Eliot A. Cohen is the author of the forthcoming “The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.” He served as counselor of the State Department from 2007 to 2009.
I am a national security Never-Trumper who, after the election, made the case that young conservatives should volunteer to serve in the new administration, warily, their undated letters of resignation ready. That advice, I have concluded, was wrong.
My about-face began with a discreet request to me from a friend in Trumpworld to provide names — unsullied by having signed the two anti-Trump foreign policy letters — of those who might be willing to serve. My friend and I had agreed to disagree a while back about my taking an uncompromising anti-Trump stand; now, he wanted assistance and I willingly complied.
After an exchange about a senior figure who would not submit a résumé but would listen if contacted, an email exchange ensued that I found astonishing. My friend was seething with anger directed at those of us who had opposed Donald Trump — even those who stood ready to help steer good people to an administration that understandably wanted nothing to do with the likes of me, someone who had been out front in opposing Trump since the beginning.
This friend was someone I liked and admired, and still do. It was a momentary eruption of temper, and we have since patched up our relationship. I surmise that he has been furious for some time, knowing that supporting Trump has been distinctly unpopular in his normal circles. He is in the midst of a transition team that was never well-prepared to begin with and is now torn by acrimony, resignations and palace coups. And then there are the pent-up resentments against a liberal intellectual and media establishment that scorned his ilk for years.
I sympathize, but the episode has caused me to change my mind about recommending that conservatives serve in the administration, albeit with a firm view in their minds of what would cause them to quit. This was a tipping point. The tenor of the Trump team, from everything I see, read and hear, is such that, for a garden-variety Republican policy specialist, service in the early phase of the administration would carry a high risk of compromising one’s integrity and reputation.
In a normal transition to a normal administration, there’s always disorder. There are the presidential friends and second cousins, the flacks and the hangers-on who flame out in the first year or two. There are the bad choices — the abusive bosses, the angry ideologues and the sheer dullards. You accept the good with the bad and know that there will be stupid stuff going on, particularly at the beginning. Things shake out. Even if you are just blocking errors, it is a contribution.
This time may be different. Trump was not a normal candidate, the transition is not a normal transition, and this will probably not be a normal administration. The president-elect is surrounding himself with mediocrities whose chief qualification seems to be unquestioning loyalty. He gets credit for becoming a statesman when he says something any newly elected president might say (“I very much look forward to dealing with the president in the future”) — and then reverts to tweeting against demonstrators and the New York Times. By all accounts, his ignorance, and that of his entourage, about the executive branch is fathomless. It’s not even clear that he accepts that he should live in the White House rather than in his gilt-smeared penthouse in New York.
In the best of times, government service carries with it the danger of compromising your principles. Here, though, we may be in for something much worse. The canary in the coal mine was not merely the selection of Stephen K. Bannon for the job previously filled by John Podesta and Karl Rove, that of counselor to the president and chief strategist. Rather, the warning signs came from the Republican leaders excusing and normalizing this sinister character — and those who then justified the normalizers.
One bad boss can be endured. A gaggle of them will poison all decision-making. They will turn on each other. No band of brothers this: rather the permanent campaign as waged by triumphalist rabble-rousers and demagogues, abetted by people out of their depth and unfit for the jobs they will hold, gripped by grievance, resentment and lurking insecurity. Their mistakes — because there will be mistakes — will be exceptional.
Nemesis pursues and punishes all administrations, but this one will get a double dose. Until it can acquire some measure of humility about what it knows, and a degree of magnanimity to those who have opposed it, it will smash into crises and failures. With the disarray of its transition team, in a way, it already has.
My bottom line: Conservative political types should not volunteer to serve in this administration, at least for now. They would probably have to make excuses for things that are inexcusable and defend people who are indefensible. At the very least, they should wait to see who gets the top jobs. Until then, let the Trump team fill the deputy assistant secretary and assistant secretary jobs with civil servants, retired military officers and diplomats, or the large supply of loyal or obsequious second-raters who will be eager to serve. The administration may shake itself out in a year or two and reach out to others who have been worried about Trump. Or maybe not.
I hope that I am wrong. I hope that the administration will settle down and that I can cheer it when it is right and offer temperate criticisms when it is wrong. But the auspices here are disturbing.
So what should the policy community do for now? Do what you can do in other venues, and remember that this too will pass, and some day a more normal kind of administration will either emerge or replace this one.
Your country still needs you — just not yet.