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Why you will always be disappointed with Trump’s foreign policy team

The Hobson's choice for Trump's foreign policy advisers.

President Trump sits with his delegation, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, third from right, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, during a meeting at the European Union headquarters in Brussels on May 25. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

President Trump continues to believe that the best foreign policy team is a disrupted foreign policy team. This makes it hard for us civilians who have to keep track of the churn. Remember Gary Cohn? I think he stepped down this month, but I can’t be sure. Rex Tillerson? People will remember how he was fired (awfully) and not why he was fired (he was a God-awful Secretary of State). Clearly, anyone who joins this White House or Cabinet has an expiration date the moment they sign up.

As the churn continues, many of Trump’s foreign policy critics are not sure what to make of it all. Trump has turned over parts of his foreign policy team because he didn’t agree with them. As Liz Mair points out in the Daily Beast, however, it’s not like the recruits will necessarily be more simpatico with his worldview:

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is out. National security adviser H.R. McMaster looks like he’ll be next. A trio of players being put forward to fill in gaps should be raising serious eyebrows, and not just from doves. In fact, Trump seems intent on hiring people into key national security positions with whom he is bound to clash, setting up more chaos within our government.

So how will the new crew play out? The past year has revealed a Hobson’s choice for any foreign policy principal or deputy serving for this administration. The dilemma can be summarized by understanding the following maxims:

  1. Donald Trump is supremely confident in his international relations instincts even though he knows next to nothing about the topic;
  2. Donald Trump does not like public dissent of his public pronouncements;
  3. Most people asked to serve as a foreign policy principal have some measure of self-respect.

The second and third propositions are garden-variety statements and hardly unique to Trump or his team. Presidents understandably do not want to have to deal with the hassle of public dissension within the executive branch. Cabinet officials and staffers think they are competent human beings who bring expertise to their job.

It is the first maxim that puts competent Cabinet officers in a real bind. How do they cope with a president who does not know what he’s doing? Cohn and Tillerson took one path: being unafraid to tell the president that he’s wrong. If that failed, Cohn and Tillerson did not seem afraid to publicly dissent with the president.

Far be it for me to look askance at individuals speaking truth to power, but works for public intellectuals might not work for cabinet officials in this administration. The problem with this option is that, no matter what he says, Trump does not react well to outright disagreement. Furthermore, there’s a clear correlation between the Trump officials willing to disagree with him and the ones who call him a moron. Stephen K. Bannon, Tillerson and Cohn do not have a lot in common, but they all have healthy egos and did not see eye to eye with the president. Little wonder they have faded away.

The other path has been adopted by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and CIA Director/Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo. This path is to try to placate the president with surface agreements, all the while using the bureaucratic Dark Arts to get what they want.

There’s been enough reporting to hint that Mattis and Pompeo have both adopted this tactic. The evidence for Mattis is stronger. The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Nicholas and Rebecca Ballhaus reported in January on how Mattis would often respond to a Trump suggestion by praising Trump’s instinct and then offering a policy sequence that contradicted that instinct. The Hill’s Ellen Mitchell made this point in August:

Mattis time and again has deftly shifted the tone and message of the president’s seemingly never-ending stream of off-the-cuff comments.
On topics including torture, the importance of NATO, the regional conflict between Qatar and neighboring countries and leadership confidence in Afghanistan, Mattis has altered Trump’s words into more diplomatic and less emotional messages, without drawing the ire of the commander in chief.
“Let’s call Mattis the great clarifier,” said one source close to the Defense secretary. “He’s just providing a more detailed clarification to the president’s statements.”

The evidence for Pompeo is thinner. That said, the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes has reported that Pompeo has excelled as the Trump whisperer:

Pompeo also quickly built a strong relationship with Trump. He briefed the president almost daily in a no-nonsense manner, keeping the information simple and straightforward, according to officials familiar with the relationship. More importantly, he managed to avoid the condescension, however understandable, evident from some of Trump’s other advisers, including Rex Tillerson.
Mindful of his role, Pompeo tried to limit the briefings to questions of intelligence and analysis. But Trump pushed his CIA director to weigh in on matters of national security policy, and he listened carefully to Pompeo’s view of America’s role in the world.
“I’ve seen a dozen times when Pompeo has talked the president out of one of his crazy ideas,” says a senior administration official involved in the national security debates…
Where Tillerson simply opposed Trump’s views, Pompeo helped to shape them. And he’s managed to do so in a way that Trump doesn’t find annoying or disloyal.

There is a downside to this approach as well. Not publicly breaking with Trump will always be read as a tacit endorsement of the president’s more crackpot and bigoted views. And, remember, these guys have a healthy amount of self-regard; this is not as easy a sacrifice as it might appear from the outside. So if a policy principal takes this tack and then is caught saying something out of turn, the only recourse is public demonstrations of fealty to the boss.

As frustrating as this is to the policy principals, it is doubly frustrating to the rest of the foreign policy community. All we see is Trump firing the folks disagreeing with him and keeping the remaining folks who remain publicly loyal. We can never be entirely sure if the remaining policy principals are actually constraining Trump or not.

I suspect I am not the only foreign policy analyst who wishes that at some point an administration official would tell Trump off in public rather than leak behind his back. But that can’t happen if the person wants to stay influential.

This is a thankless task. Given the president’s blinkered but growing confidence, however, I’ll prefer hidden influence that tempers his instincts to public dissent.