The Coming Chaos: What to Expect From Trump’s National Security Team
The way national security policy is made ultimately derives from the tone set by the president and there is no sign that Trump is changing.
No one knows with any degree of certainty what type of foreign policy approach President Donald Trump and his team might pursue. But important data points from the transition and during his first week do not form a promising picture. A cancelled visit by Mexico’s president, chaos at our airports, and a political tirade in front of the CIA Memorial Wall give us plenty to worry about. The most likely scenario is an incoherent and dysfunctional policy process led by an ideological and hardline National Security Council and White House, an independent and reasonable Pentagon, a weak State Department, and an intelligence community leaking like a sieve to counter the White House.
Lack of Coherence
What is clear from the confirmation hearings for James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and Mike Pompeo — Trump’s respective picks for secretary of defense, secretary of state, and CIA director — is that the views of Trump’s foreign policy team are all over the map and do not align with his own. While Mattis was calling NATO the “most successful military alliance, probably in modern world history, maybe ever,” Trump was describing it as “obsolete.” As Tillerson argued for a full review of the Iran nuclear deal, Mattis said that he would not have agreed to it but that the United States must keep its word, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus indicated that the agreement was on “life support.”
It is good to have a diversity of views inside the national security team. This leads to robust debate and avoids the danger of groupthink. The problem is that you need a strong and engaged president who can listen to the various positions, make decisions, and set a clear course forward. There are no indications that Trump is going to have the attention span and willingness to do that. And without it, these types of disagreements will lead to dysfunction.
The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the Trump team has yet to nominate a single deputy or undersecretary for any of the key national security agencies. It will take months to fill these positions because they all require Senate confirmation, and these high-level officials are essential for teeing up decisions and setting policy. Under the Barack Obama administration, they spent hours together (some would argue too many hours) in the situation room hammering out positions, setting policy, and preparing decisions for the cabinet and the president. This interagency process is essential for making sure that all agencies are working towards the same objectives. But in the Trump administration it is not clear what the interagency process will look like, given that the two officials responsible for running it — National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and his deputy, K.T. McFarland — have little experience in managing this critical endeavor.
Trump’s immigration executive order is a poster child for how not to conduct interagency coordination. The White House wrote the order with no consultation with the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, or Office Legal Counsel. The end result was confusion from agencies that did not understand how to implement the order (and thus began doing so haphazardly) and legal holes so wide that courts stayed elements of the order within a day.
Ideological National Security Council
Without a strong interagency process, each agency will operate on its own — often at cross-purposes. At the National Security Council, we can expect a right wing, pro-Russia agenda most reflective of the views expressed by the president. None of these officials have to be confirmed by the Senate, which gives Trump leeway to hire people with views similar to his own, even if those perspectives are unpopular with both Democrats and Republicans.
The five phone calls between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak on the day Obama announced punitive steps against Russia for interfering in the election are perhaps most telling of what we might see from this National Security Council. While we do not know what those calls involved, it was interesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response was so restrained and that Trump then came out and praised the Russian leader. It almost felt coordinated. As former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who worked on the Obama transition, explained, “I dealt with Kislyak all the time when I worked at the White House. Never needed to call him five times in one day to make my point.”
In an unusual move, Trump has given Stephen Bannon — his chief strategist — a permanent seat on the Principals Committee — an interagency of body of cabinet officials that deliberates on the most pressing national security challenges. Previous presidents have kept political advisors off this body to avoid mixing politics and national security and Bannon’s inclusion is an indicator of his power. Trump has also stated that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, who has no real foreign policy experience and a decidedly right-wing perspective on Israel, will be responsible for making peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And the fact that extreme far-right figures like Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, and Marie Le Pen, the president of the French National Front, are showing up for meetings at Trump Tower is another indicator of the people with whom Trump is surrounding himself.
