European officials are well aware that Trump has repeatedly expressed his own skepticism of NATO and admiration of Vladimir Putin and has spoken longingly of doing a “deal” with Russia. Indeed, Time magazine reported that Bannon’s Strategic Initiatives Group is generating “its own assessment of Russia-policy options,” including concessions such as “reducing or removing the U.S. anti-ballistic-missile footprint in Central and Eastern Europe, easing sanctions imposed for election meddling or the invasion of Ukraine, or softening language on the Crimean annexation” — all options far removed from the tough talk in Munich.
Thus Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, pointedly replied to Mattis’s pro-NATO speech by expressing appreciation for the “secretary of defense’s strong commitment to NATO.” Not America’s strong commitment or the Trump administration’s strong commitment. Because who the hell knows anymore who actually speaks for America?
This dangerous dysfunction at the top — bad enough now at a time of relative peace and stability — will cause America and the world considerable grief when the administration has to deal with its first serious foreign-policy challenge. Imagine a Cuban missile crisis in which McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and Robert F. Kennedy all pursued their own policies without any coordination, and you get an idea of the danger ahead.
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