War Stories

The Commander Stumbles

Trump’s first executive orders will make it harder to vanquish ISIS.

President Donald Trump speaks after signing executive orders at the White House on Tuesday in Washington.  

Shawn Thew/Getty Images

After President Trump signed an executive order on Saturday giving the Joint Chiefs of Staff 30 days to devise a plan for destroying ISIS, I emailed several senior U.S. military officers—some active duty, some retired, all with combat experience in our recent wars—and asked them what sort of plan the chiefs should submit.

One of the officers, a general, wrote back, “They might begin by telling him to lift this stupid and heinous visa ban.”

The remark highlights a big problem not just with Trump’s scattershot orders but also with his tenure so far as commander in chief: He doesn’t seem to understand the political nature of war or the strategic consequences of politics.

The ban to which the officer was referring—another executive order that Trump signed, on Friday afternoon, barring entry to the United States from any citizen of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, or Somalia—gravely threatens not only American values but also U.S. security interests. (It’s a real trick for one policy to damage both our values and our interests.) American armed forces, after all, are conducting military operations of some sort—from ground combat and airstrikes to special-operations missions—in all but one of those seven countries (Iran). The local soldiers they’re fighting alongside or advising—and the local people who are tolerating their presence—are likely to turn distrustful, possibly hostile, if the American president is telling them that under no circumstances will they be allowed to come into our country because they might be terrorists.

In other words, with this order—which has come under major protest from citizens, judges, and many legislators—Trump is making it harder to defeat ISIS by telling the allies and main forces in that fight that they aren’t good enough to set foot in America.

Whatever war plan the chiefs send Trump, he’s likely to be disappointed. Most of the officers I surveyed say that the war on ISIS—strictly as a military venture—is going pretty well and that the caliphate—the Islamic State as a territorial unit in Iraq and Syria—may be destroyed in a matter of months, if not sooner. The only way to push the campaign much harder, or to get results much more quickly, they say, would be to put more U.S. troops on the ground or to send a lot more weapons to the most active forces fighting ISIS, notably the Kurdish peshmerga and Shiite militias.

However, the chiefs will probably note in their briefing to the president that doing either of those things would alienate local forces or leaders who must lead the fight if it is to be successful for the long haul. The first option—deploying 10,000 or more U.S. troops to Iraq, Syria, or both—would send jihadi propagandists into convulsions of glee, reaffirming their message that America is at war with Islam.

And they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. As Rudy Giuliani told Fox News this weekend, Trump had asked him how to do a “Muslim ban” legally. Giuliani and a few others mulled it over and came up with the idea of a ban on people from dangerous nations (which happened to be predominantly Muslim). The subterfuge was made all the more transparent when Trump said an exemption on the ban might be carved out for persecuted religious minorities—which is to say, Christians—in those countries. It’s hard enough for many Iraqi or Syrian Muslims—soldiers, militiamen, politicians, and ordinary citizens—to tolerate or support Americans who are on their soil but stay a bit in the background. It becomes dangerous or distasteful for them to keep doing so when these Americans multiply in number and fight out in front.

The second option—sending more, and more lethal, weapons to Kurds or Shiite militias—would alienate the Turks (in the case of the Kurds) or the Sunni Arab leaders (in the case of Shiite militias), who are crucial to settling the civil wars that created an opening for ISIS in the first place. The main reason why the United States did not move more aggressively or unilaterally against ISIS strongholds early on, especially in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, was that American commanders had to make arrangements with these local forces and leaders: first, to obtain intelligence on the complexities of the battlefield; then, after that was accomplished, to negotiate which forces will fight where, in what order, against whom, and who gets what afterward.

Coalition warfare is a messy business, and it always has been, but if the United States has interests worth fighting for in the Middle East, there is no other way to do this. Retired Gen. James Mattis, a former head of U.S. Central Command and now Trump’s secretary of defense, testified at his confirmation hearing that the wars he’d fought as a Marine in the region had all been coalition wars, and he preferred it that way.

When the chiefs brief Trump on their new war plan next month, two things are likely to frustrate him the most. First, it will look quite a lot like the existing war plan, with maybe a few things intensified. Second, there will be no magic buttons. Colin Kahl, who was Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser and before that the Defense Department’s chief official on Middle Eastern affairs, tweeted on Saturday, “Psst, @realDonaldTrump, the Pentagon isn’t going to show you a secret plan they hid from Obama.”

This is another serious problem with Trump’s whole outlook. He sees that the world is a mess and that America has lost the leverage it once had, and he concludes this is happening because our leaders are “stupid”—incompetent negotiators who are too “politically correct” to see the real problem. Elect me, he said during the election campaign, and I’ll put the best people in charge, get the best deals, and we’ll start winning again.

He will soon find out that it’s not all so simple. The world is a mess in part because large chunks of it have always been a mess, in part because the world turned more anarchic—power blocs crumbled, borders turned porous, metrics of power changed, and new forms of conflict emerged—after the end of the Cold War. Some conflicts are simply intractable. Sometimes it’s not even clear what “winning” means, and in any case, often, we can’t win alone or entirely on our own terms.

A third executive order, signed this weekend, might make it harder for Trump to grasp these realities. In this order, Trump reorganized the National Security Council so that the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are no longer permanent members of the Principals Committee—the assemblage of Cabinet secretaries who deliberate over urgent matters of foreign policy—while Steve Bannon, Trump’s political strategist, is.

One aspect of this policy may not be as new as it seems. The long-standing legislation governing the NSC states that the JCS chairman “may, in his role as principal military adviser to the National Security Council and subject to the direction of the President, attend and participate in meetings” of the NSC (italics added). In other words, the JCS chairman has never formally been a permanent member of the Principals Committee. However, as a practical matter, because so much of the Principals Committee’s business involves military matters, the chairman or vice chairman has almost always been at those meetings.

On the other hand, the director of national intelligence has been a permanent member ever since the post was created in 2005, and before then, the director of central intelligence was a member. It makes no sense for the secretaries of state, defense, treasury, and other Cabinet heads to meet in the White House with the national security adviser (and sometimes with the president) to discuss and make policy without the nation’s top intelligence officer—the coordinator of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies—being part of that discussion.

The backstory here is that Trump’s national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has floated the idea of abolishing the DNI and having all the intel agencies report to him. It is pertinent to note that a few years ago the outgoing DNI, retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper, fired Flynn from his last job in government, as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency—a move that has since embittered Flynn against the DNI and against much of the intelligence community, which disagreed with him on a number of issues. The removal of the DNI from the Principals Committee suggests that Flynn’s broader plan may be in the works.

Another new and senseless feature of this executive order is putting the president’s political strategist onboard. Karl Rove never attended NSC meetings during George W. Bush’s presidency, as important an adviser as he was on all sorts of issues. David Axelrod sat in on some NSC meetings during Barack Obama’s tenure, though he always sat along the wall, along with a few other aides and deputies; he never sat at the table or said a word.

As the president weighs national security matters, he can mingle his own political interests and instincts with the advice of Cabinet heads and the chiefs of the military and intelligence agencies; in fact, it’s his job to do just that. But the advice of this council should be rooted in U.S. national security interests; that’s why the group is called the National Security Council. Giving the president’s political strategist a seat at this table—elevating him to the same level as the secretaries of state and defense—is bound to inject a perspective that these meetings are expressly supposed to avoid. And given the inclinations of this particular strategist, Steve Bannon, the injections may sometimes be toxic.