How mid-level bureaucrats can survive Trump’s changing ‘policy’

How mid-level bureaucrats can survive Trump’s changing ‘policy’
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In the aftermath of President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE’s performance at the Helsinki and Brussels summits, critics including Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyThe Hunter Biden problem won't go away Sunday shows preview: Joe Biden wins the 2020 election Sunday shows preview: Election integrity dominates as Nov. 3 nears MORE have urged the president to begin to rely on the advisers he chose to guide him on foreign policy and national security. Otherwise, those top-level advisers and the many professionals supporting them should ponder whether they can continue to work for the Trump administration. For many serving in these positions, this may not be a facetious suggestion.

The president’s contradictions and misleading statements, sometimes replete with double and triple negatives, can only raise questions for the mid-level professionals working several bureaucratic layers below the White House. Those bureaucrats, diplomats and military officers — known as the “deep state” in West Wing circles — who go to work hoping to put into practice what they consider U.S. policy, must be flummoxed on a daily basis.

These professionals, the middle-grade military officers and diplomats, need to be able to discern a policy — regional, strategic or operational — around which they determine their game plan. They are not asked to make this policy. At war colleges, these same mid-career professionals spend inestimable time studying and analyzing official documents and presidential speeches. They are trained to glean the policy nuggets they convey. These become the foundation on which they can do their work.


The best among them can cite verbatim sections of our National Defense Strategy and really know what it means. Subsequent speeches by the president then can amplify current national policy. Seeing the smallest differences sets apart the “best” from the merely “good” students. Or, at least, that’s how we’ve done it for the past two generations.

While the students are encouraged to consider “better” policy, they realize that today’s job is to make sense of the policy in hand. War colleges have done a superb job of this for decades and take special pride in imparting this skill set to their students.

Although recently removed from this classroom environment, I can only guess that today’s students must be scratching their heads. If they can hear in one news cycle that NATO is both an adversary and an institution for which we will fight and die, what to make of “policy” toward this institution? If they hear that relations with Russia must be improved, while hours later they hear that its leader is a sinister liar, how to plan that next naval exercise?

These White House pronouncements are not minor tweaks. They are policy repudiations, often followed by a repudiation of the repudiation. As a former NATO strategist, how do I respond to my Alliance colleagues when I hear that the president would not send his son to defend Montenegro? As a former naval attaché to Russia, do I continue to work to get clearance for Russian ships to visit the United States?  

Thus, the recent meetings in Europe sent a message that policymakers and implementers never wish to hear: There is no foreign policy. Or, if there is, experts have not been able yet to articulate or comprehend it. The president’s tweets and daily rants do not help the poor apparatchik in some major U.S. combatant command staff or far-flung embassy, who really wants to support the American national interest.

Anyone who has done these jobs knows that major military exercises can take an entire year to plan and organize. The mere knowledge that exercise partners could become adversaries numerous times during one cycle must be dispiriting, at best, and certainly could lead to reduced military operational proficiency. This situation is not comical at the granular level for our military staffs and embassies; it is nightmarish.

A strong case can be made to have senior defense officials articulate their disagreement with policy, either because of its inconsistency or deplorability. But mid-level officials must swim in the pool they are provided. The best of bad options for them is to become acutely aware of the latest policy developments, and then engage in Hippocratic conduct.  The United States likely will revert to “normal” relations down the road, so they must avoid drawing plans and exercises that do lasting damage.

Communication at the working level with adversary/friendly counterparts is always a plus. Fly beneath the clouds. Find ways to ensure that the United States burns no bridges. Along the lines of doing no harm, do nothing that may contribute to the debasement of America’s position in the world.

This is frightfully childish advice to offer to supremely intelligent and patriotic adults.  But as long as the White House considers them the “deep state,” they need to establish a solid holding pattern from which the United States can recover its position in the post-Trumpian world.  

Tom Fedyszyn is professor emeritus at the Naval War College, with previous assignments as a NATO strategist and U.S. naval attache to Russia. He retired from the U.S. Navy as a captain in 2000.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]