Trump Administration Crafts its First National Security Strategy
The Trump Administration is scheduled to release its first National Security Strategy on Monday, December 18th. And, although many will take it as the final word in terms of the future of America’s national strategy, it’s important to remember that these documents are designed for public consumption, not to be the key document for the implementation of foreign policy.
The National Security Strategy (NSS) has been a Congressionally-mandated requirement since President Ronald Reagan signed the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986. It offers the president’s appraisal of America’s core interests, challenges, and opportunities, and (to a lesser degree) the means by which the administration intends to achieve its foreign policy vision.
It is rare for a new administration to release an NSS document within its first year, however. The move illustrates the desire of Trump and his foreign policy team to change course especially in terms of fighting worldwide terrorism and addressing the Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean threats.
The principal advisers to the president who wrote the document appear to incorporate the president’s campaign promises of putting American interests first. Reports indicate that the Trump Administration NSS will significantly address the economic threat of Chinese trade practices.
They also realize the world must contend with the former ISIS fighters who are returning “home” to the West – including the United States. What will these fighters do as a means of retaliating against the United States?
According to the snippets of the pending NSS that have been released to the public thus far, another important element is the inclusion of space weaponization and technological threats. This has been something that few NSS memos have ever seriously addressed and this item will likely look North Korea’s missile capabilities and computer hacking infrastructure, and America’s options.
These and other parts of the NSS will be interesting, but should we really pay a lot of attention to them?
Should we Really Believe National Security Strategy Reports?
Like the political platforms written every four years by the Republican and Democratic parties, NSSs can mean little when it comes to actually formulating national security strategy. For instance, the 2016 Democratic platform advocated recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
And, like the political platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties are criticized by the opposition, we can expect the new NSS to be criticized by Trump’s critics, no matter what it says.
Criticism of a NSS is easy; conversely, the president’s supporters will mostly say nice things about it because they trust Trump. Like so much of the debate over foreign and defense policy these days, where you stand depends on where you sit.
However, since the NSS is public, it gives critics a target to aim at and criticize. As Stephen Walt said in Foreign Policy, “If your job involves teaching and writing about U.S. foreign policy, in short, you should be grateful that Goldwater-Nichols forces every administration to produce something new to feed on each year.”
Walt continued, “We scholars also like these documents because they give us a chance to aim our intellectual firepower at a fixed target.”
Consequently, the reports are designed to be as bland as possible. No wonder every president has diverged from his NSS at some point in time.
One can’t assume the NSS will actually tell you what any administration (Republican or Democratic) is going to do. They are often drafted by committee, or by some hired pen, and the president may not play much (any?) role in the process. More importantly, foreign policy always involves adapting to actions or events that one doesn’t anticipate, and no government can ever stick to its strategic vision with complete fidelity. Even so, these statements are usually worth reading, if only to get an idea of an administration’s basic inclination or at least what it thinks it is trying to accomplish.
Another factor to consider is the relationship between the president and the National Security Council (NSC). In the history of the NSC, some presidents have relied heavily on the NSC like Nixon, while others like Truman have ignored it. In the case of Trump, since McMaster was Trump’s second choice and several Obama appointments still remain in the NSC, the NSS may reflect the NSC views instead of the administration. Also remember Trump relies more on the Department of Defense for strategy options.
With these caveats in mind, let’s look at the probable tone of Trump’s first NSS.
NSC Advisor McMaster and the Trump NSS
During a speech to the Reagan National Defense Forum last week, President Trump’s national security advisor, Army Lt. General McMaster, gave hints on what the president’s national security strategy will contain.
McMaster started by reflecting on the challenges President Reagan faced and comparing it to the national security challenges faced by Trump today.
“Today as we approach the unveiling of the Trump administration’s national security strategy, we are at a similar crossroads,” McMaster said.
Russia and China are subverting the post-World War II political, economic and security orders to advance their own interests at the expense of the United States and its allies, the national security advisor said.
Iran and North Korea are violating the sovereignty of their neighbors, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and exporting terror to other nations. “Jihadist terror organizations such as [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] threaten all civilized people in every corner of the world,” he said.
