What makes Trump tick… and what does it mean for American national security?
It’s too early in his first term to judge Trump’s security approach, but we have seen some initial trends. Judged strictly on a policy basis, the first year of Trump’s national security strategy fell largely within the standard GOP playbook. He kept the Iran deal in place, reassured NATO of his commitment to the alliance, and left U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
His most senior and seasoned advisors in the national security sphere, notably Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense and Gen. H.R. McMaster as his national security advisor, provide expert counsel and a tempering influence. These Cabinet members, among other confidantes, pushed Trump to maintain some policy continuity with previous administrations. That may well have helped reassure allies and stabilize markets.
But Donald Trump is in many ways the ultimate non-traditional president. His seat-of-the-pants approach to issues ranging from trade tariffs to handling a hostile press is unprecedented.
That the Donald plays by his own rules delights his base… and keeps his detractors up at night. Nowhere is his style more of a shock to expected norms than national security – and paradoxically because of that, national security may end up being the greatest arena of success for his presidency.
Trump’s tone, however, has been a radical departure from previous presidents, and could indicate some high-stakes policy maneuvers are forthcoming. It is in the realm of national security that Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip rhetorical style most worries his Democratic opposition. While their concerns of a Trump-based creeping fascism at home have faded, the anti-Trump Left still frets over a possible Twitter-induced nuclear exchange.
Scorned, still-recovering Hillary supporters can console themselves that a trade war would be reversible. A real war would not.
Of course, President Trump could care less what his detractors (“haters,” in Trumpian parlance) think. Never one to shy away from blunt-force discourse, Trump dials up the rhetoric on security matters. He is the leader of the free world, but he doesn’t shy away from calling transnational Latino gang members “bad hombres” or taking to Twitter to refer to trade deals as “very stupid.”
Nowhere has this tendency been more apparent than on Trump’s dealing with North Korea. In 2017, he referred to Kim Jong Un, the diminutive dictator of Pyongyang, as “a sick puppy” and dubbed him “little rocket man,” a nickname that has shown surprising staying power. It is certainly unusual for a U.S. president to openly mock a foreign head of state in this way – especially, as is the case with Kim, when the leader in question is the murderous capo of a crime family in charge of a glorified prison camp with nuclear missiles.
But does that make Trump’s approach wrong?
As of this writing, North Korea is making diplomatic overtures to the U.S. that would have been unthinkable in the Obama era. It may be a ruse, but Kim Jong Un has told South Korean envoys that the North is willing to negotiate over its nuclear weapons program. If this (still highly suspicious) outreach results in a diplomatic breakthrough and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Trump will have achieved the greatest American national security win in the post-Soviet era. And he will have done it while the “experts” seemed to think the immolation of Honolulu was imminent unless the White House staff seized control of Trump’s Twitter account.
This instinct-based approach to complex international policy is either the secret weapon – or the Achilles heel – of Trump on the world stage. He is unpredictable, impetuous, and surreally confident. Traditionally, national security wonks place a high premium on stability in a leader’s words and actions. With Trump, national security policy becomes whatever he wants it to be on any given day. Whether that is best described as adaptive or mercurial is in the eyes of the beholder.
Though there are obvious risks to this approach, at the year-one mark it appears there has been a method to the madness. Breaking through stalemates and escaping quagmires requires new thinking. Say what one may about the Trump presidency, it is taking a fresh approach.
Based on the major security challenges that face the administration (with some topics taken directly from Trump’s on 2017 National Security Strategy) here’s a quick overview of how the Trumpian way could play out in 2018 and beyond.
Protect Our People First
If there is a fundamental organizing principle for the Trump administration, this is it.
More commonly referred to as “America First,” this is where Trump unabashedly breaks away from the philosophy of his predecessor. The Obama administration always favored a multilateral, U.N.-style consensus-building approach to security challenges. In Trump’s vision, the American government should always prioritize the interests of the American people.
Trump’s full-throated embrace of security policy that recognizes the primary obligation of the U.S. to its own people is a needed course correction. It is also a rejection of the delusional cosmopolitanism that has seized the Democratic party and infected much of the GOP establishment as well.
Illegal immigration crosses over into many different realms. It is simultaneously a domestic and foreign policy issue, an economic as well as national security issue.
If there is any one challenge that will define Trump’s success or failure, it is solving the problem of mass illegal immigration. Trump promised to secure our borders, restore sovereignty, and enforce immigration laws, and even his most ardent supporters are likely to abandon him if he gives up on this fight.
Congress, however, is another matter. The recent debacle over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals “DACA” program, is instructive here. Inertia is their preferred option. It is becoming increasingly clear that neither Democrats nor Republicans in the Senate want to take any meaningful action on immigration, preferring instead to use it as a fundraising tool for the 2018 midterms. How Trump can get around this legislative logjam is anybody’s guess right now.
One of the least touted successes of Trump’s term in office has been the accelerated defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Trump expanded the target set for airstrikes against ISIS and gave control of those decisions to the commanders on the ground. The result was that the slow degradation of ISIS turned into an all-out rout.
National security may end up being the greatest arena of success for his presidency.