An Independent Pentagon
While the National Security Council may reflect the relatively frightening foreign policy views of the president, you can expect something very different at the Department of Defense. Mattis will be in a politically strong position as an overwhelmingly popular choice on both sides of the aisle who sailed through confirmation with no controversy. He is also the only Trump national security nominee with unassailable credentials and experience for the job he is set to assume, which will give him even more leverage.
As the secretary of defense, Mattis will have the authority based on current law to make decisions about significant movements of assets, troops, and money without checking with the White House. Even though the defense secretaries in the Obama administration also had these authorities, they often checked with the president and the national security advisor, because they knew that Obama and his team wanted to get deeply engaged on such detailed questions. And indeed, one critique of the Obama White House was that it was too controlling, often slowing decisions that should have just been made by the military with civilian oversight at the Defense Department.
But with a disengaged president and a dysfunctional interagency process, Mattis will not feel those constraints and will likely use his authorities. For example, even as the National Security Council and Trump are moving closer to Russia and dismissing NATO, Mattis may want the United States militarily to deepen it commitment to Europe and deter Russian aggression. This is probably good for those of us who care about maintaining the transatlantic alliance. But it will also be confusing for our friends and adversaries.
But Mattis will not be able to block many of the bad ideas coming out of the National Security Council and the White House. This was clear on Friday at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heros, where Mattis looked on as Trump signed the executive order on immigration, enacting a policy that Mattis has previously opposed.
A Feckless State Department
The outlook is different at the State Department, which will likely be quite weak. Tillerson will not have a huge budget and military assets to move around the globe. Instead, the secretary of state’s influence is largely derived from the perception that he speaks for the president and represents the administration’s policies abroad. But Tillerson does not seem to have that connection to Trump. When he stated at his confirmation hearing that he had not yet spoken with Trump about the critical issue of Russia, what he was essentially saying was: “I have no influence.”
The tough confirmation process — during which a number of Republican senators, including John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Marco Rubio, as well as many Democrats, aired their concerns — may have weakened him further. This will give him less standing in future negotiations with Congress. And early steps by the administration to remove senior career officials at the department with no clear plans yet to replace them means confusion and lack of leadership for months to come.
A Leaky CIA
Finally, there is the Intelligence Community, in which relations with the president are off to a horrific start. Trump publicly cited Putin — a former KGB agent — over the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, and compared some of the leaks coming out of the Intelligence Community to life in Nazi Germany. This does not sit well with intelligence professionals — many of whom risk their lives for the United States. As opposed to the State Department and the Department of Defense, where the Trump administration will have a large number of political appointments that it can use to bend those agencies to its will, there are few such slots in intelligence. Career professionals dominate the intelligence agencies, and Trump has already alienated most of them.
The result is likely to be more of what we have already begun to see — strategic leaks to undercut Trump and combat what some intelligence officials see as dangerous policies coming out of the White House. It is unlikely that the Intelligence Community leaked the opposition research memo on Trump’s alleged ties to Russia — many news organizations and political operatives had that information. It is much more likely that someone in the community detected and leaked the existence of the five calls between Flynn and the Russian ambassador to undercut what was viewed as both bad policy and inappropriate meddling with Obama’s policies. The stories of intelligence counterparts warning British and Israeli colleagues not to share information with the Trump team for fear it would get to Russia and Iran is another indicator that the Intelligence Community may be at war with Trump’s National Security Council and White House for the next four years.
Ultimately, it is possible that much of what we have seen thus far is simply the result of a difficult transition process with a team that was not expecting to win the election and did not prepare as much as it should have. It is possible that as it catches up and learn to govern, some of these problems will go away quickly.
But the way national security policy is made ultimately derives from the tone set by the president and there is no sign that Trump is changing. It is much more likely that in the months ahead we will see a national security team beset by conflict, with little leadership from the president, resulting in an incoherent foreign policy. The only question is whether this problem lasts six months until Trump decides to clean house and bring in new leadership at the National Security Council to try and fix the problems, or whether it will last four or eight years. Either way, it is bad news for the United States and its allies.
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