What to Watch Out for, Mr. President
17 tips for the new Trump administration, from heavy hitters on Obama's national security team.
In their first post marking the relaunch of Shadow Government as a blog by foreign-policy officials who served under President Barack Obama, co-editors Derek Chollet, Colin Kahl, and Julie Smith promised to cultivate a loyal, respectful, and prescriptive opposition. The blog’s extraordinary roster of contributors has stepped forward to offer just that — practical advice for unsettling times.
Collected here: 17 pieces of advice for President Donald Trump and his administration as it assumes the reins. From how to dance with Russia to how to set up the National Security Council in times of crisis, these insiders aren’t playing politics, they’re offering pearls of wisdom gleaned from years of experience.
GET THE DEFENSE SECRETARY OUT ON THE ROAD.
By Derek Chollet
Perhaps the only reassuring thing to happen last weekend was the speedy confirmation of retired Marine Generals James Mattis at the Pentagon and John Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security. They are both strong leaders, levelheaded, fact-based, and non-partisan. (Full disclosure: I worked with them when I served at the Pentagon.) To help calm the world’s nerves — and to show that some pockets of stability and sanity still exist in the U.S. government — it is imperative that Mattis fire up the E4-B (the “doomsday plane” that doubles as the secretary of defense’s ride) and make several key stops. Ash Carter finished his Pentagon tenure with a backbreaking around-the-world trip, and that’s how Mattis should begin. He’s reportedly already making counterpart calls, which is good, but nothing is better than showing up.
I’d start by heading West, stopping in Hawaii for a visit to United States Pacific Command, then onward to Japan and South Korea. From there, he should go to India (where the defense relationship has been blossoming), then to Afghanistan, which seems once again to have slipped into its status as the forgotten war. From there, he should go to Iraq, a place he knows well, for an update on the Islamic State campaign he now inherits. I’d then make three other quick stops in the region — Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi.
What about Europe? I’d actually wait on that — in mid-February, Mattis should go to NATO headquarters in Brussels, where there is the customary meeting of defense ministers prior to the Munich Security Conference. This time I’d recommend that Mattis travel with Rex Tillerson, Trump’s new secretary of state, and ask for a joint meeting to include foreign ministers. Then to Munich, where they could do an appearance together (much like Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel did in 2014). After that, Mattis should head to the Baltics, and finally Ukraine, where the United States has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance.
The message? The same one that Mattis conveyed in his confirmation hearing: That U.S. commitments will endure, that alliances matter, and that the administration will stand up to those who are trying to revise or destroy the liberal international order (e.g.; Russia). Of course, that’s very different than America First, which may just accelerate the collision course Mattis seems to be on with his commander-in-chief.
FIGURE OUT WHO YOUR FRIENDS ARE IN THE ISIS FIGHT.
By Colin Kahl
Over the past two-and-a-half years, the Obama administration put the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on a path to defeat. The group has lost more than half of its territory in Iraq and about a third of its territory in Syria. Tens of thousands of Islamic States fighters and dozens of key Islamic State leaders have been taken off the battlefield. The group’s finances have been slashed; foreign fighter flow is down to a trickle; morale among the group’s rank-and-file is plummeting. Mosul is under assault by Iraqi security forces; and a coalition of Syrian Kurds and Arabs known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are encircling Raqqa. If the Trump administration keeps up the momentum, the days of the Islamic State are numbered.
The big decision that will confront team Trump in the next few weeks is whether to take the next step in providing more training and equipment to the SDF, which includes the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Pentagon will tell Trump that this is the only force capable of seizing Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-described “caliphate” in Syria, anytime in the near future. But Turkey — which views the YPG as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party insurgency — will adamantly oppose any move to deepen the U.S.-YPG partnership and advocate for an alternative, Turkey-backed coalition of Arab opposition fighters that does not yet exist. My advice to team Trump: Do your homework, quickly. This decision could make or break the counter-Islamic State campaign and it could have profound and lasting implications for the bilateral relationship with a key NATO ally.
MAKE RUSSIA PROVE IT IS CHANGING COURSE BEFORE LIFTING SANCTIONS.
By Julianne Smith
Trump’s determination to strengthen ties between the United States and Russia is well known (although his motives for doing so remain a mystery). Vladimir Putin and Trump are therefore likely to look for an opportunity to meet in the coming weeks or months. The first request from Moscow will be sanctions relief, since sanctions have been sapping the Russian economy for years. In return, Putin will no doubt promise more help in fighting the Islamic State, the one thing Trump repeatedly said he was seeking while he was on the campaign trail. But Trump and his team should proceed with caution and look for actual changes in Russian actions before delivering anything resembling sanctions relief.
