Trump needs a united front to win overseas
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On Feb. 21, Kelly Magsamen, who served at the State Department, National Security Council Staff and Department of Defense, published a piece for Foreign Policy titled, “Trump’s NSC, State Department, and Pentagon Need to Play Together.” “Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson should … make it a point to become best friends with Secretary [of Defense Jim] Mattis,” she said. “They need to talk by phone every day, take overseas trips together, schedule regular State-DoD long-term strategy sessions, and pre-coordinate positions before heading into the [White House] Situation Room.”

But Tillerson and Mattis seem to be in sync on fully funding the State Department, at least to achieve core national security objectives. “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition,” Mattis said. As one diplomat who has met frequently with Tillerson since he took office noted, “Rex clearly agrees with that. He just won’t say it.” 

Threats and the interagency process

North Korea:On Mar. 16, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley offered a glimpse of the threat perceived by President Trump’s administration and the policies it is formulating when it comes to North Korea. Pyongyang continues to develop its nuclear weapons program via extensive ballistic missile flights near U.S. bases in Japan, conducts research and development on uranium enrichment technology, and continues to build plutonium-based bombs.

Haley’s comments came in an interview on the CNN program “Erin Burnett OutFront,” as Tillerson was making his first trip on the job to Asia. There, he scoffed at the U.S. approach to North Korea during the past two decades and pledged a new path. In the CNN interview, Haley commented that President Trump plans to recalibrate the issue. “We don't want to get back into the six-party talks,” Haley said, referring to the previous negotiating structure. “We’re not willing to do that. Been there, done that.”


A week earlier, on Mar. 9, The Tower’s David Gerstman lauded Haley’s vision. Like Tillerson, she had little experience in foreign affairs. That said, she has put forth strong ideas for President Trump that “mark a sharp departure from the attitudes” of his predecessor.

Iran and Syria: Haley proclaimed that any peace agreement to end the Syrian Civil War must “get Iran and its proxies out” of that embattled country. This statement seems to reflect the view of Tillerson regarding Syria policy and shows President Trump will be taking a stronger stance than Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe true commander in tweet Meghan Markle's pre-royal 'finishing lessons' and an etiquette of equality Hannity on Acosta claim he was tough on Obama: 'Only thing missing were the pom-poms' MORE against Iranian violence across the Middle East, particularly Iran’s crucial role in keeping Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in power.

Haley's statement is consistent with what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a joint appearance in Moscow on March 9: If the Islamic State is defeated in Syria, “It’s obvious that we wouldn’t want this terror to be replaced by radical Islamic Shiite terror led by Iran.”

Three days earlier, on March 6, Syria and Israel engaged in the most serious incident between the two countries since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War six years ago. As Israeli Air Force planes struck several targets in Syria, the Assad regime deployed Iranian-supplied air-defense systems and fired several missiles toward Israeli jets. None of the missiles struck the jets, but one was intercepted by a missile defense system north of Jerusalem.

Iraq: With the Islamic State on the verge of losing Mosul, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Iraqi militia proxies launched a propaganda offensive against the United States and its regional allies, per Ahmad Majidyar, fellow and director of IranObserved Project of The Middle East Institute. Such a campaign posed a huge security risk to U.S. military advisers helping Iraqi Security Forces.

On Mar. 16, Majidyar said a spokesman of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Force accused U.S. military and intelligence of supporting the leader of the Islamic State and trying to rescue terrorists trapped in western Mosul. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a protégé of America. His actions and movements are supervised by this country’s [U.S.] intelligence service,” Ali al-Husseini, who is also a commander of Iraqi Shiite militia group, said an exclusive interview with IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency. “Al-Baghdadi is an American puppet, and this is undeniable. I believe Americans know where he is but they hide him,” he continued. The militia leader further alleged that American forces in Iraq were trying to transfer Islamic State fighters from Iraq to Syria and Libya.

Russia:Recall the adage, “People make policy.” With an ambassador like Haley, Tillerson has a Cabinet officer who is on his staff at the State Department and is a leading figure ringing the alarm bells about the Russian threat. So, one way for Tillerson to place State at the center of U.S. foreign policy is by crediting Haley for articulating the U.S. perception of the threat from Moscow.

“He’s already developing plans to begin ratcheting back Putin’s nefarious behavior,” Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump to hold Nashville rally amid efforts to boost GOP Senate hopeful Kim Jong Un surprises with savvy power plays Tax reform postmortem reveals lethal dose of crony capitalism MORE, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview — steps that would represent the first known effort by the new administration to face off against President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.”

The Way Forward

With this plethora of threats hitting the Trump administration at the same time and from many regions, it is critical to have a smoothly running interagency process marching to the rhythm of “Trump Time.” The president is known to favor competing circles of advisers. That said, it is of great import for State, Defense and the National Security Council Staff to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Although the principals need not agree, they should be in touch. Their competition must not like the earlier version in the Trump administration: a “team of rivals,” driven by mistrust, backstabbing, and even frontstabbing! Rather, they have the potential to be the team of rivals embodied in Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet, memorialized by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The current group of Tillerson, Mattis, Gen. John Kelly, Director Mike Pompeo, Director Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsHillicon Valley: White House eliminates top cyber post | Trump order looks to bolster agency CIOs | Facebook sees spike in violent content | Senators push NIH on tech addiction | House to get election security briefing Trump picks billionaire military contractor to lead intelligence board Top Dem questions CIA campaign to secure Haspel nomination MORE and Gen. H.R. McMaster is becoming the kind of team Goodwin envisions. If Tillerson plays his hand right, he can place the Department of State at the center of this group. Stay tuned.


Raymond Tanter served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and as Personal Representative of the Secretary of Defense to arms control talks. He is now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.