The Canary Sings!

Steve Bannon has been removed from the NSC Principals Committee. As the New York Times is reporting, “A new order issued by Mr. Trump, dated Tuesday and made public on Wednesday, removes Mr. Bannon from the principals committee, restores the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and intelligence director and also adds the energy secretary, C.I.A. director and United Nations ambassador.”

This is a huge victory for Secretary Mattis and General McMaster who have been pushing against the Trump administration to depoliticize the foreign policy decision making processes, appoint their own deputies, and otherwise resist the seemingly unstrategic decisions of the administration. As I blogged in the inaugural post of Security Dilemmas, whether Mattis and McMaster stayed in the government would be a huge sign as to whether “[Mattis] (the post was written before McMaster replaced Flynn as NSA) is able to implement the policies he prefers and is not being forced to move too far from those positions. If, however, Mattis resigns abruptly or early on in the first administration, that could very well be a sign that President Trump may be demanding implementation of his policies in the Pentagon, and perhaps across the whole government.”

Now it seems not only that they’re staying, but that they’re winning. They haven’t won every one of these battles, but they’ve won the most important ones. Removing Bannon from the NSC Principals Committee is a clear sign that Trump listens to and trusts Mattis and McMaster, that Bannon does not control the president’s every move, and that sane, rational decision makers who have a clear sense of the importance of the traditional role of the US are in control. It’s a good day for American foreign policy, American national interest, and global peace and security.

Shirking the Responsibilities of Leadership

In the aftermath of the SEAL raid into Yemen, which has prompted the father of the dead soldier to refuse to meet with President Trump, multiple investigations into the planning and execution of the raid, and the unsightly blaming of his generals for what is ultimately his decision, Donald Trump may have found a way to avoid taking responsibility for future military operations. The Daily Beast is reporting that Trump is considering taking himself out of the decision loop for military raids by allowing Secretary of Defense Mattis and other relevant military officials to authorize the raids on their own without presidential approval. As the Beast notes, “in declared war zones, U.S. commanders have the authority to make such calls, but outside such war zones, in ungoverned or unstable places like Somalia, Libya, or Yemen, it can take permissions all the way up to the Oval Office to launch a drone strike or a special-operations team.”

It’s not inherently a bad idea to loosen the reins on approving military operations, and it’s a complicated calculation about which kind of operations should and which should not require presidential approval.

Continue reading “Shirking the Responsibilities of Leadership”

Dangers of Un-Leadership

It is still early in the administration of Donald Trump (has it really only been a month?) and fortunately there haven’t been any serious foreign policy crises yet. But that is not to say that all is well in the national security offices of the executive branch. Disturbing and dangerous signs are visible that President Trump has no idea what he is doing, makes up policy on the fly, likely based on whatever cable news show he last watched, and ignores his cabinet and policy advisers, forcing them to either contort policy around Trump’s tweets and outbursts or to clean up the mess from what he has unwittingly done. Meanwhile, Trump spends much of his time on the links and trying to hide his golf outings from the press.

This is an echo of the offer that was allegedly made to John Kasich during the campaign that if he became vice president he would be in charge of making policy and running the country while the president focused on “making America great again.” But it is, in fact, much much worse.

Everything that the president says matters. His words are parsed and scrutinized by everyone from friends to allies to enemies. When the president does not, will not, and cannot lead effectively and efficiently it causes chaos and uncertainty, neither of which are desirable in foreign policy. While surprise is good on the battlefield, it is bad in geopolitics, where wars can erupt over misunderstandings and where delicate policy negotiations can be undone by one errant remark. Trump’s “un-leadership” is endangering not just US national security but the peace and stability that the international system has long enjoyed.

Continue reading “Dangers of Un-Leadership”

H.R. McMaster

The president has just announced that LTG H.R. McMaster will be his new National Security Adviser, and Keith Kellogg will stay on as the chief of staff of the NSC Staff.
I will admit that I had bet against McMaster agreeing to do this, at least in part because I couldn’t imagine him agreeing to the kinds of staffing restrictions we heard about with the offer to Harward. So, either the staffing restrictions have been eased, or McMaster feels that having some influence over national security policy is important enough that he will swallow the restrictions … or he is betting that once he is in, he will be able to get his way.

McMaster is an intelligent guy, and by all accounts a great leader, which will be very important in an NSC Staff that appears to be in some disarray. He is likely to get along well with Secretary Mattis. The big questions are the same ones that would have come up for anyone who took this post: what role will Steve Bannon play? How will they get along? Where will McMaster fit in the White House inner circle that appears to be doing most of the policy-making, of which Flynn was an important part? McMaster does not have the personal relationship with the president that Flynn had; will he have much influence? How many of his own people will McMaster be allowed to bring in? Will he be allowed to choose his own deputy? K T McFarland has indicated that she has been asked to stay …

Carrie Lee has interviewed McMaster and has just put out a series of tweets on what she thinks this appointment means. She notes that McMaster is an innovative thinker, but still in many ways a traditional Army officer.

McMaster’s decision is coming as a surprise to a lot of the security and defense community who know him, but this is a man who believes strongly in speaking truth to power, and I can only guess that he feels it is his duty to both his country and the men and women in uniform to try to influence policy as much as he can. It will be interesting to see how much influence he is able to exercise; keep your eyes on personnel changes at NSC/Staff over the next weeks.

Flynn Fallout

The bottom line is that, when a vacuum opens up, someone wants to fill it. And when there are multiple people with competing interests trying to fill it, there will be a power struggle.

I had barely posted my note about Flynn’s NSC and the Trump administration’s potential problems with pushing through arms sales to the Saudis when the word came in that Flynn was resigning. Several people have asked what the implications of this might be, so here are my initial thoughts.

This is certain to make an already unsettled NSC staff even more unsettled. Flynn, regardless of what anyone thinks of him, was the one who was providing direction and guidance to the NSC staff. With him gone, uncertainty about policy, the status of initiatives that are already underway, and frankly the safety of people’s jobs will skyrocket. Although Kellogg, the acting NSA, is reportedly under consideration to take on the job officially, he is a Flynn hire, and may not be asked to stay (see below on power struggles). A significant number of staffers were brought in by Flynn on the strength of personal connections, and if a new NSA is brought in (we’re hearing that the front-runner is retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, and the third name under consideration is David Petraeus), he will want to bring in his own people. Again, it is hardly unusual for there to be a lot of personnel turnover during an administration transition, but this is an unusual and unnecessary level of turmoil, and the whole world can see it.

The fact that Flynn was clearly a close advisor to Trump indicates that there will be a power vacuum, and there will be several people looking to take advantage of that: Continue reading “Flynn Fallout”

The Canary in Trump’s Coal Mine

In May of 2016, the New York Times reported that one of John Kasich’s senior advisers was contacted by the Trump campaign, which offered Kasich the vice presidency, claiming that he could be “the most powerful vice president in history.” When the adviser asked how that would happen, the Times reported that the Trump staffer responded that the vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy while President Trump would focus on “making America great again.” For many people on both sides of the political aisle, such a distribution of responsibilities would be the best case scenario in a Trump administration. President Trump can spend his time tweeting and speechifying, while leaving the hard work of policy making to the experienced, more traditional politicians.

The recent hearings for Trump’s Cabinet appointees lend some credence to the argument that this is, in fact, how President Trump intends to govern. Many of his nominees, especially for the national security-related positions, expressed policy preferences that diverged significantly from Trump’s campaign promises. But perhaps the most important Cabinet member in this context is the new Secretary of Defense, retired U.S. Marine General James Mattis.

Continue reading “The Canary in Trump’s Coal Mine”