War Stories

Mr. Unpredictable and Friends

Trump’s lack of policy experience makes it unlikely he’ll be able to settle policy disputes with his Cabinet secretaries.

Trump, Flynn, Priebus
From left, Donald Trump, Michael Flynn, and Reince Priebus in Palm Beach, Florida, on Wednesday.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

Judging from Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks, the president-elect’s foreign policy is likely to be in shambles—the product more of internecine squabbles (and who wins which ones) than of any thought-through strategy.

For this reason, many of his actual policies, or even the way they’re formed, are at this point unpredictable. Because his national security team seems ill-suited to settling squabbles, many decisions—probably more than the president-elect imagines—will have to be made by Trump himself. And because Trump has no grounding whatsoever in these sorts of issues, that makes the course of the coming years more unpredictable still.

Most administrations, especially in the beginning, are racked with internecine disputes, reflecting the institutional interests of the departments of State, Defense, Treasury, and so forth. But the likely disputes in the Trump administration will be rooted less in bureaucratic politics than in the strong personalities of the Cabinet secretaries, based on their well-rewarded life-experiences.

Trump’s secretaries have no allegiances to the departments they’ll be running. (His pick as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has contempt for the Foggy Bottom pinstripes who tried to block his grand schemes as Exxon Mobil’s CEO.) Global moguls, three- and four-star generals, hedge-fund billionaires—quite apart from their respective merits or lack thereof, these personality types are not accustomed to deference on matters in which they have strong interest or the slightest pretense of knowledge.

Tillerson has spent his adult life pursuing deals to explore, exploit, and expand oil-drilling sites. This has made him a skilled negotiator who knows many world leaders—good qualities for a nation’s top diplomat. But they also unavoidably skew his sense of what the top diplomat should do. This tension is already clouding his prospects for confirmation, as many senators wonder whether his imperatives at Exxon Mobil—where he fostered a close friendship with Vladimir Putin and bitter opposition to Russian sanctions after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine—will infect his sense of the national interest or the international balance of power.

They may also conflict with Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ view of U.S. interests, especially if Tillerson’s (and Trump’s) lax attitude toward Russia’s geopolitical adventures pushes Putin to go farther, say, into the Baltics or deeper into Ukraine. Though Mattis spent much of his career as a Marine officer in the Middle East wars (culminating as the four-star general in charge of U.S. Central Command), he is also very well-read in history and politics and has firm views on America’s interest in maintaining global stability, an interest that further Russian expansion might put at risk.

Mattis is very hawkish on containing Iran’s regional expansionism, though not to the point of bombing or invading the country—or taking military action of nearly any sort, in distant lands, without allies fighting alongside. Tillerson’s views on these matters are unknown. Nor is much known about either man’s take on security politics in the Pacific. Trump’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, is known to be very hawkish on Iran, distrustful of all Muslim powers (and indeed all Muslims), and not so averse to unilateral military action.

And we’re talking only about the most salient global hot spots. Subtler, everyday matters concerning Iran, Iraq, Syria, China, Afghanistan, Russia, and the European allies are mysteries—and by “everyday matters,” I mean matters that, in some cases, require actions or responses (in any case, decisions) every day.

Which leads, once again, to Flynn. The national security adviser is a member of the president’s staff, requiring no Senate confirmation and consulted, or not, as the president chooses. But the job’s one set role is to chair the principals meetings of the National Security Council. These are the meetings where relevant Cabinet secretaries (defense, state, treasury, etc.), intelligence-agency directors, and military chiefs of staff decide high-level national security policy—or lay out policy options for the president to accept or reject.

Quite aside from his other personality quirks (including a penchant for wild conspiracy theories), Flynn is not remotely cut out for this job. When he was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he told his staff (including experienced intel officers) that they were to do the job his way or not at all. The trait riled tension in the ranks (the DIA has 16,000 employees) and prompted the secretary of defense and the national intelligence director to fire him—a move that, according to former associates (including some who once admired him), only stiffened his bitter paranoia.

In the principals meetings, national security advisers can be firm-handed or laid-back, scheming or conciliatory—but they can’t be control freaks, or they’ll soon lose control of the apparatus.

The good news is that most policy issues are handled at a lower level, in the National Security Council’s deputies meetings—consisting of deputy secretaries or undersecretaries, assistant directors, and vice chiefs of staff. The bad news, at least during the Trump administration, is that these meetings are chaired by the deputy national security adviser. Trump’s pick, K.T. McFarland, is even less suitable than Flynn.

McFarland is a right-wing national security commentator for Fox News and touts an impressive-looking résumé that includes national security jobs dating back to the Nixon administration. But the jobs were low-level: a typist, then a junior analyst, for Henry Kissinger under Nixon; an assistant speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger under Reagan. (McFarland, whose name was then Kathleen Troia, also flipped the read-along cards when Weinberger testified before congressional committees.) She has never held a job involved in making policy, and her new job is involved in little else. One former official who attended many deputies meetings told me, “This is one of the hardest jobs in Washington. It’s an 18-hour day, sometimes 20 hours, every day, full of pressure every minute.”

On the domestic side of policy, Trump has appointed advisers and Cabinet secretaries who have little if any experience in government, who will face more difficulty than they know, and who will occasionally bump heads. But Trump has provided general guidance (cut spending, slash regulations, gut agencies that get in the way of corporate profits, repeal and replace Obamacare), and he’s appointed people who seem simpatico with those mandates. Some of these secretaries will face resistance within the bureaucracy, and they might not know how to overcome it; they’ll also face opposition on Capitol Hill, at least to some extent, and from a riled-up public. But on a broad level, they know what they’re supposed to do, and they’re keen to do it.

Trump’s foreign policy team has no such clear orders or direction. Even Trump’s bold slogans don’t easily translate into action. For instance, “Bomb the shit out of ISIS!” Military officers can produce plans and charts consistent with that order—but they will also ask questions (as will Mattis, who is far more sophisticated than his “Mad Dog” nickname suggests): What are the goals of this operation (to destroy ISIS or to degrade it, over how long a period of time)? What are acceptable risks of civilian damage? What is the long-term plan after the bombing? The staffs can quantify the risks; Mattis and the others can offer recommendations. But Trump will have to decide.

The same is true with his mandate for foreign economic policy: “Bring factory jobs back home! Renegotiate trade deals that hurt American jobs! Penalize countries that refuse to do so!” Again, there will be questions: What kinds of factory jobs? At what cost in, say, consumer prices? (Apple could build iPhones in America, but how much more will customers pay for them?) In these new trade deals, what are we willing to give the other sides in exchange for their giving us more? These are matters for trade negotiators to fine-tune—and let’s stipulate that Trump hires really skilled negotiators. But the bottom lines of these bargaining sessions have to be decided, ahead of time, by Trump.

Trump’s whole approach to deal-making (and Tillerson’s too) is bilateral—nation to nation, leader to leader, one nation and leader at a time. This may be fine for real-estate transactions and oil-drilling contracts, but it’s usually not fine for deals concerning the broad interests of American security or the American economy. Given our position as a maritime power with global interests, we usually do better negotiating multilateral treaties with allies—which requires an entirely different approach that seeks consensus more than profit-maximizing. Some people in Trump’s Cabinet understand this as second nature (for instance, Mattis); others don’t (for instance, Tillerson, though he could learn—the question is whether he’ll want to).

We’ll be in shambles for a while. The question is whether Trump and those around him, first, recognize that fact; second, see the need to get out of it; and third, figure out how to do that. The prospects at the moment look grim for all three.