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Shadow Government

Donald Trump Should Reach Out to the National Security Community

The GOP candidate has some convincing to do.

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a town hall meeting on March 14, 2016 at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa , Florida. Trump is campaigning ahead of the Florida primary on March 15. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - MARCH 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a town hall meeting on March 14, 2016 at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa , Florida. Trump is campaigning ahead of the Florida primary on March 15. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is under pressure to persuade Republicans who have opposed him thus far to change their minds.

National security and foreign policy are areas in which he has a long way to go. His performance on these topics was very weak during the primaries, prompting an open letter from Republican experts saying they would never work with him.

Trump responded with characteristic bravado, but obviously he does and should care what the experts say. They are knowledgeable, and he will need their input to govern. Trump even tried to win some of them over with his “Big Speech” on April 27 at the Center for the National Interest, the citadel for foreign policy realism — a view that acknowledges the role of power, while cautioning leaders to refrain from turning to the military option before exhausting other capabilities.

The Washington Examiner, in its coverage of the letter by Trump’s critics, interviewed some of the signatories. Bryan McGrath, a defense consultant who helped coordinate the letter, told the Examiner that he would continue to make sure Trump doesn’t win the presidency.

Beyond the speech, what Trump can do to mollify the concerns of the national security community remains to be seen. He will have to show a firmer grasp than he has so far of tools for enhancing our security.

During an interview with Meet the Press, Trump compared the Iran nuclear deal with some “bad contracts” he made throughout his business career. Although a strict equation of business shrewdness with foreign policy experience may be a bridge too far to cross, the interview suggests that Trump might hold Iran accountable for its violations.

Imagine Tehran as a dragon — a mythological creature fighting against enemies and expanding its area through violence. Where its nuclear weapons program is concerned, modern-day Iran is like a dragon. Tehran claims peaceful intent while engaging in suspect activities at hidden sites, sponsoring terrorism, and facilitating the murder of innocent civilians at home and abroad.

On the day of Trump’s April speech, one of his foreign policy advisers who focuses on the Middle East, Walid Phares, posted an essay on “Trump lays out a new vision for American foreign policy leadership.” He uses Iran to illustrate what he sees as Trump’s potential for vision and leadership in the Oval Office. “President Trump will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and he will confront and contain Iranian expansionism,” he writes.

Consistent with Trump’s reasoning about Iran, House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote earlier this month that the promises President Barack Obama made about the Iran deal have started to unravel. The deal with Iran is one area where Trump, bipartisan experts, and independent security specialists agree with the speaker’s assessment. Trump and his critics subscribe to Ryan’s bottom line: “The administration can spin it anyway it likes, but this was a bad deal.”

David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, said that the six-month agreement reached in Geneva in 2013 might be a good or bad deal, depending on how long-term issues were settled.

These issues included Iran’s claimed right to enrich uranium on its own soil. Albright said that this view “had been rejected flat out by the United States.” The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) agreed. Since 2013, the Obama administration has backed away from its original position — confirming Trump, Ryan, and other critics’ assessment of the deal.

In the wake of David Samuels’s New York Times Magazine profile of Obama national security advisor Ben Rhodes, Albright has become critical of the way the White House sold the Iran deal on the Capitol Hill. Samuels reported that Rhodes shaped the administration’s narrative to portray the deal as an effort to reinforce the status of the moderates in the Iranian regime over the hardliners. Upon reading the piece, Albright said he wished that the White House was “…just putting out facts. They exaggerated and overstated to sell the deal.”

What about the nuclear deal’s supposed moderating impact on Tehran? General Lloyd Austin, the outgoing commander of U.S. Central Command, said before Congress on March 8: “Iran maintains hegemonic ambitions and will continue to pose a threat to the region.” The Iranian threat network consists of the Revolutionary Guard, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, regional surrogates, and proxies.

Trump needs to rip a page from Austin’s playbook on the continuing threat Iran poses. More to the point, Trump needs to consult with the national security community on how to go beyond the Obama administration’s approach.

Trump should act to persuade national security experts that he is fit to serve. As of March 2, they were united in opposition to a Trump presidency. In their open letter, members of the community wrote: “as committed and loyal Republicans…we commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.”

In view of the path Ryan has laid out, here is how Trump could adjust his policies to make them more palatable while maintaining the principles he is in the process of expanding.

He needs to go beyond his rhetoric on the Iran deal. One way to do this would be to retract the concession the Obama administration made in granting Iran’s claimed right to enrich uranium on its own soil.

Trump should showcase his image as a hard-hitting bargainer. President Ronald Reagan used his experience as a tough negotiator with unions and in the movie industry to parlay successful arms control reductions with the Soviet Union.

And Trump should expand his universe beyond his immediate circle. To his credit, Trump did meet with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the “gray eminence” of the Republican foreign policy establishment. And during his trip to Washington to meet party leaders, Trump met with another Republican heavyweight — former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Doing all of this may not persuade each of Trump’s determined critics inside the Republican party, but it might persuade enough of them to carry the day in November.

Photo credit: BRIAN BLANCO/Getty Images

Raymond Tanter served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.

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