Network Take: Assessing Trump’s First Six Months

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty

It has been a tumultuous first six months for the Trump Administration, as the ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has dominated the headlines, and frustrated and preoccupied the president. Still, the White House released a statement on Thursday touting its national security successes. It stated, “President Trump has put America First in world affairs and national security” and listed a series of accomplishments, including brokering a ceasefire in southwest Syria and authorizing airstrikes after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on civilians, pressuring Iran to scale back its ballistic missile ambitions, and working with allies in the Middle East to defeat ISIS.

On this half-year anniversary, The Cipher Brief asked some of its network experts for their assessments of President Donald Trump’s national security policies so far, and what the Administration should focus on in the coming months and years.

The Cipher Brief: What has the Trump Administration done right on key national security issues in its first six months?

Michael Morell, former Acting and Deputy CIA Director:

The President has used U.S. military capabilities in a more effective way. This has included the bombing in Syria in the aftermath of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s use of sarin gas, which ensures that Assad will not do so again and which sent a simple but powerful message that America is willing to act. It has included an accelerated and expanded military effort against ISIS in Syria and around the globe, which is weakening the group.   

James “Sandy” Winnefeld, retired Admiral and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

The Trump Administration has done two things right. First, it hired Jim Mattis as its Secretary of Defense. He has, in my personal view, performed extremely well under very challenging circumstances, both within a complex and dynamic global security environment and within a difficult political environment. The second derives partially from the first, which is that (led by its more rational faction) the Administration has performed well in situations approaching (but not yet really reaching) crisis. Their response to the chemical attack in Syria was necessary, proportional, appropriate, and brief. And they did not over-react to North Korea’s provocative launch of a nascent ICBM (though I worry they will play their political cards with China on the fool’s errand of getting them to help reign in North Korea rather than on things that are more important). They have yet to really be tested; hopefully they will pass.

Richard Boucher, former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia:

The Trump Administration has begun to get a team in place and to re-stabilize basic policies, like support for NATO and renegotiating NAFTA, as opposed to abolishing it. While the foreign policy apparatus remains thin, some of their appointments represent capable and innovative people: John Huntsman for Russia, Nikki Haley at the UN, or regional experts like Lisa Curtis handling South Asia at the National Security Council. The State Department now has a capable spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, who regularly makes policy comments on issues that are “below the radar” for most. That’s the diplomatic fodder for embassies and foreign governments as we pursue U.S. interests around the world.

In terms of policy, it’s hard to find any initiatives that move the U.S. forward. It’s good that the economic and security dialogues with China are underway, but we’ll have to see if they produce any results beyond token market openings for U.S. credit cards and beef. 

John McLaughlin, former Acting and Deputy CIA Director:

Not very much. Credit is deserved for the clear response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The Administration seems to be getting its act together on North Korea, in so far as we have begun secondary financial sanctions that are touching Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang. And the president has chosen a skilled national security team –  defense, state department, homeland security, national security advisor – but he needs to give them more running room to do what they are capable of doing.

James Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey:

 The Trump Administration has done the following right:

  • Continued and expanded Obama’s campaign against ISIS, which is now on the brink of success
  • Maintained the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran 
  •  Reaffirmed commitments to NATO (with initial hiccups)
  • Continued and expanded Obama’s campaign against ISIS, which is now on the brink of success
  • Enhanced focus on North Korea
  • Both during the Riyadh summit and on the ground in Syria, the Administration has taken a far stronger position on containing Iran
  • Continued sanctions on Russia while leveraging military success (including against Syria and Iranian surrogates) to press for deals more effectively than former Secretary of State John Kerry, including the ceasefire in southwest Iraq
  • Had an adult relationship with China while challenging it on problems like North Korea and the South China Sea
  • Avoided a trade war on steel’ and is basically willing to work inside NAFTA rather than toss it
  • Generally very strong cabinet level foreign policy and national security leaders, and their generally cooperative relationships with each other
  • Good interpersonal relations between the president and all major international interlocutors

The Cipher Brief: What has the Trump Administration done wrong?

