Trump’s security scorecard: Tactical wins, unforced errors, mostly incomplete

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After a hundred days, I can’t imagine a national security grade for the Trump administration other than an “incomplete”.

We’re all still here, which belies the worst fears suggested during the campaign. Further, a strong national security team is in place with late-arriving H.R. McMaster working to better connect it to the Oval Office with a disciplined national security process, an effort aided by the removal of “war-of-civilizations” prophet Steve Bannon from the National Security Council principals’ list. 

The administration has clawed its way up to accepting much that should have been painfully obvious: China is not now a currency manipulator; NATO is not obsolete; Vladimir Putin often does bad things.

{mosads}There have also been some tactical successes, most notably a well-conceived and executed Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strike on Syria for its use of chemical weapons, accompanied by the willingness of the administration to indirectly slap the Russians in doing so.


Credit to the administration for stirring the pot in Northeast Asia. Within our traditional definition of acceptable risk, North Korea will have a nuclear tipped missile capable of reaching Seattle within a few years, so there is no issue here with signaling the neighborhood (especially China) that we may be recalibrating our definition of acceptable risk. 

There have been plenty of unforced errors, though, like insulting our best ally in the Pacific (Australia) in a get-acquainted phone call; or issuing a poorly-conceived and executed order that looked to the world and much of America like a Muslim ban; or hijacking a chance to reboot a relationship with the intelligence community with a self-indulgent ode to Time magazine covers and inauguration crowds in front of 117 stars of the fallen at CIA; or implicating that same intelligence community in a series of felonies with fact-free tweets that his predecessor had wiretapped his phones and used the intelligence agencies for political purposes.  

But the biggest shortfall of the first hundred days has been “the vision thing”. Where does any of this fit into a broader, coherent view of America’s role in the world?

President Trump ran on a platform of “America first”, an explicit and forceful rejection of the “American internationalism” that had governed American policy for much of the past 75 years, a world where America often acted “for the good of the order” rather than narrowly defined national interests. 

The President himself did exactly that with the Syria strike (to the chagrin of many supporters), responding to Syria violating an important international norm on chemical weapons. It wasn’t a change in policy toward Assad or even the civilian deaths (there have been far more inflicted by more conventional means). It was America, alone and uncompensated, acting on behalf of broader principles. 

Was it a harbinger or a one-off? Nobody knows.

Furthermore, what happens after the U.S. and its coalition physically defeats ISIS? Secretary of Defense Mattis threw a tantalizing one-liner into his post-strike presser when he talked about the “stabilization phase” of the counter ISIS campaign. That’s the part where you stick around to change the facts on the ground so that you don’t have to go back and kill people again later.

A critic might call it nation-building. It doesn’t have to be that, but by any name it’s hardly consistent with candidate Trump’s “hit-them-hard-and-fast-and-leave” gospel on the campaign trail. 

So what are we going to do? That’s not clear either. 

Then there’s the president’s warm embrace of increasingly autocratic President Sisi of Egypt and last week’s remarkable congratulatory phone call to President Erdogan of Turkey after Erdogan’s heavy hand may well have ended Turkey’s 90-year experiment with democracy. 

Does that mean that fighting ISIS is the only requirement for American friendship? Maybe, but the Erdogan call will exact a high strategic price for the operational advantage of continued access to 10,000 feet of runway at Incirlik Air Base.

George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson says that President Trump lives in the “eternal now”. That approach mutes the importance of history and dampens the consideration of consequences, the very stuff of strategy. The “eternal now” may be why the president’s statements and tweets lack consistency and his actions seem short term and tactical. 

National Security Advisor McMaster may have a fix for that. He recently hired highly-regarded defense expert Nadia Schadlow to write the administration’s national security strategy. The national security strategy is an obscure requirement from the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reform Act of 1986. It’s intended to force the executive branch to articulate its “big picture”. 

Most years, it is more of a bureaucratic burden, but occasionally the document breaks new ground. I wrote two for President George H. W. Bush while serving on his NSC staff in the early 1990s, and the drafting prompted a spirited debate over the reversibility of changes then underway in the Soviet Union. The 2002 edition codified the George W. Bush administration’s new doctrine of preemption.

Now, Schadlow has to describe what an “America first” national security strategy really looks like, not in 140 character bursts, but in dozens of  coherent pages. Then, she will have to shepherd her draft through an administration that has not yet demonstrated strategic consistency or even message discipline.

Lastly, this strategic roadmap will have to be approved by a president who says he cherishes unpredictability above all.

All that’s a heavy lift, but it’s the only way for the administration to work off that “incomplete” before it reverts to a failing grade.


Gen. Michael Hayden is a retired United States Air Force four-star general and former director of the National Security Agency, principal deputy director of National Intelligence, and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Hayden currently co-chairs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Electric Grid Cyber Security Initiative.

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

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