Keane on Trump

By General Jack Keane

General Keane, a four-star general, retired after 37 years of service which culminated in his appointment as acting Chief of Staff and Vice Chief of Staff of the US Army.  General Keane is president of GSI Consulting and serves as chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, and a former and recent member of the Secretary of Defense Policy Board.  In 2018, General Keane was the first military leader to be honored with the Ronald Reagan Peace Through Strength Award and in 2020, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Trump at the White House.

Donald Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States and his most solemn responsibility is ensuring the safety of all Americans as well as helping protect the country’s allies.  The Cipher Brief’s Pam Benson sat down with retired General Jack Keane, a member of The Cipher Brief’s network, to discuss his reaction to the Trump victory and how he would assess the President-elect’s national security policies.

The Cipher Brief: What is your overall reaction to the Trump victory and its impact on world affairs?

General Jack Keane:  It was a stunning historical event that was as exciting as any sports event when Trump moved ahead of Clinton.   Given the stakes are so high in terms of who becomes president of the United States, it was also a very sobering experience.

TCB: President-elect Trump is faced with a number of critical national security issues, some which will need almost immediate attention.  Although many of his plans remain vague, Trump has spoken out on many of these issues.  Let’s take a look at a few.

Trump wants to improve the tense U.S. relationship with Russia.  He has downplayed Russia’s aggressive military stances in Syria and Ukraine, questioned whether Russia was behind the DNC hack, despite the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that it was, and said he could do business with Putin, who was one of the first world leaders to congratulate him on his victory.  How do you assess this approach and how do you see the relationship moving forward from here?

JK:  First of all, there is nothing wrong with the President-elect wanting to have a good relationship with Russia or for that matter, with any country, in terms of improving the relationship they already have. He has to some degree, and will have to a much larger degree, received very detailed briefings on all that Russia has been up to in their aggressiveness and assertiveness in the last number of years, with their incursion into Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine, another military incursion into Syria, and continuous provocation and military harassment of the three Baltic states. So much so that it brings into question whether Putin’s real intent is to challenge the very existence of NATO. Many observers believe that is indeed the case.  

I’m confident once the President-elect receives all of the detailed briefings on Vladimir Putin, including his behavior inside Russia in terms of the thuggery he uses in killing and imprisoning his political opponents and the degree that he is literally ripping off the treasury of Russia to the tune of $65 billion, which in fact makes him the richest man in the world, all of those facts will be on the table as President-elect Trump tries to improve the relationship.  I’m convinced the feelings he may have had about Russia during the campaign will be somewhat mitigated by the understanding of the depth of Russia’s aggression and intent.

TCB: Trump has said he “would utterly destroy” ISIS, “bomb the hell out of them,” but he would keep his plans secret.  He would also ask the military to provide a plan within 30 days to attack ISIS.   What would this look like in real terms? Do you think it is a strategically sound approach?

JK: First of all, asking the military to come back with a campaign plan to destroy ISIS is something that the Pentagon has not had to provide in the past to President Obama, but which is pretty routine for them.  I think the Pentagon would welcome the new President-elect’s desire to have that sort of a plan.  And they are well within their capability to provide it.  

The Iraq campaign will be coming to a close over the next number of weeks in terms of retaking lost territory.  While there is no guarantee that will be solved by January 20th, it’s possible it may indeed be solved by then, which means tough questions will still need to be resolved. How many troops is the U.S. going to leave in Iraq and for how long? What will their mission be?  And it’s likely that ISIS in Iraq, after they surrender the territory they claim, will return to what they know best, and that is conducting terrorist and insurgency operations inside Iraq as opposed to controlling territory.  

As it pertains to Syria, operations have begun in a modest way to move closer to Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate, but most of us observing it believe the ground force is inadequate to the task. It will be interesting to see the options President-elect Trump will get and what he will eventually select to do to take down the capital of Raqqa, which may indeed involve other forces than the ones that are currently in the fight right now, which are Syrian Kurd and Syrian Arabs.  It may involve other Arabs, some NATO forces, and possibly some U.S. forces.  I think those options will be on the table when he tries to make a decision on what to do with the caliphate in Syria.

The third piece of this as it pertains to ISIS, is that ISIS has expanded into almost 30 countries and affiliates, while developing a worldwide following. What is the strategy in working with other nations to defeat the global ISIS?

TCB: Trump has said he would change the nature of alliances. For instance, NATO members would need to pay more for their defense.  He has said the same holds true for Japan and South Korea, even threatening to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea.  Is this too much of a businessman’s approach to our alliances at the expense of the strategic importance?

JK: While I think these alliances that we have had for years have served us by and large well, it is also I think useful to have our new President, who has a business background obviously, to ask questions in terms of why aren’t our allies paying their fair share, and then get an assessment as to one, are they, and two, if not, what should be their fair share. He’s coming in as an outsider and taking a look at some things that have been there for 40 or 50 years, and he’s questioning them.  I actually think that is pretty healthy.

TCB: So you’re not concerned that he is not looking at it from a strategic point of view?

JK: Yes, these alliances have enormous strategic value, and I do not believe in walking away from them, and I suspect President-elect Trump, as he evaluates their value further, will come to that conclusion.

TCB: Trump has said the Iran nuclear deal would be renegotiated and he would possibly “double, triple sanctions” against Iran.  What would be the consequences of such an action?

JK: Certainly, there is ample justification right now for sanctions being initiated against Iranians based on the multiple missile fires they have completed, which are in violation of a UN resolution, but not in violation of the nuclear deal. And all the other provocations that the Iranians have been involved in, not the least of which is aiding and abetting the Houthis in Yemen and all of the shipping provocations that they have been executed, mostly in the Persian Gulf.  Taking a look at renewing sanctions from a policy perspective, based on Iran’s actions, I think is a worthwhile endeavor and would send an unequivocal message to Iran that President Trump is going to take their actions very seriously and hold them accountable. That would be very different from what the Obama Administration has been doing, which is largely rhetoric only. Furthermore, Iran must be told that their aggressive behavior to dominate and destabilize the Middle East will not be tolerated.

TCB: At the last debate, Trump said he would not support a first strike use of nuclear weapons, an issue the U.S. has deliberately kept vague for deterrence purposes.  Why does this matter?

JK: It really does matter, and I think it is something that we can solve relatively quickly by a nuclear policy expert providing a detailed briefing to the president-elect on why a first strike option is in the United States’ interest. Here are a couple of reasons why.

Number one, if we knew an adversary was definitely going to conduct a first strike against the U.S. with nuclear weapons, and there was no way to be able to dissuade them from doing that, then a first strike would certainly be in our interest.

It also may be in our interest to conduct a first strike against a terrorist organization who has a WMD that they are planning to use against the United States.

For those reasons, while the President of course does not want to use nuclear weapons first, the best kind of deterrent to guarantee that an adversary doesn’t use nuclear weapons first is for them to recognize the fact that we have the will to do so.

TCB: On the ongoing military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump has said little.  Is that a concern for you?

JK: Yes, but I’m convinced that again, the debates never really dealt with the breadth and the depth of the significant global security challenges facing President-elect Trump.  As part of his work-up to understand what is taking place in the world in terms of those challenges, showing him what is happening in Afghanistan – he will have to come to grips with it.

Afghanistan will be a major security challenge in 2017, because the Taliban have retaken so much territory now that the last time they owned this much territory was in 2001, before our invasion, when we changed out the regime. From a security perspective, Afghanistan will likely occupy more of the President’s time.

TCB:  Trump said he would increase the U.S. military presence in the South China Sea to counter Beijing’s militarization of the area, and he would designate China as a currency manipulator.   Would those actions be effective and/or sufficient?

JK: No. I think there are some other things that you can do to change that somewhat. Simply to bring in our allies as well and make unequivocal commitments to our allies, in this case, Vietnam and the Philippines, that we intend to back them up in the area, and to work with our allies in general, in the Western Pacific, in a very coherent manner. It will be welcomed by our allies to have strong United States backing, again, in terms of political will—not just in terms of our ships being seen in the area and establishing a presence, but that the President of the U.S. as a guarantor that the South China Sea remains free to the inhabitants of the area to use it or for other traders to go through it, and that we intend to protect other nations’ rights to do that and not be unduly influenced by the militarization of the South China Sea by China.

TCB: Trump has criticized the military and intelligence community for providing bad advice to President Barack Obama, and at one point indicated he knew more about ISIS than the generals.   What type of relationship is Trump likely to have with the country’s military leaders?

JK: The relationship between President-elect Trump and the military will be a very good relationship, because he is going to come to understand them and trust them. He has already committed himself to support them very vigorously.

Secondly, I’m not certain what he is talking about in terms of some specific intelligence information. I suspect one of his advisors, who I know very well, may have in fact given him an example of some challenges inside the intelligence community. But Mr. Trump is going to pick a new Director of National Intelligence and I suspect he will pick the new Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He, as President-elect, will receive excellent intelligence as have most presidents of the U.S. did.

TCB: Will he respect their opinions?

JK: I don’t think there is any doubt about it. Based on what I know, and the time he has spent around the military leaders who are mostly retired or advising him, I think that when he puts his own team in place, he is going to be very comfortable with his military leaders and also the intelligence community.

TCB: Would you expect some of our adversaries, in particular, Russia, China, or Iran, to take some unwanted steps during the transition, when the current president would be reluctant to do anything that would impact the new president, and the president-elect is preoccupied with setting up an administration?

JK: The aggressiveness that we have seen by Russia, Iran, and also by China is due, to a certain degree, to the fact that President Obama has been a lame duck president who is very reluctant to take any action beyond rhetoric in condemnation of our adversaries’ provocations. If this continues until January, if there are other instances between now and January 20th, it is just part of a pattern that they have already established.

If anything, given the President-elect, there may be in fact some reluctance on their part to take any action in fear that they are dealing with a very different president in Trump versus President Obama, much similar to what happened when President Jimmy Carter was transitioning to President Ronald Reagan. The Iranians, who were major adversaries then as they are now, were very concerned about getting on the wrong side of President Reagan, and that’s why they principally gave up the hostages after Reagan was sworn in as President of the United States.

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