Putin has made many promises in Syria, some of which have only lasted a few hours. Putin also knows that unraveling sanctions is relatively easy but imposing them can take months, sometimes years, of negotiations. That is why any potential grand bargain with the Russians must be accompanied with clearly articulated, verifiable milestones that would need to be met before the United States would even consider lifting sanctions.
GET THE NSC PROCESS AND COMMAND CULTURE RIGHT, EARLY.
By Kelly Magsamen
There are probably no more important early muscle movements for a new administration than setting up its National Security Council (NSC) process. As one former NSC colleague once told me, “process is your friend.” Sounds bureaucratic, right? Exactly. Process imposes accountability and transparency on departments and agencies. It tees up credible policy options for the president, and connects decisions to implementation. And most importantly, it helps protect the president from making major unforced errors.
Hopefully, Trump has his Presidential Policy Directive-1 (or whatever he chooses to call it) ready to go. It should communicate to the government how he will make major national security decisions. Beyond process, make sure to set a good command climate with and among the Cabinet and NSC staff. National security is a team sport (occasionally a blood sport). It’s essential that departments and agencies are rowing in the same direction to advance U.S. interests and have respect for each other’s equities. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be vigorous interagency debate, but mutual respect is essential — it’s the grease between the wheels.
Finally, Trump needs to trust the many agency and department detailees that he has inherited — they are the cream of the crop from across the U.S. national security departments and agencies and can help ease the shock of governing. They are patriots, not partisans. The president will need to decide how he intends to use his NSC staff — advisors, facilitators, implementers … or all of the above? The size of the NSC isn’t the most important factor to consider. Process and command culture, however, are.
DON’T PIVOT AWAY FROM THE PIVOT TO ASIA.
By Christine Wormuth
If the Trump administration wants to get tougher on China, it will need friends in Asia more than ever. Countries in the region have needed constant reassurance since the announcement of the rebalance to Asia in 2011, and most are nervous about what Trump and his focus on “America First” means for them. The United States needs strong diplomatic and military relationships with countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia to be able to serve as a guarantor of stability in the region. Contrary to concerns that allies are not pulling their weight, Japan and South Korea host, and largely pay for, large U.S. military bases in both countries. Australia and Singapore also host U.S. forces, and the Philippines has agreed to welcome more U.S. forces, which could happen if President Rodrigo Duterte gets along better with Trump than with his predecessor. The Trump administration may focus on getting tougher on China, but if relationships with the other countries in Asia are left to languish, some of them may feel they have no choice but to get closer to Beijing just when the United States needs them the most.
LEARN TO LIKE THE UNITED NATIONS.
By Bathsheba Crocker
Antonio Guterres could be the best U.N. secretary-general we’ve seen in decades, if not ever. He certainly offers the best chance in a long time to implement the U.N. reform agenda that the Trump administration will have. Guterres is an adept diplomat and politician, and he knows the U.N. system like few others. He has set out plans for serious changes early in his tenure, on things the United States cares about, like updating a sclerotic personnel system, reforming the sprawling development architecture, and appointing more women throughout the U.N. He flew to Geneva in his first weeks in office to take part in Cyprus talks, and wants to be more involved on tough issues like Syria and protecting human rights, civil society, and people around the world. But he won’t be able to get any of this done without a constructive U.S. partner — there is too much entrenched bureaucracy and too many other countries that resist such progress.
Guterres surely expects a tough partner in the United States — it’s our traditional posture. If instead he gets an antagonist, we will have squandered a unique opportunity. With 65 million people displaced around the world and millions more trapped in conflicts inside their own borders; with bad governments feeling free to flout international norms, target civilians militarily, and deny their people desperately needed humanitarian assistance; the United States quite simply can’t afford to cut off funding to the U.N. system, as some U.S. senators are recommending. Trump also can’t afford to stand aside and vent while other countries step into the lead. My advice is this: Trump needs to tell his ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, to meet Guterres halfway, and the new administration will find in the new secretary-general just the partner it needs to drive real change at the U.N.
PREPARE FOR THE WORST.
By Hal Brands
The Trump administration — like every administration — should expect to get bushwhacked by legions of crises it never anticipated. A North Korean nuclear test, a dustup with China over Taiwan or the South China Sea, an incident between the U.S. and Iranian militaries in the Persian Gulf — these scenarios, along with plenty of others that aren’t even on the radar screen right now, could easily erupt in Trump’s first year in office. This administration will be particularly susceptible to mishandling such crises, due to its shambolic transition, its already evident divisions and turf wars, and not least of all, the president’s own penchant for blustery, rapid-fire responses to provocations.
