Heck of a Secret Plan, Trumpy!

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump bragged about his “secret plan” to defeat the Islamic State, and while he vowed to only unveil his plan if elected president, he did let slip at least one component of this plan: That he would “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. So far, just over two months into his presidency, it seems clear that, unsurprisingly to most, that his secret plan is little more than trying to bomb the shit out of ISIS and al Qaeda.

So what does a strategy of bombing the shit out of ISIS look like in practice? First, it starts by rolling back legal safeguards on “United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.” Next, it ramps up the intensity of air sorties, including a huge increase in the number of air strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Then, it rolls back rules intended to limit accidentally killing civilians by applying war-zone targeting rules in Somalia.

It’s far too early to know if bombing the shit out of ISIS, al Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and other assorted groups is paying off. What we do know is that large numbers of civilians are being killed by US air strikes, likely including approximately 50 people in a Syrian mosque, more than 30 people sheltering in a Syrian school, and well over 100 people in Mosul. We also know that ISIS has adapted to the increased tempo of US airstrikes by herding civilians into buildings and then conducting military operations out of those buildings so as to attract a US airstrike, hoping that rising civilian casualties will pressure the US to pare back its air operations.

It’s also too early to say whether the change in sortie rate and the loosening of targeting rules is the cause of the recent civilian deaths. But, what can be said is that, so far, there seems to be little signs of a larger strategy for defeating ISIS, al Qaeda, et. al, other than by bombing the shit out of them.

Continue reading “Heck of a Secret Plan, Trumpy!”

Why the Pathological Lying by President Trump Matters

After several waves of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers across the country, an arrest has been made. But the accused comes as a surprise to most: a Jewish dual-citizen of the US and Israel. But perhaps not to President Trump who, several weeks ago, made the claim that the threats could be being made by a “false flag” operation. There’s no evidence yet that the suspect–a teenager–is either guilty or operating on behalf of anyone in an effort to discredit the Trump administration. But, given the president’s tenuous grasp of nuance and complexity, it’s entirely possible that he had received an intelligence briefing suggesting the identity of the culprit, and jumped to the potentially erroneous conclusion that a Jew making bomb threats against JCCs must be a false flag operation by Democrats against his administration.

Trump’s beliefs aside, this is why it matters that the president lies constantly and without apparent self-consciousness or remorse. If Trump had indeed been told by US intelligence agencies that the suspect was a Jewish Israeli-American citizen, his constant lying meant that few would believe his seemingly outrageous claim that the threats were a false flag operation (never mind whether the president should be casually commenting on on-going criminal/terrorism investigations or his possible misinterpretation of the political nature of the threats). As James Fallows noted, now seemingly presciently, earlier this week, a president needs the public to believe what he says because:

Something has happened to every new president, and something will happen to Donald Trump. It is inevitable. And when that something occurs, it is also inevitable that his administration will need to say, Trust us on this. That’s in the nature of foreign emergencies. It can take a long time to figure out the truth. Even when the truth is known, some of it remains too sensitive to reveal. (Who exactly were the Bay of Pigs invaders hoping to find as allies inside Castro’s Cuba? What exactly was aboard the U.S. surveillance plane that was forced down onto Chinese territory?) So without having all the facts on the table and in public view, an administration inevitably relies on a cushion of domestic and international trust that it is telling some version of the truth, that it is doing its best to weigh evidence and be straight about the results.

The inevitability of this moment, when a new president says Trust me, is why so many veteran officials have warned about Donald Trump’s habit of incessantly telling instantly disprovable lies. Some of the lies don’t really matter: “biggest inaugural crowd ever,” when photos showed it was comparatively small. Some of them obviously would matter, if they were true: millions of illegal voters, wiretapped by Obama. But of course they’re not true, and everyone except Trump and his coterie can look at the evidence and know that. Thus the problem: If an administration will lie about facts where the contradictory evidence is in plain sight, how can we possibly believe them on anything else?

Representative Adam Schiff made the same point a few days earlier:

“If six months from now the president should say that Iran is cheating on the nuclear agreement, if he’s making that up, it’s a real problem,” Schiff said. “If he’s not making [it] up and it’s true, it’s an even bigger problem because the question is: Would people believe him? Would the American people believe him? Would people around the world believe him? And that has real-world consequences.”

Did the president know about the identity of the suspected bomb threat maker? It’s too early to tell. But even if he did, it was perfectly reasonable for people to dismiss the president’s accusation. And it will be perfectly reasonable for us to dismiss anything and everything he says so long as he continues to demonstrate a reckless disregard of truths that are patently obvious.

 

The “Intellectual” Foundations of a Trumpian Foreign Policy, Part I

There’s been a lot of confusion over what, exactly, President Trump’s foreign policy is or will be. He’s talked tough about trade and alliances, suggested that the US should play a more restrained role in the world, and requested a massive military build-up. But there seems to be little rhyme or reason behind these pieces, as if each were separate from the other and not bound together by what foreign policy analysts would describe as a “grand strategy.” Why would China help the US deal with the problem of North Korean proliferation if the US is threatening to undo the One China policy? Why should the US increase the size of the navy if America will be asking allies to do more of the work and playing a reduced role in the world? How does the president understand the source of conflict and state behavior in the world? What are the factors that most contribute to global peace? These are the questions at the theoretical and policy level that must be answered–or at least engaged–in order to craft a coherent foreign policy.

Understanding the logic behind Trump’s foreign policy requires a look behind the curtain, because the president himself is so devoid of thought, at the people shaping Trump’s policies from the wings. One such person is Michael Anton, currently serving as Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications on the National Security Council. Anton has been referred to as the primary intellectual behind Trump’s foreign policy, with Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, referring to Anton as “America’s leading authoritarian intellectual” and comparing Anton to Carl Schmitt. Anton is perhaps best known as the person behind the pseudonymously-penned “The Flight 93 Election” in which he argued that conservatives needed to rally behind Trump regardless of policy differences or face destruction as a viable party.

Anton has recently published a piece (written before he joined the administration) in which he gives, perhaps, the clearest explanation of how he–and perhaps by extension, the Trump administration (or at least the political side of his administration)–thinks about the world. In the new policy journal American Affairs, being hailed as the intellectual defense of Trumpism, Anton has an article entitled “America and The Liberal Order” in which lays out his understanding of the role the US should play in the world. It is a bold piece, long on pronouncements but short on international relations theory or serious scholarship (there seems to be a trend of national security “experts” in the Trump White House who have little actual experience in either academia or policy work: See Gorka, Sebastian). So…what’s his argument? In this post, I will examine and dismantle his argument. In a subsequent post, I will present my rebuttal.

Continue reading “The “Intellectual” Foundations of a Trumpian Foreign Policy, Part I”

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.

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Trump’s New Deportation Rules Will Have a Harsh Effect in Mexico

On January 25, President Trump signed two executive orders laying out new rules to treat unauthorized immigrants on the US-Mexico border and within the US. On Monday, Homeland Security issued memos on how to implement them.

This is all very much consistent with Trump’s campaign promises regarding immigration and Mexico. Having said that, from Mexico’s point of view there are some things to consider, particularly given that Homeland Security is planning to send people back “to the territory from which they came”, regardless of their nationality and without a resolution from immigration courts. This means that the US would be sending hundreds of thousands of migrants from Central and South America, and even from Haiti, Cuba, and Africa, back to Mexico.

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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.

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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.