Shadow Government

Trump’s First 6 Months Were Terrible, But He Got 3 Things Right

If Clinton were sitting in the Oval Office, U.S. defense policy would look much the same.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks after his ceremonial swearing-in as secretary of defense watched by US President Donald Trump on January 27, 2017 at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks after his ceremonial swearing-in as secretary of defense watched by US President Donald Trump on January 27, 2017 at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Six months in, the Donald Trump presidency feels like the ill-fated Apollo 13 spaceflight, which almost 50 years ago hurtled into the abyss after a major blowout and a cascade of mechanical meltdowns. Disaster appeared inevitable, and only a miracle could save the crew from doom.

Then, like now, it seemed tempting to submit to fate and accept the inevitable. When thinking about how Trump’s conduct in office has shaped America’s role in the world, almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong (one of the few things that has kept it from being a full liberal fever dream is that Rudy Guiliani did not end up as Secretary of State). Many days, one feels like the beleaguered NASA flight controllers trying to steer the ship back to earth, stressed out, heads in their hands, with no good answers, wondering what’s coming next.

All of this has gotten me thinking about one of the key moments depicted in the movie Apollo 13, soon after the mission has taken a disastrous turn and the flight director (Gene Kranz, played brilliantly by Ed Harris) asks the simple question: “What do we got on the spacecraft that’s good?” That seems like the right thing to ask now, when it is too easy — and is in some ways overwhelming — to focus on what’s wrong with Trump’s foreign policy so far. It’s worth highlighting what’s right. After all, it just might help save us.

Three areas stand out. Let’s start with the easy one: the leadership of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the performance of the U.S. military. Mattis has become the go-to talking point for Republicans trying to defend Trump, and is the life-preserver for observers and allies worried about the direction of the United States. Heaping praise on him has become a cliché. Is he the second coming of General George Marshall? No. But we’re lucky he’s there.

Mattis gets credit mainly because his first six months at the Pentagon have been the most “normal” part of the Trump national security effort. There have been some personnel hiccups (especially regarding the under secretary of defense for policy and secretary of the army), and there are gripes that his front office is dysfunctional. But talented folks, many of whom probably would have gotten the same jobs if Jeb Bush had been elected president, are filling key civilian positions.

On substance, Mattis has outlined policies that have been extensions in large part of those he inherited. Despite all the concerns swirling around Trump’s approach to Russia and his commitment to Europe’s defense, Mattis has maintained a strong U.S. force posture in Europe and expresses deep skepticism of cooperation with Moscow. In the Asia-Pacific, the fundamental military components of Obama’s rebalance are alive and well. Similarly, in the military approach in Iraq and Syria, there has been almost no change, and Mattis is unafraid to acknowledge that publicly.

In his revealing recent interview with the Islander, a high school newspaper in Washington state, Mattis was asked about the differences between the Obama and Trump approaches to the Middle East. “I think the two administrations are more variations on a theme than they are dramatically different approaches,” he said. In the same interview, Mattis expressed admiration for Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments as Secretary of State, such as her diplomacy that led to crippling sanctions against Iran, which brought it to the negotiating table. It is worth asking what would be different in defense policy today if Clinton were sitting in the Oval Office. I think that so far, the answer is not a lot.

The most notable shift in military policy under Trump has been the ceding of virtually all decision-making authorities to the Pentagon. This inclination to delegate doesn’t stem from an informed consideration of the proper civilian-military balance on decisions about the use of force. It is simpler. Congenitally uninterested in details and allergic to accountability, Trump is ceding authority on military decisions not necessarily to help things go right, but to give himself an out if things go wrong. Military leaders understand this risk — and cringe watching the president go after his own law enforcement leaders (many of whom were and are their close colleagues around the Situation Room table), knowing they could be next. If he’ll throw Attorney General Jeff Sessions under the bus, then no one is safe.

A second policy area that’s still good is counterterrorism cooperation with key partners. It is easy to lose sight of this amid the pileup of talk about how bad things are going with allies, especially in Europe. But counterterrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic say that relationships remain unchanged, and that they are still sharing information, coordinating activities, and disrupting plots.

Two Trump national security officials who attract comparatively less notice, CIA Director Michael Pompeo and White House Homeland Security Advisor Thomas Bossert, get high marks from counterterrorism specialists in and out of government. And the Trump team seems to have managed effectively a very tricky (and worrying) threat to aviation security — the ability of terrorists to embed bombs in laptops — by closely coordinating with, and actually listening to, allies and the airline industry. The process (which Bossert ran) was relatively smooth, the most notable screwup being when Trump blurted out the sensitive intelligence about this threat to the Russian foreign minister.

A third part of Trump’s foreign policy that at least one can say the Trump administration is giving it a try, although it is too soon to conclude that it’s going well, is diplomacy. This may seem preposterous. As I have argued before, despite high hopes for success, Rex Tillerson is off to the worst start of any modern secretary of state, suffering from a self-generated quintuple whammy of problems with a gutted budget, lack of personnel, no apparent influence over big White House decisions (despite a lot of time invested in building a relationship with Trump), little juice with allies or Capitol Hill, and anemic leadership. For the most part, Tillerson treats career diplomats like they are Siri — there to provide information when asked. Despite all this, there are signs that on certain issues, the Trump team is ready to give diplomacy a chance.

For example, it has appointed well-regarded special envoys to tackle two of the toughest issues. The prospect for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians appears dim, but Jason Greenblatt, the U.S. special representative for international negotiations, has been earning praise for his efforts to work both sides, surprising many who looked askance at his lack of diplomatic experience and career as a Trump Organization lawyer. Another positive sign is the naming of Kurt Volker to be the U.S. envoy handling the Ukraine crisis. Volker is a very talented diplomat and smart expert who is tough on Russia and well-regarded throughout the Transatlantic strategic community (and full disclosure: He’s also a friend of mine). And Tillerson himself deserves modest credit for trying to mediate the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar — although if he can’t succeed in the part of the world where he knows the issues and players well, it is hard to see him succeeding anywhere.

So that’s the reassuring news. It’s not much. Acknowledging what’s “good” about Trump’s foreign policy can hardly compensate for what is fundamentally bad about it — on trade, on Russia, on global threats like climate change, on its selfish and cynical view of America’s role in the world. And the presence of some admirable people currently serving in important national security positions cannot make up for the fundamental flaw at the top. It is hard to be optimistic when it is reasonable to predict that by this time next year, we’ll be mired in a constitutional crisis and in the middle of a midterm Congressional election framed by impeachment.

Which brings me back to the Apollo 13 metaphor. Ingenuity, technical expertise, bravery, and skilled, levelheaded leadership saved the flight. History remembers it as a “successful failure” — a moment of heroism that reminds us what is right with the United States. Based on the first six months of this presidency, we’re not going to be so fortunate this time.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Derek Chollet served in the Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He is currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government.

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