So the most important thing the Trump team can do is to take crisis preparation and management seriously — and that means taking process seriously. Establish clear lines of authority and responsibility in the interagency. Figure out which department or agency has the lead in responding to various potential crises. Create procedures for ensuring internal unity and discipline with respect to communications and strategic messaging. Do some crisis contingency planning now, to get a sense of what the pressures and options might look like when, say, Putin escalates in Ukraine. Get the U.S. president used to a more deliberative style of decision-making — it will come in handy in situations where information is fragmentary and first reports are often mistaken. And for God’s sake, hide the man’s smartphone. When that 3:00 a.m. call comes in, you don’t want America’s first response to be a 3:00 a.m. tweet.
SEIZE AN OPENING WITH AMERICA’S TRADITIONAL ARAB PARTNERS.
By Ilan Goldenberg
For a number of reasons, America’s traditional Arab partners, especially the Gulf States and Egypt, did not get along with Obama. Some of this was policy. They hated the Iran nuclear agreement, disagreed with our approach to Egypt, and wanted the United States to intervene in Syria. But much was personality and worldview. While Obama saw the world in gray, nuanced terms, many Middle Eastern leaders saw it in a much starker black and white.
Trump should have a much easier time relating to these leaders, which creates an opportunity similar to the one Obama had with many U.S. partners in Europe at the start of his presidency. But it requires Trump and his team to be smart. What our Middle Eastern partners value above all else is stability. So the Trump administration should not upend the Iran nuclear deal — an agreement that U.S. partners in the region have come to accept. And it should not move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, creating potential political and security headaches that no one in the region needs. Instead, the Trump administration should focus on countering Iran’s support for surrogates and proxies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and across the Middle East. And if the administration pursues a negotiated outcome in Syria, the United States should bargain hard and ensure there is no perception that Trump simply sold out the region to Russia and Iran.
USE THE NUCLEAR SECURITY TOOLKIT.
By Jon Wolfsthal
Nuclear policy decisions — from maintaining the U.S. stockpile to managing nuclear stability with Russia to dealing with Iran and North Korea — are arguably as important now as they were when Obama took office. Russia’s nuclear adventurism, North Korea’s advancing program, the growing, massive costs of the planned U.S. nuclear modernization, and the international divide between states that rely on nuclear deterrence and those eager to pursue a legal ban on nuclear weapons all demand effective responses. The United States has longstanding and proven tools with which to address some of these challenges. These tools have been effective in protecting the country and its allies for many years: arms control agreements, sanctions, deterrence, reassurance, and when needed, military force. All of these tools have their place, but the balance in using them is a challenge, and new tools must be developed to deal with the new challenges posed by proliferation.
Nuclear security cooperation is the only way we can prevent the global threat of nuclear terrorism. Arms control cannot prevent cheating by Russia, but it can be used to rally U.S. allies and bring pressure to bear on Russia in the face of its non-compliance, while providing early warning of dangerous behavior. All of these tools rely on experts throughout the U.S. government and around the world and have no partisan roots. These approaches have benefitted both Republican and Democratic president’s alike, and the best advice for the new administration is to use what has worked while adding to the toolkit. We need all the help we can get in preserving the global norm of nuclear weapons never being used again. The consequences of failure are too great.
UNDERSTAND WHAT MAKES TURKEY TICK.
By Amanda Sloat
Turkey feels besieged by internal and external threats, for which it blames the United States. The Turks will ask you to do two things during your early weeks in office: extradite Fetullah Gulen and stop working with the Kurds in Syria.
Turkey’s main complaint is that Gulen, an Islamic cleric accused of orchestrating the July 2016 coup attempt, is living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. While Turks make the political argument that friends don’t harbor friends’ terror suspects, the United States has taken a legal approach requiring sufficient evidence to convince a federal judge of probable cause. Absent compelling new information or circumvention of U.S. law, the administration will find it hard to extradite him.
Turkey also objects to Washington’s support for Syrian Kurds — the People’s Protection Units, or YPG — in the fight against the Islamic State. While effective fighters, the YPG are seeking to create an autonomous region along the Turkish border. Most Turks (and most analysts) see the YPG as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization embroiled in a decades-long fight against Turkish security forces that has caused over 40,000 deaths. If the administration uses well-advanced plans for the YPG to clear Raqqa, the Islamic State’s key holding in Syria, it must address the threat to Turkish security and engage Sunni Arab groups alienated by U.S. backing of Kurdish forces. Alternatively, the administration could delay the operation to find a force less threatening to our NATO ally.
