Vice president-elect Mike Pence, President-elect Donald Trump, and retired United States Marine Corps general James Mattis exit the clubhouse after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club. (DREW ANGERER/Getty Images)
Looking for a traditionalist safety net
The Trump administration will take office with these two ideas in the ascendant — Trump’s version of America First and those who want to wage all-out war against radical Islam — but both are crude and underdeveloped. There are no specific policy proposals about how to implement either approach, let alone reconcile them. Instead, there are vague headline-grabbing gestures — call radical Islam for what it is, use waterboarding, stand up to allies, “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” and so on. There has never been a foreign-policy school of thought that won an election and is less prepared to govern than America First or the desire to fight a religious war.
Consider, for example, Flynn’s book, The Field of Fight, published this year. The book is written in Flynn’s voice, but his co-author is Michael Ledeen, a hard-liner known for wanting to wage war against radical Islam. In it, Flynn writes that the Muslim world is a “spectacular failure” and radical Islam now represents this “failed civilization.” He argues, without providing any evidence, that radical Islam is in an active alliance with Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela, all of which share a “hatred of the West.” He calls for the United States to wage a war against this alliance on a scale comparable to World War II or the Cold War. He states repeatedly that the United States must counter Iranian influence, including in Syria.
It’s a mystery what could motivate a foreign policy professional to espouse such views or what practical policy agenda could possibly emerge from them. That’s not to mention the ways the book contradict Flynn’s history of appearing regularly on RT, a Kremlin-funded TV station; meeting with Putin; saying positive things about Russia; and proposing partnerships with Moscow to fight the Islamic State. He did this before and after his book was published. One interpretation is that the Russia sections of the book more reflect Ledeen’s views and Flynn went along. Alternatively, perhaps Flynn adjusted his views on Russia to align with Trump’s after the book was finished but before it was published. Either way, it raises many more questions about Flynn’s future policy advice than it answers.
Trump and the religious warriors know that they cannot govern alone or just with each other. With his isolationist tendencies, Trump likely worries that the religious warriors will drag him into new wars in the Middle East that he wants to avoid. For their part, the religious warriors worry that Trump will use the partnership with Russia to largely abandon the Middle East and empower Iran. They also have no desire to liquidate America’s alliances, and some are wary about Russian influence in Europe. Moreover, neither the America Firsters nor the religious warriors have the number of qualified people required to take over all of the key foreign-policy positions in government, especially for Europe and Asia.
This is where the traditionalists come in. The traditionalists include all those officials who support the institutions of American power and are generally comfortable with the post-World War II bipartisan consensus on U.S. strategy, even though they may seek to change it on the margins. It is a broad tent. There are Russia hawks and China hawks, unilateralists and multilateralists, those who favor restraint and those who want to dramatically increase U.S. power and influence. Among them are Mitt Romney, James Mattis, Richard Haass, Mike Rogers, Bob Corker, and Stephen Hadley. One level down, it includes most of the Republican foreign-policy establishment who could staff a Trump administration.
The traditionalists who enter the administration or consult with it see their role as steering the Trump administration toward a mainstream foreign policy, especially in Europe and Asia, and avoiding the excesses of America First and religious war. Their first priority will be to maintain America’s alliance system and military presence around the world.
There was some evidence in the early days of the transition that Trump was willing to move in a traditionalist direction to avoid precipitating a crisis. Two days after the election, on Nov. 10, Trump told President Park Geun-hye in a phone call that he supported the alliance with South Korea, despite having criticized it for the past 30 years. Trump would later tell the New York Times that President Barack Obama had identified one major national security problem facing the country that required urgent attention. It was subsequently reported that this was North Korea. Deterring an imminent threat from North Korea was probably the reason why Trump reversed himself on the alliance with South Korea.
Curiously, Trump did not issue a statement supporting the U.S.-Japan alliance after his in-person meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Japanese leader described Trump as a person he could trust, but the absence of any mention of continuing U.S. support for the alliance was conspicuous. Perhaps Trump felt under less pressure on Japan than on Korea, but the contrast between the call with Park and the meeting with Abe was striking.
These three factions — the America Firsters, the religious warriors, and the traditionalists — are mutually suspicious. But each also needs the others to check the third. Trump needs the religious warriors to prevent a mainstream takeover, but he fears they will drag him into a war against Iran. The religious warriors need Trump to achieve their objectives, but they also have no desire to collapse the U.S. alliance system. The traditionalists need both to check the radical impulses of the other.
Preserving this delicate balance appears to have been a key priority in the formation of the cabinet. It explains why Flynn reportedly objected to Mattis on the grounds that he did not want any principal to militarily outrank him and also why Trump overruled him. It could also explain why Trump passed on Mitt Romney. As secretary of state, Romney could have forged a partnership with Mattis, giving the traditionalists tremendous power.
This is why naming Rex Tillerson as secretary of state was so important for Trump. A week before he was named, Trump’s senior aide Kellyanne Conway told the press that Trump was expanding the list of names for secretary of state and that the most important consideration was that the nominee “would be to implement and adhere to the president-elect’s America-first foreign policy — if you will, his view of the world.” The implication was clear: Romney, David Petraeus, and others would not fit the bill, so Trump would have to look elsewhere. He found Tillerson.
Tillerson is a pragmatist and a dealmaker. In many ways, he is a traditionalist. After all, he was endorsed by James Baker, Robert Gates, Hadley, and Condoleezza Rice. However, Trump also sees him, based on his personal relationship with Putin and opposition to sanctions on Russia, as someone willing to cut deals with strongmen and who sees national security through an economic lens and is thus an embodiment of his own America First views. Speaking in Wisconsin hours after naming Tillerson, Trump said, “Rex is friendly with many of the leaders in the world that we don’t get along with, and some people don’t like that. They don’t want them to be friendly. That’s why I’m doing the deal with Rex, ‘cause I like what this is all about.” Tillerson, ultimately, is an unknown quantity — nobody knows whether he will serve as a proxy for the establishment and steer Trump in a traditionalist direction or rather be the means by which Trump cuts deals with America’s rivals over the heads of U.S. allies.
Mattis’s role as secretary of defense is also critical. Mattis will not be bullied or pushed around, and he will likely work closely with Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to stop outlandish policy proposals and irresponsible military operations and to reassure America’s allies. Mattis has said one or two things about political Islam that resemble the rhetoric of the religious warriors, but these have generally been taken out of context. He has a track record of working closely with America’s Arab allies and has a much more mainstream view of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It’s fair to say that he is an Iran hawk, but it bears noting that he has clearly stated that the United States should not unilaterally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
But the greatest clashes will be over how to tackle specific issues. The first may be Syria, where Trump told the New York Times that he disagrees with all of his advisors on how to act. He was probably referring to his preference to ally with Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which would have the inevitable consequence of empowering Iran — anathema to the religious warriors who want to fight Shiite Iran and Sunni extremists simultaneously. The Iran nuclear deal is a second stumbling block — the religious warriors favor an extremely tough policy toward Tehran, but there are serious doubts about whether Trump would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities if the deal collapsed. There is also Trump’s proposal to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which could raise tensions in the region. And there is the outreach to Russia and the saber rattling with China, which some traditionalists (and perhaps, too, the Taiwanese government) fear is a precursor to negotiation.