War Stories

Communication Breakdown

Are U.S. troops coming home from Afghanistan? The mixed messages reveal an administration’s total incoherence.

Esper, Trump, and Milley sitting in a row at a conference table
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, President Donald Trump, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Oct. 7, 2019. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

When it comes to foreign policy, there is no such thing as “the Trump administration.” There is only President Donald Trump, jabbering random wishes or pronouncements at campaign rallies or on Twitter, and his array of advisers scrambling to make sense of the maelstrom.

Hence the spectacle on Oct. 7 when national security adviser Robert O’Brien told an audience in Las Vegas that U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be cut to 2,500 by the beginning of next year—followed, just hours later, by Trump tweeting that all the troops should be home by Christmas—followed four days later by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling NPR that he hadn’t endorsed either decision and that the military was still operating on the assumption that troops would be cut to 4,500.

Legitimate arguments could be made for any one of those options. The thing is, the U.S. government should decide on one before its various leaders blurt out all three in public.

It turns out O’Brien hadn’t consulted with anyone in the Pentagon before making his remarks, and Trump hadn’t consulted with anyone anywhere before he upped the ante. This isn’t how it’s supposed to work.

The bureaucratic process is often viewed as a wonky enterprise—the baroque and insular workings of inside-the-Beltway mavens, the blob, the swamp, the deep state—and there’s something to the critique. But as the chaos in Trumpland regularly reveals, there’s a reason for having this process—a reason even President Barack Obama, who had some disdain toward the foreign policy establishment, relied on the process routinely, even incessantly: A president—a nation—can’t really make foreign policy without it.

Presidents—by which I mean all post-WWII presidents until this one—have met with their Cabinet secretaries and other senior officials of the National Security Council to discuss major issues and crises for two main reasons. First, these officials bring to the table different—often conflicting—interests, perspectives, and sets of facts. Exposure to these differing views can change minds, spur new ideas, sometimes lead to wiser decisions. Second, the process builds consensus: Once the president decides on a policy, the others know what the policy is, saw how it was reached, accept that contrary views were at least considered, and carry it out. (Or they can resign.)

This is an idealized picture, of course; often, bureaucratic backbiting continues. But the picture describes what really happens a remarkable percentage of the time, except for the part about someone resigning in protest—that rarely happens.

The problem with a president going rogue—not simply disagreeing with his advisers (which is entirely his or her right), but failing to consult them—is that the whole machinery goes off the rails. Often, when it comes to Trump, nobody around him knows even what the policy is.

Confusion within the bureaucracy is the least of our problems. The whole point of having a foreign policy is to tell the rest of the world, allies and adversaries, what that policy is—to spell out, through words and actions, our interests, objectives, commitments, and capabilities.

If nobody in the U.S. foreign policy machinery knows what the president wants, if the president himself bases his bluster and mutterings on a clichéd and ill-informed view of the world, then foreign leaders won’t know what he wants either—won’t know which pledges and threats can be taken seriously or dismissed. This can lead to serious miscalculations, and miscalculations can lead to war.

Trump’s disinclination to consult with others, to deliberate, to talk through the pros and cons of various options, may make him more prone to these out-of-control spirals to conflict. He avoids seeking the advice of others because he doesn’t think it’s necessary. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” he once famously claimed. “My primary consultant is myself, and I have a good instinct about this stuff,” he said regarding foreign policy broadly. Also: “Nobody knows more about trade than me.” “I know more about drones than anybody.” And on it goes.

It seems he really believes this. There are few things more dangerous than a very powerful man who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Thankfully, Trump has revealed in the past four years that, his belligerent rhetoric notwithstanding, he doesn’t have an appetite for war. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t stumble into one; in fact, given more time, he’s more prone than many of his predecessors to do just that.