OPINION | There is no Trump administration


The most worrying thing about the current fight between President Trump and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) is that it is just that. Normally the dispute would be between the DPRK and an American administration. But there is no Trump administration.

To have an administration, you need a coherent policy at the top. We now know that Trump’s “fire and fury” threat was his own phrasing, albeit perhaps drawn from a video game in which his alt-right advisor Stephen Bannon has an interest. Meanwhile, his senior advisors are all over the map.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the United States will not negotiate unless DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jung Un agrees to abandon his missile and nuclear programs. He later amended his previous statement, saying that stopping missile (but not nuclear) tests was the precondition. Vice President Mike Pence said that there would be no negotiations and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a dire warning slightly less colorful than Trump’s. All this amid reports of a chasm between the views of the senior advisors mostly held by retired generals and those held by Steve Bannon and the political wing.

In short, the policy seems to be whatever the president says it is at a given moment and the others have to scramble to adjust.

{mosads}A large part of the cause of the incoherence is the lack of an underlying staff structure to support national security decision-making. In the State Department, the deputy secretary of State has two roles (deputy secretary and deputy secretary for Management and Resources), there is no head of political military affairs, and no ambassador to South Korea.

In addition, Obama administration holdovers are serving in acting capacity as assistant secretaries for East Asia and Pacific Affairs and International Security and Non-Proliferation. The new administration most often cuts out these acting fill-ins from serious discussions; the position of undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security, who might be expected to sit in on senior meetings on this subject when Secretary Tillerson is traveling, is conspicuously vacant.

The situation at the Pentagon is only slightly better. The deputy secretary has been confirmed recently but there is no undersecretary for Policy or assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs.

It is an open question whether filling these key positions will make a difference, whether thought-out positions or options from a disciplined interagency process will be listened to. A long interagency process, led by the military, has produced strategy options for the war in Afghanistan. However, a divided White House cannot agree on an approach and Trump seems to vent his frustrations rather than deal with the difficult choices that need to be faced.

Therefore, in both the sense of a coherent set of policies and in the sense of having a full structure underpinning national security decision making, there is no Trump administration. There is an undisciplined president who does not have the background, attention span or curiosity to dig into issues, ask for contrary opinions, and listen to experts. He tweets or uses loose language without recognizing the nuanced importance of words. And the result is “fire and fury” and a mad scramble to mitigate the damage.

Col. Richard Klass, USAF (ret.) is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and the National War College, a Rhodes Scholar and a combat veteran. He is a board member at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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

Tags Mike Pence Rex Tillerson

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