The House Intelligence Committee hearing Monday marked the end of the opening installment of “The President,” the must-watch reality/horror show that has transfixed the nation and the world. Now the plot gets more serious, perhaps darker, with some new characters likely to emerge in key national-security roles.
President Trump should be less of a stage hog going forward, and his Twitter storms less intense. He is often described as a narcissist, but he’s not suicidal. He knows he has been rebuffed in a public hearing that he can’t ridicule as “fake news.” With his approval rating below 40 percent, he needs to broaden his base. Trump wants to disrupt, but he also wants to succeed.
Trump and the nation would be well served if his two leading Cabinet secretaries, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, played more prominent roles. Trump needs the solid outriggers that Mattis and Tillerson can provide. This presidency is wounded at a time of potentially serious crises.
Mattis and Tillerson are stabilizers. They have both led big organizations under pressure, and they know what command is. Both have been moving cautiously in the early weeks, feeling their way and mostly keeping their mouths shut in public. They don’t like talking to the press, but in that they’re hardly alone among former chief executives and military leaders.
Mattis and Tillerson aren’t communicating much with the public, but they’re talking to Trump and to each other, while they figure out the strategic positions this administration will take on key issues. The two Cabinet secretaries try to have breakfast once a week, talk frequently by phone, and hash out common positions before each big meeting in the Situation Room.
Mattis and Tillerson have three paramount tasks — matters of war and peace on which their advice will be crucial for a beleaguered president with big ideas but limited experience.
The first test is “eradicating” the Islamic State. Trump claimed during the campaign he had a secret strategy, but in office he has sensibly expanded the approach recommended by Gen. Joseph Votel, the Central Command leader, which focuses on capturing Raqqa, the Islamic State capital in Syria. Centcom favors using a militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is multiethnic but led by Syrian Kurds from a group known as the YPG.
U.S. commanders rightly argue that while the Kurdish warriors are anathema to Turkey, they’re the only hope for quickly seizing Raqqa. Turkey’s claims about an alternative Sunni militia known as the “First Corps” aren’t credible. Raqqa is an urgent priority: Terrorists there are hatching plots targeting Europe and the United States.
The message to Turkey should be blunt: Let the United States work with the Kurds to clear Raqqa now (and get them out afterward), or Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime will seize the initiative.
A second crisis is building in North Korea. Here, Mattis and Tillerson have combined in warning Pyongyang that “strategic patience” is over; the United States will not permit the erratic regime of Kim Jong Un to develop a nuclear strike capability targeting the United States. The key to avoiding war is to bolster allies, in Japan and South Korea, and to enlist China’s cooperation.
Trump’s third challenge, perhaps the trickiest, is to repair the dangerously strained relationship with Russia. That’s complicated by President Vladimir Putin’s reckless covert action against the U.S. presidential election last year and by Trump’s courtship of Putin and his oligarchs, which was foolish at best.
The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation must run its course. Until it is completed, there will be a “big gray cloud” over the administration, as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said Monday. But this doesn’t mean that diplomatic dialogue with Moscow and, where possible, cooperation, should cease. After all, “detente” and nuclear-arms control began in the dark days of the Cold War.
Tillerson, who knows Putin from his ExxonMobil days, is planning to visit Russia next month. Tillerson should attend the NATO summit, too, countering reports he might skip it. But he is the right messenger to Moscow.
As Mattis and Tillerson work on these complex problems, they need to communicate their strategy to America and the world. The United States is facing big questions, and the answers can’t be conveyed in 140-character tweets.
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