- By Janine DavidsonJanine Davidson is a defense policy analyst and professor of national security. A former Air Force officer and pilot, she served in the Barack Obama administration as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans and, most recently, as the 32nd undersecretary of the U.S. Navy., Loren DeJonge SchulmanLoren DeJonge Schulman is the deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served in several senior staff positions at the National Security Council and Department of Defense.
“I really just see the bigness of it all, but also the responsibility. And the human responsibility. You know, the human life that’s involved in some of the decisions.” — President Donald Trump, interview with the Associated Press
All presidents marvel at the gravity and size of the role of commander-in-chief at the beginning of their administrations. Two years in, President John F. Kennedy said that the biggest surprise of the presidency was that the “responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be.” So the learning curve is always steep. Where presidents differ, often consequentially, is on how quickly and how well they organize themselves and their government so as not to become disastrously overwhelmed.
In his first months, Trump has gone through the motions of building a team and process to better manage his responsibilities as commander-in-chief. After a few chaotic weeks with Michael Flynn at the helm as national security advisor, Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) under H.R. McMaster appears to be empowered to crank up an interagency decision-making process. McMaster’s NSC has launched multiple policy reviews on the world’s hotspots to develop advice on updating U.S. approaches. At the same time, Trump has seen the remarkable responsiveness and reach of the U.S. national security system in a crisis. And in perhaps his most consequential step on this learning curve, he has come to understand that no president can do everything, and can grant significant authority to subordinates, particularly in the military.
This all sounds great — A+ to Trump for turning in all his homework for presidents’ school. But it’s not clear Trump views his lessons as in any way connected. Interagency strategy reviews work if they are truly interagency, if they are taken seriously by an in-synch NSC (including the president), and if they connect consistently to administration actions across the spectrum. Crises are more manageable if strategy guides the full range of potential responses. And effective delegation is only possible with these factors in place. Otherwise, the efforts are busywork.
Presidential cheat sheet
Trump has taken steps to make the burden of the presidency seem smaller. But he is doing so by isolating himself from the inevitable and counterintuitively useful friction that comes with debating America’s strategic interests in times of crisis and calm. As a result, he seems content making rash displays of military might with no discussion of, to use a favorite phrase of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, “And then what.” Like many presidents before him, Trump seems to find the clarity of a crisis with strictly military options preferable to the slog of strategic debate that demands accounting for the perspectives of the rest of the NSC table — including senior diplomats, economists, and intelligence professionals. He seems more comfortable adjusting his views based on emotion and anecdote, rather than long sessions in the Situation Room. And with some good reason, he trusts the U.S. military.
Many prior administrations have noted the challenge of becoming increasingly reactive, rather than strategic, in national security policymaking. And the ability of the military to act swiftly in response to crises around the globe is enticing for leaders looking for quick wins. Most presidents are elected based on their domestic policy chops, not their national security positions. They quickly realize, however, that compared to domestic policy-making, which requires drawn-out debates and compromises with Congress, presidents have much more freedom to act as commander-in-chief. With this freedom of action, however, comes great political and moral responsibility and the need for a clear view of America’s role in the world. Simply leaving it to the generals may seem like a swift and decisive approach, but risks leaving out the diplomatic or economic tools that might also be brought to bear.
Bumps on the learning curve
When a president shortchanges the hard work of being commander-in-chief, it shows. In one example, Trump was deeply distressed by photos of victims of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack. But his emotional response triggered a complete reversal of his earlier non-interventionist position and a total lack of coherence in his cabinet’s public statements on what U.S. actions were meant to accomplish. This was not a public relations problem: It suggested that the Trump NSC went through the exercise of delivering an emotional president swift military options without adequately addressing how 59 Tomahawk missiles were meant to support comprehensive objectives in Syria. The whole episode begs the question: What exactly is Trump’s ultimate goal in Syria? Is it regime change? Is it stability? Is it prioritizing the counter-Islamic State fight? These differences are not trivial, and he and his NSC should have taken this opportunity to review and clarify.
