Elephants in the Room

Two Cheers for Trump’s National Security Strategy

Its survey of the world is mostly accurate, but the discussion of domestic policy falls flat.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a speech on his National Security Strategy on Dec. 18, in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a speech on his National Security Strategy on Dec. 18, in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Several of my colleagues have already pointed out — with obvious relief — that the new National Security Strategy does not veer to sharply from those espoused by President Trump’s predecessors, at least until Ronald Reagan. Indeed, the document devotes a section to “peace through strength,” a phrase much associated with the Gipper and his secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger. It is primarily in the realm of politico-military affairs that the Strategy fits within the mainstream of national security policy. It is a well-crafted document that should reassure allies and partners, and give adversaries considerable pause. That is not at the case with respect to domestic policy, however.

That the document is at its strongest and most coherent when addressing issues that the Departments of State and Defense confront daily should come as no surprise. After all, they fall squarely within the expertise of H.R. McMaster, Dina Powell, and Nadia Schadlow in particular. The harsh words about Iran and North Korea are surely welcome. They represent a signal departure from the flaccid approach of the Obama administration. The Trump administration’s description of its approach to dealing with Iran is increasingly in tune with the views of Western Europeans, who are beginning to wake up to the fact that Iranian missiles could target their territory while Iranian inspired mayhem in the Middle East has contributed to the flood of refugees seeking to enter their shores. Similarly, Europeans are becoming increasingly nervous about North Korea’s determined drive toward a strategic nuclear capability, and while not as heavily invested as is Washington in northeast Asia, do worry about the implications of a nuclear North Korea for the likelihood that Japan and South Korea could both go nuclear.

Whatever one might argue about the wisdom of the president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — not mentioned in the strategy — there can be little doubt that the authors are absolutely correct when they point out that “Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems.” In one respect, the statement is a mere recognition of reality, given the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, not to mention the intra-GCC brouhaha between Qatar and the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as well as non-GCC member Egypt, none of which have the slightest relationship to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Yet it also embodies a repudiation of the Obama administration’s implicit belief that “if only” there were peace between the Israelis and Palestinians all would be well in the Middle East.

The strategy’s description of the current state of play in the Middle East omits two key players: Russia and Turkey. Perhaps the authors felt that to finger Russia as a contributor to the region’s problems was a bridge too far for an administration led by Donald Trump. Similarly, given the president’s efforts to maintain good relations with his Turkish counterpart, as well as Turkey’s important role as a NATO ally, the strategy’s authors may have chosen discretion over valor.

On the other hand, some may be surprised that the strategy has tough words about Russia “using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Western Europe … and weaken European institutions and governments.” Indeed, the document juxtaposes Russian actions with “the menace of Soviet communism,” a recognition that Russia may have changed its form of governance, but not necessarily its governing character.  These observations are due to the realism of the strategy’s authors: Russia’s predatory behavior in Europe is simply too manifest to ignore. The strategy even mentions, though almost in passing, that Russia, like China, is “attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” There is, however, nary a word about Russian efforts to undermine American institutions. That too, however, may have been a bridge too far for an administration led by Donald Trump.

NATO figures prominently in the document’s discussion of challenges in in Europe. While calling for allies to fulfill their commitment to two per cent growth in their defense budgets, the strategy firmly underscores the American commitment to the alliance, asserting that “the United States remains committed to Article V of the Washington Treaty.”

The aforementioned statements, the sections on cyber security, space and missile defense, as well as the clear and coherent set of priorities that conclude each discussion of regional issues, mark out the defense and diplomatic sections of the document as both its strongest, and as well-crafted as any of its predecessors. Domestic policy is another matter entirely, however. It reflects the hardline input of more ideologically driven advisors.

For example, the document speaks of welcoming “lawful immigrants” with the provisos that they “not pose a security threat” — which is fair enough. But it also conditions their entry on being consistent with the national interest,” and goes on to explain that extended family chain migration is against the national interest, a policy most vocally espoused by Steve Bannon and his acolytes. In a similar vein, one wonders what the document’s authors were thinking when they wrote that the strategy seeks to “reduce the debt through fiscal responsibility,” and calls the national debt “a grave threat to America’s long-term prosperity.” Perhaps they were simply oblivious to the implications of the tax reform bill that was hurtling its way towards Congressional passage.

One jarring note is the inconsistency between the document itself and the president’s introduction. He opens the document by restating his mantra that “the American people elected me to make America great again.” He asserts that “America is leading again on the world stage” and that “the whole world is lifted by America’s renewal.” And he claims that his administration has  “recommitted ourselves…to the values that have made our families, communities and society successful.”

No doubt the president’s loyal base would subscribe to each of those assertions. Hardly anyone else in America will. For many, America has not lost its greatness. It is even less of a leader on the world stage than it was under the Obama administration — and that is saying something. And while some, for example, those who voted for Roy Moore, would insist that his administration represents their values, most would not. But perhaps his introduction should be treated as one should treat his early morning tweets: worth noting before getting on to the realities of American policy, which the strategy itself generally articulates exceedingly well.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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