If the only measure of national security success during a president’s first 100 days were avoiding catastrophe, then, OK, President Trump has succeeded. No attacks on the U.S., no new wars, and no nuclear Armageddon—these are good things, and in the moment we can breathe a sigh of relief.
However, those outcomes arguably owe more to the national security machine built by Trump’s predecessors than any decisions of the 45th president. By any other benchmark, Trump has failed at national security and foreign policy. Trump’s failures of personnel, process, and policy have combined to create a perfect storm of insecurity.
There’s an old Washington cliché, “Personnel is policy.” The saw reflects the wisdom that any president’s agenda depends on his political appointees to refine and implement that vision. Trump’s White House has failed first and most spectacularly in this requirement, both by building a dysfunctional White House and National Security Council, and by failing to staff his national security agencies with the appointees necessary to oversee and direct foreign policy.
The palace intrigue coming out of the Trump White House could fill volumes. It includes the ongoing warfare between the populist camp led by strategist Steve Bannon, and the establishment camps led by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, economic adviser Gary Cohn, and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The establishment appears to have won the early rounds, benching Bannon from the NSC and hiring longtime national security professionals H.R. McMaster, Dina Powell, Tom Bossert, and Nadia Schadlow to run Trump’s security portfolio. However, these new professionals bring with them their own ideas about foreign policy, contrasting with the “America First” nationalism that Trump rode to the presidency. For now, the mashup of Trump’s political favorites with his new establishment professionals likely means incoherence on the national security front for some time, with the White House lurching from one crisis to the next, its actions and words disconnected from any broader doctrine.
Bad personnel decisions have also dogged the Trump administration during its first 100 days. Michael Flynn and K.T. McFarland hardly did well in leading the NSC during their brief sojourns there. Lower-level hires have also performed poorly, from Sebastian Gorka’s continuing struggles with reported Nazi ties to intelligence aide Ezra Cohen-Watnick’s continuing battles with the intelligence community. The net effect has been to deprive Trump of a functioning NSC at a time when he has desperately needed something or someone to develop, articulate, and coordinate national security policy.
At the agency level, the Trump White House’s political appointments machine has been incredibly dysfunctional, reportedly because of the fights between White House factions over personnel picks. This has starved the Pentagon, State Department, Justice Department, and other agencies of the undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, and special assistants who actually carry out the president’s agenda. In the absence of a Trump team, the uniformed military leadership and career civil servants of these agencies have carried on—but with significant friction, given Trump’s open, personal disdain for these people during the campaign and afterward.
These personnel failures have worsened the second category of Trump failures: those of process. The NSC was codified in 1947—along with the modern Defense Department, CIA, and Joint Chiefs of Staff—to correct perceived process failures during World War II. The big idea behind the National Security Act was to create a process that could withstand poor personnel, by ensuring the institution of the presidency was well-served by its national security agencies and could therefore make better informed decisions.
Despite its aspiration to run the White House like a “fine-tuned machine,” Trump’s administration has uniformly failed to implement processes to serve its agenda. Indeed, at times such as its 63-hour rush to strike Syria with cruise missiles, or its announcement of a tax plan before the details were ironed out, the White House seems at war with the very idea of process—as if budgets, planning, and coordination were toxic features of the Washington swamp, to be rejected at all costs.
The biggest process failures have been those that affect the entire government. Trump’s failure to develop detailed budgets, let alone agree with Congress on funding levels and priorities, nearly led the country to the brink of a government shutdown. All indications point to the impasse being settled, but the outcome will likely be a “continuing resolution” that punts all major budget decisions and keeps agencies in limbo on major programs—including major weapons-systems acquisitions, spending on important training and exercises, and outlays for service members and military families’ programs. That Trump has proposed a defense increase is nearly beside the point; without an actual budget, and an agreement with Congress on its details, Trump’s proposals mean nothing. Next to the budget, the Trump administration’s abject lack of coordination within itself stands out. Again and again, for a variety of reasons, the Trump administration has kept its decision circles too small, excluding career public servants, uniformed leaders, and outside stakeholders from policy processes until the 11th hour (and not even then sometimes).
Trump’s own agenda has suffered—spectacularly in some cases. One of Trump’s biggest campaign promises, the pledge to build a wall on America’s border with Mexico, has stalled for lack of funding, and proposals will likely remain stuck in the government contracts process for months if not years. His immigration orders have been held unconstitutional because of errors that his Justice Department or Department of Homeland Security lawyers would have caught and corrected if they had the chance. In some cases, the process failures have had deadlier consequences. President Trump ordered a risky special-operations raid on Yemen over a dinner meeting with his senior staff, with scant process or coordination. The raid went badly, as military operations sometimes do. Instead of taking responsibility, Trump blamed the military, both for the substantive failures on the ground and the faulty decision process that put the SEALs there. Disconnects between the White House, Department of Defense, and U.S. Pacific Command resulted in a confusing saga regarding the movements of a U.S. aircraft carrier, resulting in the dilution of any deterrent value that President Trump’s words might hold in Moscow or Beijing.
Trump’s personnel and process failures contribute to policy failures across the national security chessboard. The most obvious Trump foreign policy failure is that there is no policy, no doctrine, no strategy that knits together President Trump’s desired ends with government ways and means. In his first 100 days, Trump and his top advisers have clearly failed to articulate their vision of the world, and America’s role in it. Swamp soothsayers like me can only guess at what the Trump doctrine might be, by piecing together the entrails of particular actions like the cruise-missile strike on Syria or the bellicose statements toward Iran, and deducing what Trump might be thinking on a grander scale.
The Trump administration’s substantive policy failures add up to a long list—and it’s only been 99 days. Russia looms large, with the Trump administration oscillating between unrequited love for Vladimir Putin and his regime, and correctly stating that Russia’s actions in Syria and Eastern Europe (to say nothing of election-related espionage) constitute a threat to U.S. national security. On China, the administration lurches between threatening China with economic warfare and declaring that the state of the U.S.–China relationship was “outstanding” after a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the Middle East, the Trump administration has largely continued the Obama administration’s counter–ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria. However, the administration’s early steps have also undermined this campaign, such as the first immigration order that barred Iraqis from entering the U.S.—alienating our main ally in the fight against ISIS—or the reported easing of airstrike rules that have caused more civilian casualties. In Afghanistan, where U.S. troops continue to fight our longest war, the situation worsens, notwithstanding the use of the “Mother of All Bombs” on April 13 to kill a few score ISIS fighters near the Pakistani border.
Our incoherent foreign policy reflects the daily sentiments of a novice president who has thus far failed to put the people, processes, and policies in place to ensure the success of his presidency and the nation. Without political appointees in place, without a budget, without a meaningful national security process, President Trump will barely be able to steer the ship of state to avoid running aground, let alone chart a course toward the America he wants. And until the situation improves, we will all be consigned to living in a state of national insecurity.