Morell: The Administration has allowed U.S. leadership in the world, already in decline before Trump, to fall off a cliff. This has resulted from policy decisions – most importantly, opting out of the Transpacific Partnership and pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord. It has resulted from the snubbing of long-time allies in Europe, Asia, and our own hemisphere. And, it has resulted from the simple words “America First.” If this does not change, the Trump years will be known to future historians as the time we fully dropped the baton and as the time that other countries took actions to reposition themselves in a post American world, with China being the big beneficiary.

The Administration has created great uncertainty. It is not an overstatement to say that the U.S., long the greatest force for stability in the world, is now also the greatest source of uncertainty. This has resulted from the President’s lack of discipline. His unscripted comments, disconnected from those of his senior advisors, have resulted in the government unable to speak with one voice. No foreign official can engage with his/her U.S. counterpart with any confidence that they represent the President. It also results from a Secretary of State who is failing to do a key part of the job – to say, with great clarity, what the U.S. thinks about what is going on in the world, what we expect the outcome to be, and what we are going to do to achieve it. This uncertainty, of course, significantly increases the chances of misunderstanding and miscalculation.  

Winnefeld: In a macro sense, the administration has done one thing that is very harmful. Namely, they are allowing and indeed abetting both internal and external attacks on what I like to call the “global operating system” (and what others mistakenly call the “international order”) that our greatest generation put into place. This system has kept us safe (other than 9/11) and prosperous for many decades. It is glued together by five things – security guarantees, credible diplomacy, free trade, rule of law, and values – for which the free world has turned to the U.S. for leadership from the very beginning. All five catalysts are under incremental yet relentless attack externally by our adversaries and internally by the more radical elements of our polity. To me, this is the great struggle of our time, because it will define the trajectory of our future security and prosperity.

Boucher: What has it done wrong? Unfortunately, many things: isolating the United States, raising questions about U.S. commitments, withdrawing U.S. influence from global affairs in the G-20 and elsewhere. Specifically, the tilt to Saudi Arabia was so strong that the Saudis and Gulf States thought they had free license to go after Qatar, home to U.S. bases. Rather than revise or improve the U.S. strategy to achieve climate goals, the U.S. announced a pullout, gratuitously insulting our Allies and opening up the field to China. The trade strategy throws back to the 1980s, with a failed focus on bilateral deficits and voluntary restraint agreements. Overall, polemics have replaced policy. 

Unfortunately, the Administration has not learned to formulate, articulate and pursue coherent strategies with Russia, with China, with North Korea, in the South China Sea, in Afghanistan nor with our allies in Europe and the far East – creating questions everywhere about U.S. intentions. Country after country is figuring out how to go it alone, create new alliances, or accommodate rising powers like China.  

McLaughlin: Our international leadership role is slipping badly. I do not think that foreign leaders believe they can trust what the president says. Moreover, his withdrawal from the Transpacific Partnership, TPP, and from the climate agreement pulls the rug out from under allies in Europe and Asia who were counting on U.S. engagement and leadership. We do not have a well defined policy on Syria, Russia, or China. Our influence in the world is declining.

Jeffrey: Specifically, the Trump Administration has done the following wrong:

  • Rollout of immigration/visas for seven Middle East countries
  • Pullout of Paris climate accords
  • Pullout of the Transpacific Trade Agreement
  • Confusion about the relationship with Russia, fueled by Trump’s continued refusal to see fault in either massive Russian attacks on the U.S. electoral system, or extensive and initially denied/hidden contacts with Russians possibly related to such attacks, along with Trump’s unseemly coziness to Putin

Generally, it has done the following incorrectly:

