Week of January 6th, 2017

America’s Think Tanks
and the Trump Administration

What are they recommending?

As much as they talk about Trump and his coming from outside the Washington establishment, his choice of cabinet members shows that he has a great deal of respect for the conservative think tank establishment.   His national security and foreign policy team have come from the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies – all think tanks we have extensively covered here.

Since Trump has picked his advisors from a wide range of think tanks, it’s logical to assume that he will also likely follow the advice of these same groups.

The Heritage Foundation

Undoubtedly, the think tank that will have the biggest influence on the Trump Administration is the Heritage Foundation, the premier conservative think tank in Washington. Unlike many think tanks that tend to focus on one or two issues, they cover the whole conservative agenda, both foreign and domestic policy.

One area the Heritage foundation has focused upon is US military strength and priorities for the Department of Defense. And, since Trump promised to rebuild the US military, it is reasonable to assume that the Heritage Foundation will have an overwhelming impact In its “Blueprint for a New Administration,” it suggests addressing gaps in the national security posture, focusing on military readiness rather than a social agenda, prioritize combat readiness, increase the size of the military and modernize the military.

While Obama relied on Special Forces, which have been degraded by extensive combat deployments, this paper notes, “Many of the military’s primary combat systems (planes, ships, etc.) were designed and built during the Cold War. The lack of modernization is easily seen in the Air Force, where the main bomber fleet averages 53 years old and the main aerial refueling tankers entered the fleet in 1956. A Cold War-era military will not be pre­pared to protect the United States in the 21st Cen­tury.”

And, although nuclear weapons development falls under the direction of the Secretary of Energy (Former Texas Governor Rick Perry), they also suggest, “modern­izing nuclear weapons and the full funding of mod­ernizing delivery vehicles (submarines, ICBMs, and bomber aircraft) in the DOD’s budget.”

The Heritage Foundation also makes the rebuilding of American alliances a major priority. They note, “In the Middle East, the President needs to con­front Iranian nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other parts of the region. These policy decisions largely fall with­in the foreign policy authority of the President.”

As far as the Iran nuclear deal goes, they recommend, “The next President should repudiate the JCPOA, reapply U.S. sanctions, and seek to “snap-back” United Nations Security Council sanctions until Iran completely dismantles its nuclear facilities and permits unfettered access to international inspec­tors.”

It also recommends the same sort of tough attitude towards North Korea.

The paper also suggests a tough attitude towards Chinese expansionism. They suggest Trump, “Reassure Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other allies and partners that the U.S. will honor its security commitments, including support for Taiwan. The President should instruct naval and air forces to regularly assert navi­gation and overflight rights and freedoms on a global basis including territory wrongly claimed by China.”

The Rex Tillerson appointment implies that Trump wants a reorganized, streamlined State Department. That idea is also echoed in this paper. “Over the past 25 years, a gradual shift has occurred toward expanding the number, size, and resources of the non-regional bureaus. This expansion has wasted resources, contributed to policy discord, and con­fused lines of responsibility.”

“The Secretary should restructure the depart­ment and shift the responsibilities of most func­tional bureaus into the regional bureaus and a newly established Under Secretary for Multilateral Affairs.”

The paper also suggests the State Department limit the use of “Special Envoys and Spe­cial Representatives.” “At present, approximately 60 special envoys, special representatives, coordi­nators, special advisers, and other senior officials are charged with leading numerous discrete issues. Some of these appointees focus on current crises, such as in the civil war in Syria, while others focus on broad thematic causes such as climate change. These senior officials frequently act outside normal State Department lines of authority. This can foment bureaucratic tensions, undermine the authority of U.S. ambassadors, create confusion as to who actu­ally represents the U.S. position, and add additional costs.”

The rest of the paper can be read here.


Given the reputation of the Heritage Foundation and how closely these recommendations follow Trump’s promises during the campaign, they are likely to be priorities for the new administration.

The Heritage Foundation is also recommending that Trump move the military away from a “Green” agenda that hampers defense in order to meet environmental agendas.

One Heritage recommendation is to admit biofuels can’t meet military needs. This is likely to be supported by Trump’s SecDef choice Mattis. While serving as Commanding General of the First Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq, Mattis called on Department of Defense (DOD) planners to “unleash” the Marine Corps from “the tether of fuel.” Throughout the Iraq conflict, restricted access to fuel had slowed the advance of U.S. forces and dictated operational capabilities, prompting General Mattis’s request for relief from petroleum limitations.

The Heritage military fuel recommendations are: Prioritize military capability, focus on reducing logistics requirements, and consider the potential of nuclear power.