DON’T FORGET AFGHANISTAN.
By Dan Feldman
There are profound lessons to be learned from the past 16 years of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. With 8,400 U.S. troops still in the country and billions spent per year sustaining our military and civilian footprint, Afghanistan remains one of the United States’ largest foreign policy expenditures, and has been the site of our nation’s longest active conflict. While it was hardly mentioned during the 2016 campaign, critical decisions are needed soon given the tenuous security situation.
First, make a long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s future for the sake of U.S. national security and to safeguard all that the United States have achieved there, but be wary of defining this solely as a sustained or even increased troop presence. Afghanistan’s sustainability will depend on the integration of economic and political stability with security, and thus, diplomats and civilians need to be full partners with our military presence, in both planning and execution.
Second, continue to invest in reconciliation efforts with the Taliban. If you don’t relish spending billions of U.S. dollars for years to come to support the Afghan military, then the only feasible way to achieve stability without significant commitments of financial and other resources is a negotiated political settlement between all parties. Yet that entails engagement with adversaries as well as sustained diplomatic outreach to a range of key stakeholders in the region.
And third, recognize and embrace the key role of the international community in Afghanistan, which remains critical to its future stability. Afghanistan is the only instance of the NATO charter being invoked for the defense of a member country — at the request of the United States after 9/11 — and over 1,000 non-U.S., NATO military personnel have now lost their lives in the country. The EU, Japan, and others have led the donor conferences that will sustain Afghanistan in the future, most recently committing to $15 billion in the coming years. And to ensure this is not perceived in Afghanistan as a “clash of civilizations,” over a dozen Muslim-majority countries have also been publicly engaged in providing assistance. To squander this international financing, goodwill, and expertise would directly undercut U.S. national security interests.
DON’T BASH ALLIES ONE DAY AND ASK THEM FOR HELP THE NEXT.
By Jim Townsend
Past administrations did this, and the United States found itself with few friends on the battlefield. Today, a great coalition of nations led by the United States is fighting the Islamic State and other terrorists across three continents. NATO is part of this fight, while also sending troops to shore up deterrence in the Baltic States and Poland. NATO has nothing to prove to anyone when it comes to relevance; terrorist acts and threats from hostile states have us relieved that we can “break glass and pull handle” to summon the nations of NATO.
Can NATO do better? Can allies spend more on defense? Of course; but change happens only if the United States leads that change. U.S. leadership comes by sending our best to Brussels, armed with ideas and an ability to work with people. Change does not come at the end of a bayonet, but by patience and the ability to inspire politicians to do things they do not want to do. NATO can adapt. There are plenty of ideas to help it do an even better job. But disrespecting NATO and hectoring allies won’t bring change — only smart U.S. leadership will.
SUPPORT THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO SUPPORT THOSE ON THE FRONT LINES.
By Janine Davidson
As I departed the Pentagon last Thursday, my final day as under secretary of the Navy, I was reminded of what actually makes our Navy and Marine Corps the finest the world has ever known: our people. Without the thousands of professional civilians who — along with their uniformed military counterparts — staff our Pentagon headquarters and provide the logistical foundation or “tail” for our exquisite fighting force, we simply could not put ships on the water, planes in the air, bombs on target, or paychecks in the hands of our troops around the world; much less design and procure the 350-ship Navy the new president has promised.
So, I urge you: Do not fall prey to the bogus and toxic narrative about some lazy or inefficient bureaucracy; that is not the workforce you are about to inherit. The men and women — civilian and military alike — who wake up every morning and come to work at our shipyards, depots, and bases, and all across our nation’s capital, are talented, skilled, and passionately devoted professionals. They are the most important national security infrastructure you can invest in as commander-in-chief.
By Tamara Wittes
The Obama administration was often faulted for dallying over decisions: for being overly cerebral and deliberative and, as a result, missing opportunities to advance U.S. interests. In a world of accelerated information flows and instantaneous global communications, there is tremendous pressure to react quickly to events abroad — and the new Trump administration may feel additional pressure to demonstrate greater “decisiveness” in style as well as substance than its predecessor.
