The Trump administration is not prepared for a foreign policy crisis.
But the administration has not faced an actual national security crisis that tests it and us in a profound way. There is no shortage of possible candidates — a major terrorist attack; a debilitating cyberattack; an infectious disease outbreak; an incident with North Korea, Iran, China or Russia that escalates into a broader conflict. Yet no administration in modern memory has been less prepared to deal with a true crisis than this one.
I spent nearly 25 years in government, and almost as much time studying it. When it comes to the effective stewardship of our nation’s security — especially during crises — the most successful administrations had three things in common:
- process and
People with the experience, temperament and intellectual honesty to give a president good ideas and to dissuade him from pursuing bad ones. An effective process that brings key stakeholders together to question one another’s assumptions, stress test options and consider second-order effects. And all of this in the service of developing clear policies that provide marching orders to everyone in an administration, while putting allies at ease and adversaries on notice about our intentions.
The George H.W. Bush administration’s handling of the end of the Cold War powerfully illustrates these principles. Mr. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, the national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and a remarkable team of senior officials proved to be the right people in the right place at the right time. Mr. Scowcroft’s interagency process became a model for every successive administration until this one. The policies they pursued were clear, sustained and comprehensive. The Obama administration’s successes in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice and handling the Ebola epidemic were the results of similar strengths.
When it comes to people, process and policy, Mr. Trump’s administration has gone from bad to disastrous.
For two years, cooler heads like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the national security adviser H.R. McMaster served as something of a check on Mr. Trump’s worst instincts: invade Venezuela, withdraw from NATO, evacuate every American from the Korean Peninsula.Now, their successors — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton as national security adviser — are as likely to encourage Mr. Trump’s follies as to oppose them.
Equally important, the Partnership for Public Service has found that almost 40 percent of leadership positions requiring Senate confirmation remain unfilled across the administration — at last count 275 out of 705 jobs. About a third of the State Department’s 198 key posts are vacant. One-quarter of the administration’s departments are led by “acting” secretaries.
Under Mr. Bolton, the National Security Council headed by the president, the Principals’ Committee headed by Mr. Bolton and the Deputies Committee, which I once led and which coordinates policy deliberations, have gone into deep hibernation.
Some combination of these committees typically met multiple times a day. Now, it is reportedly once or twice a week at most. The result is greater control of the policy process for Mr. Bolton and fewer messy meetings in which someone might challenge his wisdom. Mr. Mattis, who once complained about death by meetings, protested to Mr. Bolton about the lack of them.
.. The absence of process has consequences. There were minimal efforts to prepare Mr. Trump for his summit with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, in which he unilaterally ended military exercises on the Korean Peninsula and mused about withdrawing all American forces. Nor was there a process to game out Mr. Trump’s recent decision to pull out of Syria — instead, the relevant committees scrambled after the fact to bring some order to Mr. Trump’s impulses. Even the welcome progress toward ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan has been hobbled by Mr. Trump’s arbitrary and then partly rescinded announcement that he was cutting forces in Afghanistan by half, thereby undercutting our leverage in negotiations with the Taliban.
As for policy, it’s the lifeblood of any administration. Secretaries, other senior officials, ambassadors and envoys all need to know what the policy is to explain it to others and bring predictability to our nation’s foreign engagements. Mr. Trump’s failure to develop policies — and his tendency to countermand them by tweet — have caused major confusion worldwide about where we stand on issue after issue. In a crisis, having clear policy principles is even more important. Take the meltdown in Venezuela. The administration deserves credit for leading the international isolation of the country’s illegitimate president, Nicolás Maduro. But there is no evidence it has a comprehensive strategy to advance a peaceful transition — or a Plan B if Mr. Maduro digs in or lashes out.
Axios reported that Mr. Trump likes to express his disdain for policy by citing the boxer Mike Tyson: Everybody has a plan until he gets punched in the mouth. It’s true that no policy fully survives first contact. But if you don’t spend time anticipating the shots you are likely to take, you wind up flailing about wildly. Which sounds a lot like Mr. Trump.
These past two years, most of our foreign policy setbacks have been modest, and mostly of Mr. Trump’s own making. These next two, we may not be so lucky.