When President Trump’s top foreign policy advisers gathered recently at the White House to discuss plans to revamp the administration’s Afghanistan strategy, the makeup of those in the room was indicative of a significant turn in U.S. foreign policy.
Seated front and center at the Situation Room table were four current or retired generals who dominate just about every big national security decision Trump makes.
The debate, however, was most notable for the voices that were absent.
Intended as a crucial final debate session before the plan went to the president, the meeting took place on a day in which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the president’s top diplomat, was in New York. His acting deputy attended in his place.
The generals at the table were Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser; Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and two retired four-star generals, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly. Most of those in attendance emerged believing that the Afghanistan plan was ready to go to the president for final approval, U.S. officials who took part in the session said.
Unbeknown to the White House, America’s top diplomat was not on board: Tillerson, who heads a department that some White House officials described as “AWOL” during the review process, didn’t think the plan did enough to address other countries in the region with a stake in Afghanistan, such as Pakistan, Iran and India, a person familiar with his thinking said. Tillerson also was concerned that the plan called for beefing up the State Department’s presence in dangerous locations outside Kabul.
Even though the State Department remains understaffed at its top ranks, department officials said it had been an active participant in the review and insisted that a final decision on the emerging plan was probably weeks away. A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the ongoing discussions until “the group arrives at a decision point.”
The disconnect over a major policy shift, with big implications for the Pentagon, the State Department and the federal budget, illustrates the sway military officers hold in the Trump administration. Current and retired military officers not only hold positions at the highest ranks of government but also fill senior staff jobs in the White House that have traditionally been the purview of civilians or experienced diplomats.
According to a review by The Washington Post, at least 10 out of 25 senior policy and leadership positions on the National Security Council (NSC) are held by current or retired military officials, up from two at the end of the Obama administration.
The shift in staffing reflects Trump’s faith in the nation’s warriors and his delight in shows of military force. On the campaign trail and in office, he has promised to “knock the hell” out of the Islamic State and take a harder line against an array of adversaries, including North Korea and Iran.
Since January, that attitude has rippled across U.S. foreign policy and the NSC itself. In the Middle East, Trump has emphasized support for Arab allies, prioritizing a desire to contain Iran and pound extremist groups over the Obama administration’s advocacy for human rights and changes designed to improve life in closed and repressive societies. That shift is one that has long been advocated by the U.S. military.
In Yemen and Somalia, the president has given the military greater rein to launch raids and fire missiles, empowering on-the-ground commanders to make decisions that were tightly managed by the previous White House.
In Afghanistan, the administration seems poised to accede to a troop surge, despite resistance from the State Department and some within the White House — including senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon — who fear the costly plan won’t work. The request by successive ground commanders for more forces and latitude to strike the Taliban dates back more than a year.
To some analysts, the heavy presence of military officers on the NSC, many of whom helped forge the Bush administration’s do-or-die response to a spiraling insurgency in Iraq, is a much-needed corrective inside the White House. They say that a stable and sustainable outcome in such places as Iraq, Yemen and Syria cannot be achieved quickly or on the cheap.
Other experts worry that the officers’ immersion in the wars of the past 15 years have made it hard for them to take a broad view of U.S. power and influence in the world that extends beyond armed conflict in the Middle East and South Asia.
“It would take a remarkable individual to stand back from those experiences and think critically of them,” said Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and history professor at Boston University. “It would be hard for them to consider that the path they had taken [in the wars] might have been a wrong one.”
The NSC was created after World War II to harmonize national security decision-making amid competing departments with different agendas. It was set inside the White House, and not the Pentagon, to ensure that the military, with its massive resources and personnel, would not dominate foreign policy planning.
“There needed to be a civilian mechanism to help guide strategy and decision-making,” said Derek Chollet, a top official in the Obama White House and Pentagon. Although there is a long tradition of military personnel serving on the NSC, Chollet said the staff has typically been dominated by career civil servants and experts from outside of government.
The heavy military component to the current NSC is a product of a cascade of events that began with a presidential election in which much of the Republican foreign policy establishment in Washington actively opposed Trump. The president-elect chose Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general steeped in intelligence and counterterrorism operations, as his first national security adviser.
Flynn resigned after less than a month in office, but before he left he filled top NSC positions with people he knew from his time as a senior intelligence analyst in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those selections included Derek Harvey, a retired colonel who coordinates Middle East policy, and Matthew Pottinger, a former journalist who served as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now senior director for Asia.
McMaster, who succeeded Flynn, has similarly leaned heavily on the military for expertise. He chose Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Ricky Waddell as his deputy national security adviser and, more recently, tapped Rudolph Attalah, a retired lieutenant colonel, as senior director for Africa.
At the same time, the State Department is in talks with the White House to reduce the number of diplomatic staff who serve temporary assignments at the NSC, a move that would cut costs but could intensify the militarization of the White House. The effort is driven by cost-cutting at State and a desire at the White House to pare back an NSC seen as bloated and micromanaging.
One worry among some current and former White House officials is that the heavy military presence might make it harder for the Trump administration to effectively oversee the vast swath of nonmilitary agencies involved in foreign policy. Others fret that the military officers might go easy on the Pentagon. “You have a harder time critiquing your own institution to which you owe your future livelihood,” said a former White House official. “It’s a tough balance to strike, but when you have a concentration of military officers, I think they have a tendency to be very deferential” to superiors.
The concentration of military officers is highest in the section of the NSC focused on the Middle East and Iran. For many of those officers, the defining experience of their career was service in Iraq, when President George W. Bush ordered a surge of more than 30,000 troops to stave off near-certain defeat.
It was the war’s most dramatic period, when a force of more than 160,000 U.S. troops was locked in a deadly battle with both Sunni insurgents and Iranian proxies for control of the country.
“The thing that worries me most is that a lot of these officers really forged their view of the world and the Middle East at a particular moment in our occupation of Iraq,” said Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon and White House official who focused on the Middle East.
Today the United States faces a vastly different situation in the region. U.S. troop levels are a small fraction of their Iraq War peak, and chaos and civil war have spread throughout the region.
Kahl said the military-heavy White House could overestimate its ability to influence events in the region or needlessly provoke Iran, leading to more conflict and bloodshed.
It’s also possible that military officers, chastened by the losses in Iraq, will take a more cautious view.
“The conventional wisdom on this is probably wrong,” said Peter Feaver, a senior official in George W. Bush’s White House and professor at Duke University. “Empirically, the military is more reluctant to use force . . . but if force is used, then they want it to be used without restraint.”