But the tendency to swift and decisive action brings its own dangers. Most especially, thinking fast, as the Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann revealed, tends to make us overconfident, more likely to reason using ill-fitting analogies, and more likely to fall prey to the sunk costs fallacy, in which we double down on failing bets. By contrast, thinking slowly enables more careful weighing of real probabilities and risks (yes, it has its own set of biases, too).
Policy choices are always made without perfect information and without sufficient time to test all the alternatives. And new senior officials inevitably enter their jobs with sets of preconceived notions about the United States’ role in the world and what the other team did wrong. Whether those preconceptions stem from ideology, resentment, bravado, or even hard-won experience, wise policy officials will insist that they slow their decision-making process down enough to question, and perhaps even repent, some of their assumptions. If they don’t do it for themselves now, the world will undoubtedly do it for them over time.
AVOID THE PITFALL WITH YOUR PAL IN MOSCOW AND NEMESIS IN BEIJING.
By Vikram Singh
Don’t make the United States into Russia’s junior partner. If the goal is improved relations, denying the facts surrounding Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, questioning NATO, and obsessing about inauguration crowds all squander leverage. Putin is prepared to shower the new team with praise and get what he wants: U.S. cooperation in advancing Moscow’s agenda that American leaders claim as success.
Don’t put China in the driver’s seat. Tillerson set an unenforceable red line, saying Beijing would not be “allowed” access to islands it claims in the South China Sea. It’s good to take a strong stand, but to say you won’t “allow” China on islands it already occupies? Really? At the same time, Trump added the flourish of an executive order to drive a stake into the already dead Trans Pacific Partnership. A red line it will not enforce and extra emphasis on America’s withdrawal from economic policy in Asia are concessions to core Chinese aims. Stop it.
Russia is an adversary and treating it like a friend will make this administration a dupe or even a collaborator in weakening democracy around the world. China is a competitor you need to outsmart rather than bully. Take the high road by demanding that China play by the rules and step up to its responsibilities.
DON’T MESS WITH MONTENEGRO.
By Evelyn N. Farkas
Last year, the 28 existing members of NATO voted unanimously to extend membership to Montenegro. There were many reasons to admit Montenegro into the alliance. The enduring rationale was to increase security and stability in the volatile Balkan region. But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was a new military rationale — to seal the Adriatic coast line, denying the Russians the opportunity to base forces there, as they have done in neighboring Serbia, or to station air defense systems there that could threaten U.S. and other NATO forces.
The Russian reaction was extreme. Let’s leave aside the propaganda and the paying of supporters to try to block Montenegro’s own vote to join NATO: The Russians tried to assassinate the Montenegrin prime minister.
The last and final step in bringing Montenegro into the alliance is for the legislatures of the 28 NATO members to ratify Montenegro’s accession. The United States is among the handful of countries that have not yet ratified. Sens. Bob Corker, Ben Cardin, John McCain, and Mitch McConnell have tried, but one or two senators are still standing in the way. It is unclear why, but what is clear is that only Russia would benefit from action to block Montenegro from joining the alliance.
The president must tell the Senate to act swiftly and ratify Montenegro’s accession to NATO. Tell those few holdout Senators not to mess with Montenegro.
TRUST THE CAREER STAFF: THEY’RE PROS.
By Jeff Prescott
Early signs suggest this White House may well demonstrate the same disregard for fact that its standard bearer modeled on the campaign trail. But when it comes to national security decisions, hashed out in the relative privacy of the Situation Room, one hopes that the Trump team will take a different approach. After all, every White House needs to disentangle complex international crises, and every president needs a team that delivers unvarnished information and well-vetted options. The best place for a green White House team to start is with the resident experts: career staff on assignment to the National Security Council.
Over 90 percent of Security Council staff are drawn from across the U.S. government — diplomats, military officers, intelligence analysts, often with careers spanning multiple administrations. Unlike former political appointees (like me), they returned to duty on January 23 — or, more likely, worked as usual through the weekend. It might be tempting for the incoming national security team — whose early picks, alas, reflect an alarmingly narrow portion of the talent pool — to view the career staff they inherit with suspicion. But the newcomers should trust the experts, and keep them. Career staff have seen the good and bad of the Obama years. They can bring a critical eye to the process of translating campaign rhetoric into practical policy. And, in dealing with foreign leaders, they know what has worked (and what has not). Michael Flynn and Thomas Bossert — and their boss — would be well served to draw on the expertise, energy, and ideas of these professionals.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy in the age of Trump, written by experienced policymakers, scholars, and practitioners from the loyal Democrat opposition. It is co-edited by Derek Chollet, Colin Kahl, and Julie Smith.