What has been left behind in Syria, however, is a viper pit. Warring factions continue to hammer each other inside Syria’s borders, and external actors including Iran, Russia, and Turkey pursue their own interests in zero-sum fashion.
The circumstances in Afghanistan aren’t much better. Trump has decided to stay the course with a relatively small commitment of U.S. troops, but the security situation continues to deteriorate. In counterinsurgency, if you’re not winning, you’re losing, and unless Trump and his commanders have an unforeseen trick up their sleeves, all the Taliban has to do now is wait us out.
Trump has signed the bill for a 13% increase in the military budget from 2017 for 2018. It is only set to go higher after that. With this, he is following through on his campaign promises to rebuild the military after decades of punishing deployment schedules to Iraq and Afghanistan.
That Trump seems to have fallen into the bipartisan trap of spending the government further into debt is an issue that will have to wait for another time… and perhaps another administration.
The Trump national security strategy document does not address the “Russia issue,” but it has become one of the greatest vulnerabilities the administration faces.
With Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe grinding on, the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election remains politically damaging. And looking forward, there is the ongoing threat of further Russian interference in the next election for which Trump must prepare the nation.
Trump fires off Twitter messages that call the entire special counsel investigation a “Witch Hunt,” and there is ample reporting on the deep frustration the entire debacle has caused the White House. But how Trump and his team handle Russia – and the media’s accusations of 2016 election collusion with Putin’s government – could make or break Trump’s time in office.
When Mueller handed down his first indictment of foreign nationals last month, the outrage was predictably partisan. Most Americans, at least those who care about the ongoing Russia collusion probe, viewed the charges against 13 Russian nationals through the prism of their political tribe.
Scorned Hillary supporters saw more evidence of Kremlin-sponsored election shenanigans that must, they hope, reach all the way up to President Trump himself.
For those who take the pro-Trump position, Mueller’s indictment was overblown. Here was a prosecutor handed the vast resources of the Department of Justice, and he found the time to bring charges against a campaign of glorified Twitter trolls and Facebook sock puppets.
Russia was never going to extradite the named defendants, and the conspiracy they conducted involved such unremarkable propaganda as sharing tweets with “Make American Great Again” and “Never Hillary” hashtags.
On page six of Mueller’s indictment, however, a remarkable term entered the national lexicon…
The Department of Justice formally accused the cabal of 13 Russians of waging “information warfare” against the United States. Although there are no specific references to the Kremlin or Vladimir Putin in the charging document, it is widely believed that the Russian government effectively ran the Internet Research Agency that was behind the effort to spread disinformation and dissent in America during the election. This would mean that the information warfare Mueller cited was an attack by one nation state on another.
To be sure, one should be very cautious about throwing the term “warfare” around when the discussion involves two states that have enough nuclear weapons to end all life on the planet.
Russian social media meddling during an election cycle is disrespectful and irritating, but it is not tantamount to Pearl Harbor, no matter how much some members of the media and Democrat establishment insist otherwise.
But the Russia election interference and collusion probe has brought home an uncomfortable truth: Anyone connected to the Internet could, wittingly or not, become a pawn in a foreign “psy op” against the U.S. This is a battlefield with no boundaries.
And the outcry to counteract the scourge of info ops and fake-news meddling is growing louder.
One of the “remedies” demanded from the public – and the government – is for online information to be vetted for accuracy. Silicon Valley giants like Google say they feel an obligation to eliminate falsehoods from gaining traction on the web, while Facebook and Twitter are taking more active roles in policing content their users share.
Our best defense against it is transparency, truth, and the recognition that the marketplace of ideas is better understood as the battlefield of ideas.
Inevitably, this will lead to partisan censorship if it hasn’t already. The major search and social media platforms are ideologically left of center.
And if Google, Facebook, and Twitter want to censor content, there is nothing to stop them. They can do it under the rubric of combatting foreign “information warfare,” and if challenged, blame whatever algorithms they have in place at the time.
More disturbing than this, however, is the role of government in combatting foreign propaganda operations. Can any individual’s communication now be subject to government snooping if there is a chance that some Russians are engaged in an online campaign of political catfishing? Will private citizens who come into contact with Russian – or perhaps, Chinese or other – information operations be the subject of criminal inquiries?
None of this is clear. The U.S. government claims that it will fight back against Russian election meddling. But it remains hazy on the details of just how.
Meanwhile, most of the news media has taken the position that any attempt to influence our election via information operations is a threat to the integrity of our elections. This makes it far too easy for any foreign actor to have the appearance of undermining our institutions, no matter how ineffective the attempt.
There are no easy answers. As long as the Internet is a global exchange of information, foreign governments will be in a position to place their thumbs on the scale. That doesn’t mean that we can allow our own government to play idea police or use the legal system to single out fake news.
Information warfare has reached a new phase in the 21st century. Our best defense against it is transparency, truth, and the recognition that the marketplace of ideas is better understood as the battlefield of ideas.
Where We Are Today
While the national security smart set prefers predictability in decision makers, world events take even the most seasoned presidents by surprise.
Trump will be faced with a great test of his commander-in-chief skills at some point over the next three years. And from what we have seen so far, nobody has any idea how Trump would react to such a challenge, including the president himself. He will go with his gut.
Whether that is a blessing or a curse – the world will have to wait and see.