“These national security challenges also require a dramatic rethinking of American foreign policy from previous decades,” McMaster said.
The national security strategy “will focus on protecting our homeland, advancing American prosperity, preserving peace through strength … and finally enhancing American influence,” he said.
The approach adopts a realistic view of our security environment, the general said. “For this reason, we do not base national security decisions on rigid ideology, but instead on our core national interests and clearly defined objectives derived from those interests,” McMaster said.
Much of what we can expect from Trump is already obvious and it’s quite a change from his predecessor. Trump has empowered his top military commanders to act as they see fit on the battlefield, and he feels free to reverse his positions.
Under Obama, commanders in the field had to work their way up the chain of command. Plans would go off into the White House to the National Security Council, there would be meetings, then work its way back down. This is very different under Trump, he’s authorized his generals. He’s literally given them the authority to take aggressive action.
Trump and his supporters likes to present this measure as proof the defeat of ISIS on the battlefield in the last year compared to “Obama’s national security failures against ISIS in the past 8 years”.
Trump’s real national security strategy will also be based on his outlook, which he outlined during his campaign. In another speech, McMaster said the new strategy would rely on “peace through strength” to advance U.S. interests abroad. And he promised that alliances with traditional U.S. allies would play a prominent role in Washington’s approach. Despite concerns that President Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign might lead to a retreat from the world stage, McMaster said the new strategy would do the opposite, and instead mark the return of a more confident, more determined United States.
McMaster said the finished document is centered on four main principles: protecting the U.S. homeland; advancing American prosperity and economic security; a stronger, more capable military; and advancing U.S. influence.
The strategy also highlights several different threats: those from powers like Russia and China, as well as from so-called rogue regimes, such as Iran and North Korea.
McMaster specifically called out Russia for threatening the U.S. with “so-called new generation warfare,” an apparent reference to the U.S. intelligence community assessment that Moscow tried to influence the 2016 presidential election.
“These are very sophisticated campaigns of subversion and disinformation and propaganda using sovereign tools, operating across global domains that attempt to divide our communities within our nations and pit them against each other,” McMaster said.
The NSS will also address the American retreat in world affairs in the last 8 years. “In many ways, we vacated a lot of competitive space in recent years and created opportunities for these revisionist powers,” he said, referring to Moscow and Beijing. “You’ll see a big emphasis on competitive engagement — competitive engagement across what we’re calling arenas of competition.”
The U.S. national security adviser also criticized China for what he termed “economic aggression.”
“[China] is challenging the rules-based economic order that helped lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty,” McMaster said.
At the same time, McMaster called on Beijing to do more to corral North Korea, calling China’s economic power over Pyongyang “considerable,” while warning this might be the world’s “last, best chance to avoid military conflict.”
“The president is not asking [Chinese] President Xi for a favor,” McMaster warned. “It is in both our interests to resolve this problem.”
On Iran, McMaster promised the new U.S. strategy would seek to counter Tehran’s destabilizing activities in Syria and across the Middle East, while continuing to block all paths to a nuclear weapon.
The new U.S. national security strategy will also address the persistent threat from terror groups and what McMaster called “radical Islamist ideology,” describing previous U.S. approaches to the problem as “too myopic.”
Speaking before McMaster on Tuesday, British National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill said the U.S. “remains the indispensable global leader.”
“We have had a global order that has been underwritten by the United States,” Sedwill said. “That will continue to be the case, I’m sure, in the 21st century.” It may be wishful thinking but time will tell…….
Taking a Better Shot at Missile Defense
By Edwin J. Feulner
December 13, 2017
Thirty-three minutes. That’s all the time we’d have to respond to an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile from anywhere in the world. Roughly half an hour to avert disaster — if we’re lucky. Sure, that isn’t the most cheerful thought to entertain, especially at Christmas time. But with all the saber-rattling coming from North Korea these days, not to mention other global hot spots, we don’t have the luxury to pretend this threat doesn’t exist. A successful nuclear strike would carry an unthinkable toll. The bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 had an explosive yield of 15 kilotons of TNT. North Korea’s nuclear test in October was 250 kilotons.