  • Failure to develop a significant foreign policy “leitmotif.” The last three points above reflect Trump and his advisors’ distrust to disdain of the American global leadership/world security, trade and finance, and values order in place since the 1940s; there are respectable alternatives to that order, such as raw realpolitik or isolationism, which, while I oppose them, I could understand an administration pursuing. But with Trump, it’s two-thirds defending that order along with blows to it, suggesting no organizing principle and thus no predictability. That undercuts the whole system based on collective security and reciprocal trust.
  • Operational problems: slowness of filling slots, massive cuts to non-military foreign policy resources, and presidential outbursts, e.g. on Qatar, that both appear nonsensical and undercut his own position and negotiators.
  • Failure to even attempt, let alone succeed, in unifying the country or building support and popularity. This is critical, as the use of risky force (bombing hapless ISIS terrorists is not “use of risky force”) is essential to foreign policy, especially after Obama degraded American credibility on using force.  But using force places strains on presidents, even if popular, when a use-force decision is taken. You can’t go to war with your 36 percent base of supporters with the rest of the country somewhere between distrusting and detesting you.  

The net effect of the last three above, taken together, is to existentially weaken the security and diplomatic benefits of those successes listed in first section, specific failings of the Administration.

The Cipher Brief: What should the focus be in the next six months?

Morell: Fixing the key faults of the first six months AND developing and communicating strategies for how the U.S. will deal with the key issues of the day – from extremism and cyber to the rise of China and aggressiveness of Russia. 

Winnefeld: It is not too late for the Administration – which I credit with being mostly packed with genuinely patriotic and energetic people – to restore our focus on credible leadership of the five catalysts I mentioned above. We are the only nation capable of carrying this load. Replace anger and vitriol towards our long-standing friends with collaboration. Replace embracing our true adversaries with firm and principled application of all elements of our power – which is all they really understand in any event – to check their assault on our operating system.

Boucher: The focus for the next six months should be on getting people in place throughout the Administration, especially Assistant Secretaries and Ambassadors. Second, the administration needs to learn how to work with the Congress to create budgets that can support an active diplomatic role in the world. Third, they need to formulate policy, or finish their reviews, on key areas like Afghanistan, the South China Sea, and Latin America and learn to deploy all the tools of U.S. power, not just the military. The lack of coherent and sustained policy attention to our global interests will harm the U.S. more and more over time.

McLaughlin: Establishing clarity on key policies – especially the ones I outlined for what the Administration has done wrong. We need particular attention on figuring out what our relationship with Russia and with China will be, defining our interests clearly, and developing a strategic roadmap for how to achieve them. In short, bring some order to foreign policy making. Helpful in this would be an end to the presidential policy of trying to define policy or contradict his key national security advisers in tweets.

Jeffrey: The focus should be operational, specifically:

  • Fix the general problems with more internal discipline and coordination and development of a sellable foreign policy philosophy.  
  • Move beyond general exhortations (“we will contain Iran;” North Korea must not possess ICBMs) and knee-jerk reactions (the set of military strikes against Syrians and Iranian surrogates) to produce serious strategic plans on Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, and Islamic terrorism with priorities, risk calculations, clear sellable objectives, resources committed, and diplomatic and domestic support developed.
  • Develop a broader base of support at least on foreign and security policy.

The Cipher Brief: Anything else you’d like to add?  

Morell: I am concerned that the slogan “America First” is having a corrosive effect both at home and abroad. Why? It implies to our own citizens that our approach to the world for the last 70 years has not benefitted the U.S., which it has. Indeed, it has benefitted us more than most. It also causes our allies to question whether we remember the sacrifices that they made for freedom and democracy in the world. And it reinforces the shift away from U.S. leadership. Who wants to follow someone who only thinks about themselves? 

Boucher: So far, the administration, dominated by senior military people, has shown a penchant for military moves and threats, pronouncements, and deployments, not for coordinated steps that lead with diplomacy. Until the commitments and intentions of the United States are clear, we will have trouble achieving our goals with military steps alone. The world will learn to fear us and then to do without us.

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.