Trump’s​​ ​multi-crisis ​​management — a work in progress

Trump’s​​ ​multi-crisis ​​management — a work in progress
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One crisis? Hard to manage; multiple crises? Virtually unmanageable.

But not so fast. Crisis management is possible with strong presidential leadership, and an interagency process is consistent with presidential perspectives, taking account of views of allies and threats from adversaries.

As President Trump nears his second year in office, consider breaking news, crisis management, and a way forward for him in the Middle East and Asia.

​Breaking News​: Middle East & Asia

​In a series of humongous moves in recent days, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman consolidated his hold on power at home and increased the pressure on Tehran abroad. Trump praised the crown prince’s (mis)treatment of ​others under house arrest in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, as Saudi Arabia accuses Tehran or acts of war.

Lebanon is a friendly country dependent on U.S. support against a complete takeover by Hezbollah. In late December, Lebanon’s parliament swore in a new cabinet dominated by Hezbollah and its partners. For the Shiite group aligned with Iran, this was perhaps its most dramatic political victory. Hezbollah, the so-called Party of God, was created in the early 1980s, during the time I served in the Reagan administration. Hezbollah fought a war with Israel in 2006 and is currently helping to wage another in Syria, all of which Lebanon’s government watched with trepidation. Why?

During the ongoing Syrian Civil War, in coordination with Hezbollah, Tehran effectively engaged in military occupation of Syria by marshaling over 70,000 troops, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan, into Syria; Tehran pays monthly salaries to over 250,000 militias and agents to prolong the conflict in Syria, reportedly dividing the country into 5 zones of conflict and establishing 18 command, logistics, and operations centers, according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Tehran is creating crises in the region and soon Riyadh​ and ​Tehran​ may slide into war. ​BBC reported this week that Iran considers the surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri Riyadh’s way to spark regional tensions. Under the authority of his father King Salman, the crown prince eliminated most rivals and consolidated power, contrary to usual risk-averse practices of rulers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the crown prince is reinforcing his power to an extent the Kingdom has not seen in decades.

While the Middle East heats up, President Trump, currently on his Asia trip, tries to reassure our Asia allies we have their back and will not make any decisions about war without their buy-in. North Korea threatens to conduct additional missile and/or nuclear tests and strongly objects to allied military exercises, ships, and flights close to its borders.

But are these crises virtually unmanageable? Think of a crisis as a high threat, with a short time for response, and surprise of a process, per Charles Hermann, a former colleague at Northwestern University. It doesn’t appear as if Team Trump sees the Middle East in a state of crisis, in contrast to conflict between U.S. allies and North Korea.

In Seoul, South Korea, Trump issued a stark threat to North Korea, warning provocative action by Pyongyang would amount to a “fatal miscalculation,” under his administration. “Do not underestimate us; do not try us.” “Time of ‘strategic patience’ is over.” Such threats accompanied by willingness for diplomatic solutions could constitute coercive diplomacy. By positioning three carrier battle groups within strike distance to Pyongyang, he increases capability of American power.

Even so, South Koreans are anxious to go about their business as normal. Tokyo and Seoul act as if resigned to machinations of Pyongyang and Washington, with little our Asian partners can do to control their future.


Consider how President Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are handling the budding crisis between Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Iran. Recall Secretary of State Al Haig’s policy dubbed, “Strategic Consensus,” during the Reagan Administration; Trump and Kushner are quietly taking advantage of consensus between Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran.

Unlike Haig, who publicly acknowledged his policy, Team Trump, by preference, operate under as much cover from prying eyes of media, as possible. Trump even takes time to tweet about topics unrelated to crises in Asia and the Middle East.

My 1999 book, “Who’s at the Helm: Lessons of Lebanon discusses the lessons of Lebanon for U.S. national security policy in the Middle East. It suggests a president must lead policy and make use of interagency options; diplomacy and force must be apart of balanced national security policy; and “loose cannons,” are as inevitable as disastrous, when White House leadership is lacking, which are observations relevant today as in the past.

The Way Forward

First, Trump’s crisis management is a work in progress. It lacks strong presidential leadership. It is up to him to make the process consistent with his perspective. The president preaches “American First” but, in matters of nuclear war, he must consider views of allies as well as threats from adversaries, as worked through the interagency process.

Second, the president and his staff must take the breaking news of the day seriously, lest allies doubt and adversaries cease fearing. If allies lack confidence the U.S. must have their back, or else might go nuclear, neutral, or both. Likewise, if adversaries don’t respect Trump’s resolve, escalation via miscalculation might occur, as in World War I, in contrast to World War II.

Third, Trump’s National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have his confidence and are the core of decisionmaking. But by making Jared Kushner a virtual secretary of State, he is sidelining the actual secretary, Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonDemocrats launch probe into Trump's firing of State Department watchdog, Pompeo The Memo: Fauci at odds with Trump on virus The Memo: Speculation grows about Fauci's future MORE: Doing so deprives him of insights from an orderly interagency process.

If not President Trump, who? If not now, when? Now is Trump time.

Prof. Raymond Tanter (@AmericanCHR) served as a senior member on the Middle East Desk of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration, Personal Representative of the Secretary of Defense to international security and arms control talks in Europe, and is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan.