Can the Trump national security team make a comeback?
Over the past month, the foreign policy communities in Washington and capitals around the world have stood aghast as President Trump made several decisions and statements that run counter to the bipartisan U.S. national security consensus that existed before he took office. The takeaway for most is that his senior national security advisers and Cabinet members, who represent that consensus, are losing the battle for the president’s heart and mind.
Early on, Trump seemed to be heeding the advice of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Pence, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and others pushing for more continuity and consistency in U.S. foreign policy.
After a campaign in which Trump brutally criticized U.S. partners around the world, Mattis, Tillerson and Pence each traveled to Asia and Europe to reassure allies that Trump would not abandon long-standing U.S. ideals or undermine commitments, such as robust support for NATO. For a time, the allies were reassured — but not anymore.
In the past three weeks, Trump overruled the majority of his national security advisers by refusing to publicly affirm NATO’s Article 5 commitment to mutual defense at NATO headquarters, pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord and starting new disputes with several allies, including South Korea, Britain, France and Germany.
“All the questions that were raised [by Trump’s election], we thought they were answered, and now we have to deal with them again,” said Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Countries such as Germany spent months building relationships with Trump’s national security team in the hope that doing so would allow their governments to preserve access and influence while promoting policies they believe those officials agree with. But now they fear the group can’t deliver.
“We continue to see them as sensible and rational — but we see more and more that the decisions are not done by them,” Röttgen said in a meeting with Post editors and reporters last week. “What we see is that the boss seems to have more influence on the decision than the team.”
This week, Trump’s top national security officials will have an opportunity to reassert themselves, in a series of hearings with lawmakers who largely support their efforts. The key issue in these hearings will be whether the officials, especially those who served in uniform, will express support for funding of the non-military tools of U.S. power.
A rare union of 16 former senior military leaders has joined together to submit testimony supporting that notion at a hearing Tuesday of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Mattis is to appear. They argue that Congress should reject the steep cuts in diplomacy and development funding proposed in the White House’s budget.
“Cutting the International Affairs budget unilaterally will have the effect of disarming our country’s capability to stop new conflicts from forming, and will place our interests, values, and the lives of our men and women in uniform at risk,” according to testimony I previewed.
The retired four-star officers include Gen. James Jones, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Adm. Michael Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus and many others. Jones told me that he is optimistic that national security leaders inside the administration can be successful in saving parts of the budget that represent those American values, including funding for poverty and food aid, global health and good governance abroad.
“The people who have actually worn the uniform and participated in global activities really understand that you cannot simply just have the military tool and use that every time,” he said. “It’s very important they can be successful at this.”
The latest effort by Trump’s national security team to steer his thinking failed to move him away from his instincts. After Trump publicly praised and took credit for the Saudi-led blockade of U.S. ally Qatar last week, Tillerson and Mattis sat down with him at the White House on Thursday to argue for a more balanced approach.
The following day, Tillerson made a public statement calling on both sides to deescalate and negotiate an end to their dispute. Shortly after that, Trump held a news conference and doubled down on his criticism of Qatar, seeming to undercut his secretary of state. The president apparently wasn’t persuaded.
Looking ahead, several key battles will reveal whether the national security professionals are winning the day, including decisions on whether to commit more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, how to approach the U.S.-South Korea free-trade agreement and whether to staunchly oppose new congressional sanctions on Russia, which are coming soon.
Trump’s national security officials don’t agree on all of these issues, and they must balance their personal views with their duty to serve their president’s agenda. But the more they can assert themselves, harness support from the outside and influence Trump’s thinking, the better.
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