Center for Strategic and International Studies

Since the Secretary of State designate Tillerson is a trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, we can expect CSIS suggestions to carry more weight, especially in the field of foreign policy.

In a press release put out after Trump announced the Tilelrson nomination, The CSIS said, “Mr. Tillerson has been a member of the CSIS Board of Trustees since 2005.

While being the CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world, Mr. Tillerson was an active and involved member of the CSIS Board. Mr. Tillerson has also actively participated in the intellectual life of the center, with a special focus on global public health. Mr. Tillerson served as a commissioner on a landmark effort, the CSIS Commission on Smart Global Health Policy that sought to create a smart, strategic, long-term global health policy for the United States.”

Their suggestions for foreign policy are found in “Transition45,” which will be coming out in pieces over the next month. One key issue is that Trump and his team must move away from simple campaign rhetoric and articulate their national and military policy as soon as possible. “This includes his vision for the U.S. role in the world, the nation’s security interests, how it will seek to protect them, and in particular, the role of military forces. This need not be a full-throated strategy review—that can come later. Rather, it should provide the kind of broad strokes of the president-elect’s defense agenda that might have surfaced in prior, more policy-centric, election cycles. Doing so will better moor the defense community and its allies and partners around a sense of direction on national security, from goals to missions to military posture.”

The paper also warns about Russia and China, even while the US needs their help. It states, “Complicating these challenges are the ways in which they overlap. Russia has invaded its neighbors and China is taking steps to militarize major international shipping lanes. The United States has needed cooperation from both countries to establish—and then enforce—non-proliferation regimes (or sanctions) against Iran and North Korea. Iran has been a significant player in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Managing these conflicting objectives while maximizing pursuit of U.S. interests will likely only get more difficult.”

The CSIS also looks at Rethinking the Threat of Islamic Extremism: The Changes Needed in U.S. Strategy. They say too much of the U.S. effort is now centered around the immediate threat from ISIS, and the external threat it poses to the U.S. homeland and Europe. Far too few in the United States understand the importance of the strategic partnerships the U.S. has forged with largely Muslim states, the fact that the primary fight with Islamic extremism is inside Muslim states, and that it is a fight for the future of Islam—rather than the limited threat it poses to faiths and countries outside.

The key challenge to the United States is to revitalize its security partnerships, work with largely Muslim states, and develop better collective approaches to both the threat of extremism and other threats like those posed by Iran. The United States needs to show it can act decisively and is a partner that its partners can trust. At the same time, the United States must work with its Muslim security partners to help them address their own failings in developing effective counters to extremism, better efforts at collective defense, and their failure to fully address the causes of Islamic extremism.

American Enterprise Institute

The American Enterprise Institute is primarily concerned with domestic and economic issues. However, one of their major contributions to the new Trump administration is Deputy Secretary of State designate John Bolton.

Although the AEI wasn’t a big supporter of Trump during the campaign, they have generally praised his appointments to the foreign and national security team. In recommending SecDef designate Mattis, they said, “First, though many in Washington seem to have forgotten it, the United States is currently engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Trump administration will have some difficult operational choices to make about how to prosecute those conflicts, and General Mattis, as a former regional combatant commander, will be uniquely positioned to assist the new president in making those decisions.”

The AEI has also recommended ex Exxon CEO Tillerson as SoS for the same reasons outlined by the Heritage Foundation – reorganizing the State Department. They note, “With over 75,000 employees, Exxon is also regarded as one of the world’s best-managed companies… The State Department is an organization that needs substantial reform: Some commentators were quick to argue that being Secretary of State is not the same as leading a company. But in reality, the State Department has a budget of 65 billion dollars and nearly 70,000 personnel. A proven CEO of a much larger organization is a strong choice to overhaul State’s cumbersome bureaucracy and turn the Department into a more agile, mission-focused organization which attracts and retains the best people. With a human capital drain in the Foreign Service, John Kerry leaves his successor an organization that needs a substantial re-boot.”

The AEI looks at a broad range of foreign and domestic policy recommendations for 2017. Most come from previous papers written over the last few years.

On Syria it recommends, “Airpower hasn’t failed; it hasn’t been employed effectively. U.S. planes strike Syria on average seven times per day: that is an order of magnitude lower than in Bosnia and Afghanistan, and 100 times less than in Iraq and represents only four minutes of aircraft carrier launch time.

Trump should shrink the tumor. Special Forces should target the irredeemable. Trump should provide Kurds with military support and demand Iraqi Kurdistan lift its blockade. He should work with Jordan rather than Turkey to create and expand a safe haven. Iran should have no free pass in the war zone. Syria is now a generational problem. Its future is federal. Trump should embrace the benign and shrink the malignant.”