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Jerusalem Move Just a Capital Idea
By Peter Brookes
December 11, 2017
F ace it: No matter what anyone says, President Trump’s move to finally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv is a totally defensible diplomatic decision. You wouldn’t know that listening to some folks. First, the change rights a glaring anomaly in U.S. diplomatic practice in which Washington, D.C., doesn’t officially recognize the chosen capital of another sovereign state. Where else is that the case for us? Uh, nowhere. Good grief, we recognize the chosen capital of communist Cuba, nuclear North Korea and terrorist Iran, but not that of democratic Israel, our closest ally and friend in the messy Middle East? Come on. Next, the decision — which Congress approved for the first time in the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act but which has been waived by presidents ever since — doesn’t prejudice any future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
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What Trump’s Decision on Jerusalem Means for Israel and the Middle East
By James Phillips
December 7, 2017
President Donald Trump on Wednesday kept his campaign promise to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and ordered the State Department to make plans to eventually move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. The long-delayed, symbolic move addressed a historic injustice: Israel is the only country in the world not allowed to choose its own capital. Trump also exercised America’s sovereign right to recognize the capital of a close ally and choose the location of its own embassy. In recent years, the refusal of many nations to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has become an integral part of the international campaign to de-legitimize Israel.
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The Pundits Were Wrong about Assad and the Islamic State. As Usual, They’re Not Willing to Admit It
By Max Abrahms and John Glaser
December 10, 2017
The Islamic State is a shadow of its former self. In 2014, the extremist group seemed to make substantial inroads in achieving its stated goal of a caliphate. It boasted tens of thousands of fighters and territorial control over an area roughly the size of South Korea. By almost every metric, Islamic State has collapsed in its Syria stronghold, as well as in Iraq. As a former foreign fighter recently admitted, “It’s over: there is no more Daesh left,” using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. The rollback of Islamic State must come as a shock to the chorus of journalists and analysts who spent years insisting that such progress would never happen without toppling the regime of Bashar Assad — which is, of course, still standing. A cavalcade of opinion makers long averred that Islamic State would thrive in Syria so long as Assad ruled because the Syrian Arab Army was part of the same disease. John Bolton, former United Nations ambassador under George W. Bush, insisted in the New York Times that “defeating the Islamic State” is “neither feasible nor desirable” if Assad remains in power. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham asserted that “defeating Islamic State also requires defeating Bashar Assad.” Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution prescribed a policy of “building a new Syrian opposition army capable of defeating both President Bashar al-Assad and the more militant Islamists.”
The Strategic Impact of Making Jerusalem the Capital of Israel
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 7, 2017
President Trump’s announcement on December 6th that, “It is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” and that he is “directing the State Department to begin preparation to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” will hurt both Israeli and U.S. strategic interests. Two critical problems: It damages Israel and U.S. interests by seriously irritating the Arab world, and it gives Iran, the Hezbollah, and Russia the opportunity to exploit this anger and the divisions. There was no earthly reason to provoke the Arab world. All President Trump had to do to help Israel was to ignore his campaign rhetoric and Israel’s political hardliners, and do nothing. Every year since 1967, Israel has slowly created new facts on the ground in Jerusalem and on the West Bank. Jerusalem has become steadily more Jewish, and the Jewish areas in greater Jerusalem have expanded eastward to the point where they have virtually reached the edge of the slopes down to the Jordon River Valley.
U.S. Troop Deployment in Syria: Potential Pitfalls
By James F. Jeffrey
December 12, 2017
The U.S. military recently announced that it has 2,000 troops in Syria, most of them working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-dominated umbrella group that has liberated a large swath of the country’s eastern provinces from the Islamic State. Now that conventional military operations against IS are essentially finished and international concerns about Iran are mounting, more attention is being paid to the future of the U.S. contingent and the estimated 40,000-50,000 SDF fighters associated with it. American forces could play an important role in reaching a Syria solution that curbs Iran’s Russian-enabled power projection against Arab states, Israel, Turkey, and U.S. regional interests. Yet doing so requires that Washington deal with assorted challenges, from articulating the deployment’s mission to clarifying its legal basis and mapping the diplomatic geography required to physically sustain it.