Last summer the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts pondered the ethics of serving in a Trump administration. At the time I was pretty bearish about it. Then, during the transition, I hedged a bit and concluded with the following:
My advice … is to apply for a position if they really want to serve. But pay very close attention to who gets appointed to which policy principal positions: Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Homeland Security, National Security Adviser, etc. If you believe you can honorably serve the president and your policy principal based on their past statements, then go for it. If that individual makes you feel queasy, then don’t.
We are now four months into an administration that has managed to beclown American foreign policy pretty badly. It would seem as though there are excellent reasons for someone to decline. To be sure, the administration needs people, as it has abjectly failed to staff any of the relevant Cabinet departments (State, Defense, Treasury). The situation is so bad that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is employing some shady workarounds just to bring in some competent political appointees.
Based on what’s happened, it would be easy to advise aspiring foreign policy wonks to stay away. The officials who have gone into the administration with universal acclaim, like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster or Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, have had their reputations besmirched just a bit by their association with Donald Trump. Those who went in with uncertain reputations, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have, um, not distinguished themselves.
Furthermore, as the Russia investigation metastasizes, it seems likely that the White House will continue to gin up half-baked rationales to ask inapp ropriate things from its foreign policy people. In Dexter Filkins’s New Yorker profile of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, this paragraph cast quite the pall:
When Mattis asked Michèle Flournoy, the former Undersecretary of Defense under Obama, to consider becoming his deputy, she was torn between her admiration for Mattis and her discomfort with the Trump Administration. “I lost a lot of sleep and felt sick to my stomach,” she told me. At Trump Tower, she was interviewed by a group of aides with no national-security experience. Among their first questions was “What would it take for you to resign?” Flournoy, alarmed, told Mattis that she couldn’t take the job.
So there are many, many good reasons for someone of conscience not to work for this particular administration.
And yet. The very next paragraphs in Filkins’s profile are disconcerting:
Three months into the new Administration, the Pentagon is being run by a skeleton crew; career officers and civil servants are doing jobs that are supposed to be performed by political appointees. “It’s like going to work on a Sunday — there’s no one there,” the former defense official told me. “If my printer doesn’t work on Sunday, I’m screwed. That’s what the Pentagon’s like every day.”
Leon Panetta said that in normal times the Pentagon could probably carry on without a full complement of senior leaders — but, if there was a prolonged international incident, it would come under severe strain. “I’m worried about a crisis,” he said. “Whenever I had a crisis, I would gather my senior people together. If you recommend military action, you’ve got to think, What forces, what targets, what consequences? That requires a lot of thinking and a lot of smart people. Mattis is basically by himself.”
The truth is that the Trump administration has been extraordinarily lucky, because it has only encountered long-simmering crises (like North Korea) or crises of its own making (everything else). If a real external shock hits the Trump foreign policy machine, it is woefully unprepared.
This administration needs competent foreign policy hands who are willing to serve, and I am increasingly of the mind that they should try to do so if possible. This is not because I have renewed faith in Trump’s foreign policy agenda. As reported or leaked, Trump’s actual statements on foreign policy are a garbage fire. Rather, as time has passed, it has become increasingly clear that in the area of foreign policy, the White House’s incompetence is far more problematic than its malevolence. In January the White House looked as though it had an America First foreign policy strategy that it wanted to implement; in May, the White House looks as though it just wants to get through a 24-hour news cycle without a single foreign policy fiasco. Trump and his policy principals need to be better staffed, and the current gang is below par.
Another factor to consider is that Trump’s foreign policy principals do not look egregiously awful. Well, maybe Tillerson, but to be fair he is the most inexperienced and therefore needs the most help. They have also been willing to contain Trump’s worst instincts, ranging from Mattis explaining that torture does not work to McMaster telling the South Koreans that, contra Trump, they will not be paying up for THAAD.
Finally, there is the fact that Trump’s foreign policy has been disastrous in its rhetoric but nondescript in its execution. The United States has not pulled out of NAFTA or NATO. No matter what he says, Trump has not deviated too much from Obama’s foreign policy. His team has simply executed it less well than prior administrations. If the competent manpower gap can be closed, then perhaps the negative blowback from Trump’s rhetoric will also be limited.
Ha! I’m kidding. Trump will continue to say outlandish and stupid things. That’s the price of serving in this administration. But good people can prevent bad rhetoric from translating into bad actions. And if the first four months of this administration provides any evidence, it is that Trump needs better people.
Trump prides himself on moving more quickly than previous presidents, so think of it this way; only four months in, Trump needs his version of David Gergen riding to the rescue to bring order to chaos. Foreign policy wonks who enter the administration now can be viewed as part of the solution, not enablers of the problem.