President Trump’s order to send U.S. missiles to strike an airfield in Syria is the first major opportunity to assess how he makes decisions in a foreign policy crisis. Back in December, I asked eight questions about Trump’s crisis decision-making as his team was taking shape.
What answers do we have now?
As I wrote in December, research on foreign policy decision-making suggests that a new foreign policymaking team faces a number of risks — stemming from the White House decision-making apparatus itself and how it processes information, makes decisions and implements them.
Even if crises come out “okay,” dangerous moves may be taking place behind the scenes — not visible to the public, or even to government officials outside the inner circle. We may not know just how risky Trump’s handling of the situation actually was, at least initially.
And these risks don’t necessarily end with the first crisis. The risks may be even greater if Trump is disinclined to learn or gains false confidence from a good outcome that may have involved some good luck. This is why continued scrutiny of appointments, process and even logistics will remain important.
Here’s a quick recap of these key questions:
1. Where is Trump, physically?
The Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida has emerged as Trump’s favorite destination outside of the District. The White House communications apparatus follows the president, so executive travel is not necessarily a barrier to good decisions.
In Trump’s case, the concern is that foreign policy staffers and crucial advisers, such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, had to fly to Florida to brief him, pulling them away from their staffs and access to other resources. Of course, with so many top foreign policy posts still unfilled, ironically the distance factor may matter less.
We will likely learn more in the coming days as the usual “tick tocks” (detailed timelines of the decision) emerge, but there is little evidence so far that Trump’s fraught relationship with the intelligence community has improved.
This operation seems to reflect Trump’s confidence in the military. Is Trump relying too much on military advice from his team of retired generals, and showing a lack of trust in other information sources within the government?
3. Who wakes him up and brings him the information about the crisis?
My research suggests that inexperienced presidents are less able to monitor advisers and assess the information and proposals they receive. This gives advisers greater power.
The Syria crisis was not quite a “3 a.m. phone call,” but the switch from Michael Flynn to H.R. McMaster as national security adviser was a pretty unambiguous upgrade. McMaster is well regarded in the national security community and seems to have restored some process and morale in the National Security Council. We can’t know for sure, but he seems like the type to say “It’s early” — and to seek information from other parts of government during a crisis.
But this was a complex situation involving a Russian presence on the ground in Syria. We don’t know what questions Trump asked McMaster, Mattis or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to the extent Tillerson was involved.
As I wrote previously here in the Monkey Cage, when inexperienced presidents delegate to experienced advisers, those advisers sometimes feel free to operate without an independent check. As Risa Brooks has pointed out, asking tough questions is an important rule of civil-military relations.
4. Who deliberates about what to do?
Here a major concern is on the diplomatic side. With Tillerson’s apparent marginalization and so many critical posts unfilled, how much consultation was there about the potential fallout with Russia?
Did Trump and his foreign policy team discuss the long-term effect on the tense situation on the ground in Syria — where there will continue to be a Russian presence — and on U.S.-Russia relations?
The strike took place during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, inserting the specter of U.S. military force into any discussions of how to handle North Korea. It is hard to see an upside to the muting of the U.S. diplomatic voice in these circumstances.
5. How many options are presented to Trump, and how are they framed?
In a forthcoming paper, I find that inexperienced presidents are less likely to diversify the advice they receive, and they prefer policy recommendations that are framed as more certain. In other words, they are averse to ambiguity. Will Trump be more likely to listen to an adviser who tells him that a policy will get him what he wants?
Again, it’s hard to know exactly how many options Trump considered, and McMaster and Mattis, in particular, are competent professionals and the strike was competently executed. But many analysts expressed concern at the speed with which Trump shifted his stance on Syria — and the speed with which the decision to strike came together.
6. Will anyone with serious concerns speak out or, in the extreme, resign in protest?
We may learn more in the coming weeks, of course. My research suggests that cues from dissenting advisers can affect how policies are perceived.
An added concern is the continued infighting among Trump’s advisers. Although strategist Stephen K. Bannon no longer has a formal role on the National Security Council’s “principals committee,” he may still participate in meetings. Politics are always a part of national security decisions, even inside the Situation Room.
7. Who will execute Trump’s decision?
McMaster and Tillerson had some apparently conflicting statements in their remarks on Thursday night about whether the strike represents a major shift in U.S.- Syria policy. These statements may be a symptom of a lack of internal communication within the foreign policy and national security establishment — or they may reflect the absence of a clear policy at all.
Communications breakdowns have plagued many previous presidents, but the apparent sidelining of Tillerson — who will nonetheless become the first high-level Trump official to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next week — is a concern. Complicating the situation is the hollowing out of the State Department in this administration.
There is also the delicate issue of avoiding Russia on the ground in Syria. Previously, Trump was highly critical of giving advance warning of military operations, especially in the case of the offensive to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State militants. He claimed that surprise was essential.
In his remarks Thursday night, Tillerson said there had been no advance warning to Moscow but that the United States had operated in accordance with “military deconfliction agreements” with the Russian military “in coordinating this particular attack.” If deconfliction processes worked, then perhaps Trump will recognize that advance warning of military operations can be strategically useful.
The Russian response has been to suspend an agreement designed to prevent aircraft-related incidents between the U.S. and Russia in Syria. So if Trump hasn’t yet learned the value of advance warnings, he may yet be forced to learn this lesson.
8. Is there a record, and who writes it down? The record will be important to political scientists, historians, journalists and many others who follow presidential decisions. But the record also matters for staff follow-up as the decision is carried out, for adjudicating disputes over what was said, and perhaps even for the credibility of any dissenters.
On this important question, it’s too early to know, but with so many staff openings unfilled and Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the odds of a regular note-taker or even a significant paper flow seem diminished.
Why does that matter? Among other things, 30 years from now, we’re less likely to be able to read a detailed history, informed by the documentary record, of how Trump handled this foreign policy crisis and other important decisions.
Elizabeth N. Saunders is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of “Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions.”