Similar from-the-hip thinking is evident in Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and military escalation elsewhere, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen and North Korea. Trump has made clear that he is delegating significant authority to military commanders on the ground, and though he basks in their tactical demonstrations, he does not consider himself responsible for negative repercussions. His assertion that “This was something [the generals] wanted to do…. And they lost Ryan,” when a special operations raid in Yemen went bad sent a clear message to military leaders that Trump would claim no ownership for operations. In addition, he has not felt compelled to explain to allies, Congress, or the American people how his policies differ from the previously maligned Obama administration, what the rest of his government is working toward in these theaters, and why he feels comfortable that such delegation is working toward his goals. For effective delegation to even be possible, this approach must change. And as Department of Defense takes on more authority in authorizing troop deployments and operations, the absence of public justifications for what the military is doing becomes all the more acute.
These are easy traps for a president to fall into: shrinking the exercise and debate of foreign policy to discrete military options, and delegating the rest.
Remedial commander-in-chief studies
Military leaders may welcome this enhanced freedom of action and decisiveness from the commander-in-chief. But they should be careful what they ask for. The exercise of foreign policy is never meant to be simple, and treating it like a series of unlinked, one-act plays will have real consequences for U.S. national security as well as civilian-military relations. Trump does have the ability to make the burden of the role of commander-in-chief more manageable, but it will require revisiting much of his earlier homework — a seriously difficult assignment.
Delegating military operations can be done effectively, but it requires a number of prerequisites. A delegating president must have enough basic understanding of military art, strategy, and logistics. There must be a high-trust environment between the president and high-level advisors — who must also maintain high trust among themselves, given that it might not be clear in every instance who the ultimate decider is for a certain action. And finally, this trust is should be underpinned by a synching of the minds between the president and senior advisors with respect to the administration’s political philosophy about America’s role in the world — as well as other more operational issues, such as risk tolerance for failure, escalating costs, casualties, and mission creep, to name a few.
Beyond the military context, Trump needs a comparable level of empowerment of diplomatic or economic tools that might also be brought to bear — and a strategic framework to act as the administration’s guideposts.
This all requires a clear understanding of accountability. The president, like any CEO, is ultimately responsible for every action carried out by subordinates. Trump should alone be held accountable for having delegated to the right or wrong people in the right or wrong way with the right or wrong guidance, and for achieving the right or wrong outcomes.
It is far from clear that conditions for a healthy delegation process exist in the current administration. Trump’s policy reversals on issues like China, NATO, and Russia demonstrate that he is learning, so there is hope that his knowledge of military issues will also steadily increase. But until this administration is able to synch on philosophy and build trust, we are likely to get into more situations where the president tries to distance himself from failures or unpopular activities, where his or his NSC’s messaging and policy is out of synch, and where the military is working toward one thing and other agencies another.
This dynamic can change if the president’s national security team puts in the needed work. McMaster can try to build up muscle memory on the NSC that keeps its worst impulses in check. NSC processes are a function of the president himself, so Trump’s team will largely need to work with and around his proclivities. They can do so in a number of ways.
McMaster will need to put significant investment into bolstering the nonmilitary elements of the NSC, in order to make sure that they are fully staffed and that their interests and options are represented in debates. It’s up to him to ensure that the NSC process does not merely become a military options process.
By that same token, the administration’s initial strategy reviews of the world’s hotspots need to be civilian-military from the start, rather than tacking on flimsy diplomatic or economic overlays to military reviews. And the team cannot be completely divorced from the president, no matter how much he delegates. This is in part to avoid whiplash reversals, but also to strengthen familiarity with each line of effort.
The Trump administration needs an ultimate philosophy check: tabletop exercises that explore complex challenges. Walking through scenarios as a team to test assumptions and identify points of friction serves a number of critical purposes, not least of which is to build trust and educate the president and his subordinates on the range of tools and the “and then what’s.” Placing military options in the context of strategic objectives the president has set, and pairing discussions with nonmilitary tools, will prepare the team for crises responses. The president has been willing to adjust his views in response to new information and seems to relish the role of commander-in-chief in a crisis. Such preparations could serve his personality nicely — and give him a sense of ownership.
There preparations, when properly developed, make the role of commander-in-chief less overwhelming, if not easier. They allow the president to delegate responsibly without eschewing responsibility. This is the minimum effort a commander-in-chief owes to those who serve.
Photo credit: Pete Marovich/Pool/Getty Images