Eliot Cohen, a former State Department official and a fierce critic of President Trump, warns that the president and his immediate predecessor both messed up when it comes to the Middle East:
Trump unchecked is a man who believes in unpredictability, threats, and head-spinning policy pirouettes. One of the few principles by which he has guided his personal and business lives is inconstancy and lack of fidelity. Now, however, there are those who should know better who cheer him on. They will undeceive themselves painfully, much as did those who in a previous administration thought “Don’t do stupid stuff” and “Lead from behind” were profound insights by an equally inexperienced and unconventional but (assumedly) brilliant president.
Which should lead to some reflection by the veterans and supporters of the [Barack] Obama administration, who find themselves almost daily mortified by the repudiation and dismantling of all their hard work. They are learning a hard lesson: that policies constructed by executive order and executive agreement are just as easily blown up by them.
Cohen, who has tried unsuccessfully to get Republican colleagues to engage in some self-reflection about the Iraq War, urges the Obama team, which is young and likely to return to government service in the future, to learn hard lessons. In fact, both parties should heed his advice. If “I’m sorry” is excruciating in this political environment, then “I was wrong” is virtually impossible for many partisans. Nevertheless, perhaps we can kick things off.
Cohen points to one critical lesson — going through the difficult work of ratifying treaties rather than relying on executive orders. He wrote: “The Obama team never even considered doing what the Constitution demands and making the Iran deal a treaty. Nor did it attempt seriously to convince Congress to reexamine its authorizations for the use of military force in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. George W. Bush at least sought and received congressional authorization for the 2003 Iraq War.”
Let me suggest eight other lessons:
(1) Do not imagine that “hiring the right people” can compensate for an ignorant, unfit and inexperienced president. We surely have witnessed during this administration that such a president may not have the judgment to select good people or to listen to them. They can be fired (with great frequency in this administration); the president is there by virtue of the voters. This is a lesson for parties — and for voters — not to repeat the mistake of the 2016 election, during which the impulse for change or anger at “the system” led them to either ignore or rationalize a host of disqualifying factors.
(2) No president can be permitted to retain ownership of a business, nor keep his income tax returns secret. We are now coping with the concern that, at the very highest level of government, our officials are not acting in the people’s best interests but in their own.
(3) To paraphrase former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, if you want Congress there for the landing you better bring them along for the takeoff. Whether presidents view of their Article II powers accurately or not, it isn’t wise to go it alone on significant military undertakings or policy initiatives. They should want to consult and get buy-in from congressional leaders, and, whenever possible, secure approval for the use of force. Unless you want to be savaged by the other side when things go wrong, forging consensus first is invariably the wise route to take.
(4) Personnel matters. House and Senate intelligence committees must be filled with the least-partisan and most-serious members. House and Senate leaders who allow irresponsible gadflies to take these committee spots are endangering national security. Likewise, we cannot allow the State Department, the intelligence community or the military to become threadbare operations where morale is low and turnover is high. The availability of highly motivated professionals with institutional expertise is invaluable.
(5) The notion that we shouldn’t act quickly or decisively, but instead hang back (“lead from behind”), overlooks our tragic experience in Syria. Quick, early action to support non-extremist rebels may have prevented genocide, mass migration, political turmoil and Iranian opportunism. Options tend to shrink as time passes. What might have been addressed through diplomatic means or economic pressure soon can devolve into a binary choice between war and capitulation. As much as we may deride the fantasy that a superpower can get “war fatigue,” politicians also need to appreciate the public’s finite tolerance for war, and the obligation to remind their constituents of the purpose and progress of our endeavors.
(6) We need to integrate human rights into our overall national-security strategy. No, we don’t go to war to impose democracy (we went to war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction), but neither should we be indifferent to the emergence and success of democratic governments that secure essential civil liberties. Democratic governments are America’s natural allies. We will have a more peaceful and stable world (and better trading partners) if he have fewer repressive regimes, which almost invariably are aggressive on the international stage. That means not giving foes a “pass” on human rights. It also means non-democratic allies need to feel pressure from the United States (if nothing else, rhetorically) to enrich personal freedoms, respect civil society and maintain an independent judiciary. We needn’t remind you that, unless we practice what we preach, our admonitions will be ignored.
(7) We sure do need allies. They are not “taking us for a ride.” Indeed, we spend less than 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. We should pressure allies to contribute to their own defense, but we should also recognize the benefits we gain from having forward-positioned U.S. forces, cooperative intelligence agencies and military partners (such as we had in Afghanistan).
(8) Things will never go as planned. It is essential to consider “What if we are wrong?” when engaging in any military action. The failure to imagine the range of unintended consequences can be fatal. (Are we sure X leader is accurately portraying events? What if our intelligence assumptions are wrong, or partially wrong?) One cannot be paralyzed by risk but, by the same token, pulling out of a major nonproliferation treaty or reversing a bipartisan, longstanding U.S. policy in a volatile region with no “Plan B” is grossly irresponsible.
Both parties have failed in one form or another to absorb these lessons. Going forward, we should look for leaders capable of acknowledging error and seeing that our challenges are not the other party’s fault. There is plenty of blame to go around.