Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump made statements that ruffled the feathers of foreign policy observers both in and out of establishment circles. Whether it was his misleading statements about his early opposition to the Iraq war, his enthusiasm for torture, his lack of enthusiasm for free trade agreements, or questioning of American military alliances, Trump garnered a great deal of opposition from the national security experts even within his own party. And a cottage industry emerged even before November 8 over whether Republican national security officials should serve in a Trump administration.
Whatever the merits of that debate, candidates have been named, or are under consideration, for the top national security positions in the Trump administration. As political scientist Elizabeth Saunders recently explained, the individuals that presidents surround themselves with exert a great deal of influence over the policy direction of an administration, due to both this president-elect’s lack of foreign policy experience and the signals those appointments send to internal and external actors about Trump’s intentions. Sycophants and loyalists can have a decidedly negative effect, limiting the number of policy options under consideration to those that fit with the president’s worldview. A diverse range of perspectives does not guarantee policy success, but it helps ensure options are considered that might challenge a president’s preconceived biases.
It is therefore worthwhile considering who might serve in the top foreign policy positions in a Trump administration, and how they might affect American foreign policy going forward.
The most important appointment made thus far is that of Michael Flynn—a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who previously ran the Defense Intelligence Agency—to the position of national security advisor. Flynn has received a great deal of media coverage during the course of the campaign. He is a controversial figure who was dismissed from the Obama administration for failing to toe the administration’s line regarding the Islamic State. Flynn’s performance at the Republican National Convention—where he joined the crowd as it chanted “lock her up” in reference to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—and a subsequent profile in Politico, do not paint a flattering portrait. Nor does Flynn’s Twitter feed, which has included tweets of fake news stories and retweets of clear cut anti-Semitic rhetoric (Flynn’s son, who serves as his chief of staff and top aide, has an even more disconcerting social media presence). Flynn is known for his harsh view of Islam. Reports have also emerged about lobbying Flynn has done on behalf of foreign countries, something he continued to do while receiving classified intelligence briefings with Trump during the campaign. Moreover, reports suggest that those briefings did not go particularly well—with Flynn repeatedly interrupting the briefers until New Jersey Governor Chris Christie rebuked him.
All of the above raises question of whether Flynn is able to work and play well with others, which is a necessity for someone whose job is to manage the interagency process. However, Flynn might inadvertently bring some positives to the job. If he alienates other parts of the bureaucracy, they might feel more empowered to act independently. One of the biggest problems with foreign policy during the Obama administration after all was its obsession with running everything out of the White House.
But whether a decentralized foreign policy process works well will also depend on who Trump appoints to the most important foreign policy positions: the secretaries of state and defense. For the former position, a number of names have been floated. Newt Gingrich was once on the short list, but he has since hinted that his name is no longer there. Uber hawk, and former ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, John Bolton was once seen as the leading candidate for the post and remains on the list. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani has also been named as a leading contender, a very odd choice given his complete lack of any diplomatic experience. Other names that have been mentioned recently include retired Army generals Jack Keane and David Petraeus—the former of whom apparently passed on being Trump’s secretary of defense, and the latter was a potential presidential candidate himself before having to resign as head of the CIA after, and plead guilty to, passing classified information to his mistress. And Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, may still be in the mix as well.
But most recently, former Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s name was added to the list—with Romney flying to New York to meet with Trump this past weekend. Romney, a moderate Republican with a hawkish streak, lambasted Trump during the 2016 campaign and he’s long been a proponent of a type of “American exceptionalism” at odds with Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy.
A number of names have also been floated for secretary of defense. There have been rumors that Tom Cotton, the ultra-hawkish Republican senator from Arkansas, would get the nod. Other names included Jeff Sessions, who instead has taken the position of attorney general in the Trump administration; Stephen Hadley, a former assistant national security advisor, and national security advisor, during the George W. Bush administration; and former Missouri Senator Jim Talent—one of the leading lights behind a longstanding, but misguided, proposal to create a floor for defense spending at four percent of gross domestic product.
A new wrinkle emerged this weekend, as retired U.S. Marine Corps General James “Mad Dog” Mattis met with Trump in New York to discuss the position. Mattis is a beloved figure in the military, Congress, the media, and among many in the think tank community. Veteran defense journalist Tom Ricks described Mattis and why, in many ways, he would be an odd pick for the Trump administration, today at his Foreign Policy blog:
First, his dealings with the White House. Mattis says what he thinks. That is President-elect Trump’s reputation, but I think the fact of the matter is Trump actually says what sounds good. There’s a big difference. What’s worse, Trump seems to value unquestioning loyalty more than he does hard facts.
There are other big, even huge, differences between Mattis and Trump. Mattis, for example, is an avid reader. He prepared a reading list for his officers before deploying to Iraq in 2004 and required that it be studied. Tip to OSD-Policy: Start reading the works of Sir Hew Strachan, Mattis’ favorite strategist.
Mattis is against isolationism and a fan of what he calls “continued American engagement in the world.” He also believes that “compromise [is] … a fundamental necessity at the heart of democratic government.” (Warning to Pentagoners: Mattis also is anti-PowerPoint, which he says “makes us stupid.”) And Trump avoided the draft, while retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson calls Mattis “the finest combat leader we’ve produced since Korea.”
Mattis also is a fiscal conservative. This is not a bad thing to have for someone running the Pentagon. It also may make Mattis skeptical of some of Trump’s promise to cut taxes while boosting defense spending and making American infrastructure great again.
Most of all, I would say, Mattis is meditative. In reviewing the case of Lieutenant Colonel Allen West, an Army artillery battalion commander who fired a handgun next to the ear of a detainee he was interrogating, Mattis wrote, “this shows a commander who has lost his moral balance or watched too many Hollywood movies.” (After leaving the Army, West went on to become a one-term Republican congressman from Florida and then, of course, a Fox news commentator.)
If he is named secretary of defense, Mattis would need a waiver from Congress to get around rules preventing retired military officers from running the Pentagon for seven years after they retire. Given his popularity though, such a waiver would be a mere formality—especially seeing as Senator John McCain, a Mattis supporter, runs the committee of jurisdiction that would oversee Mattis’ confirmation.
What may be the most bizarre thing about this group of names, as the Wall Street Journal notes, is the lack of a coherent worldview among them. This approach can work in certain circumstances, and a skillful president can create buy-in from even an eclectic group of advisors. But many of the people named as potential cabinet members do not necessarily share the zero sum, transactional worldview of the president-elect.
That could be a good thing, given the Donald’s strong personality—perhaps other strong personalities like Mattis or Romney could rein him in. As foreign policy hawks, or at least not in any way reflexively opposed to the use of military force, there is little chance any of these current or potential appointees will lead the Trump administration down the dovish path a few misguided souls once thought it might take. The question remains whether the experience and gravitas a Romney or Mattis might bring to their respective jobs will lead to independent decision-making that challenges the worst aspects of Trump’s worldview and independent centers of bureaucratic power that can challenge the influence of those in the White House.
If loyalty to the new president wins out, as it often has in Trump’s world, and someone close to his inner circle from early on—namely Flynn—has a prevailing influence, that could spell trouble absent such independent centers of political power. Flynn is said to prefer Talent for secretary of defense and does not necessarily get along well with Mattis. Depending on who lands at State, that might leave Flynn with the prevailing influence over the administration’s foreign policy. Given his professed views, and the president-elect’s lack of foreign policy experience, that is an unsettling prospect to say the least.