Concerning the Iran nuclear deal, Deputy Secretary of State Nominee John Bolton recommends, “Israel and America’s Arab friends are desperately waiting for a strong American president who understands who his friends are. President-elect Trump can change the regional political dynamic quickly, signaling that US elections do truly have consequences.”

“One key step would be to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal in his first days in office. There will be considerable diplomacy required to explain this courageous but necessary decision, but the unambiguous signal it would send worldwide cannot be underestimated.”

Concerning long term policy towards Iran, they note, “Pushing back on Iran throughout the Middle East and into South Asia serves several purposes simultaneously: it limits the spread of Iranian influence, pushes back on Iranian support for terrorism, and provides additional leverage to the United States in negotiations over the nuclear issue.”

All the suggestions from this report can be found here.

The AEI has also come out in favor of a friendlier relationship with Taiwan, while praising Trumps seemingly warmer relations with that controversial island nation. They said, “It’s about time we reconsidered Taiwan’s place in our foreign and defense policies.” Considering that the second in command at the State Department, comes from the AEI, this may very well be the first indication that Taiwan will be receiving more attention in the future.

Hoover Institution

Since it’s based in California at Stanford University, the Hoover Institution isn’t considered on of the Washington think tank community. However it has a distinguished list of fellows who have contributed to US foreign and national security policy, including Nixon and Ford SoS Henry Kissinger, Bush SoS Condoleezza Rice, Reagan SoS George Shultz, Clinton SecDef William Perry, Bush SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, and Trump SecDef designate Mattis.

A good idea of what the Hoover Institution regards as important in terms of foreign and national security policy can be found in a paper published in 2015 on “A New American Grand Strategy.” The paper was authored by SecDef designate Mattis.

Much of the paper looked at the Middle East. It said, “We need a new security architecture for the Middle East built on sound policy, one that permits us to take our own side in this fight.  Crafting such a policy starts with asking a fundamental question and then others: Is political Islam in our best interest? If not what is our policy to support the countervailing forces? Violent terrorists cannot be permitted to take refuge behind false religious garb and leave us unwilling to define this threat with the clarity it deserves. We have potential allies around the world and in the Middle East who will rally to us but we have not been clear about where we stand in defining or dealing with the growing violent jihadist terrorist threat.”

“Iran is a special case that must be dealt with as a threat to regional stability, nuclear and otherwise. I believe that you should question the value of Congress adding new sanctions while international negotiations are ongoing, while having them ready should the negotiations for preventing their nuclear weapons capability and stringent monitoring break down.”

“Further, we should question if we have the right policies in place when Iran creates more mischief in Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the region. We should recognize that regional counterweights like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council can reinforce us if they understand our policies and if we clarify our foreign policy goals beyond Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

“In Afghanistan we need to consider if we’re asking for the same outcome there as we saw last summer in Iraq if we pull out all our troops on the Administration’s proposed timeline. Echoing the military advice given on the same issue in Iraq, gains achieved at great cost against our enemy in Afghanistan are reversible. We should recognize that we may not want this fight but the barbarity of an enemy that kills women and children and has refused to break with Al Qaeda needs to be fought.”

The rest of the paper can be read here.


Foreign Policy Research Institute

The Foreign Policy Research Institute suggests changes in the bloated National Security Council. Looking at the last two presidents and the NSC’s lack of an overall strategy, they recommend a formal Strategy Board.

They conclude, “Today’s “Keepers of the Keys” should focus their efforts at the strategic level. They should, of course, support the president and NSA in planning, coordinating, and implementing presidential decisions. They should avoid micro-management and operational matters. As the U.S. government’s principal integrating policy mechanism, the NSC has immense responsibilities in an increasingly complex world. Enabling the president and his cabinet to better understand context, to better frame problems, and to better integrate their collective capabilities in an integrated strategy is harder, but more important than ever before. A dedicated group of strategists as a full-fledged production unit, a sounding board, or just a red team has evident value. The troops we deploy to foreign crises deserve better than they have received during the last several conflicts, particularly Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2009, in terms of a coherent and integrated strategy. This proposal offers one option to remedy that issue.


The Washington Institute

The Washington Institute focuses on Middle Eastern Affairs and has a section of papers on how Trump should shape his policy.

In terms of recommendations on Syria, they recommend:

  1. Accept Syria is de facto partitioned and establish safe zones: The U.S. should deal with Syria’s component parts in order to alleviate humanitarian suffering, stem the flow of refugees, and combat terrorism. Establishing safe zones for Syrians in different opposition held areas bordering Turkey and Jordan would be the best way to build the areas that President-elect Trump says can help Syrians “have a chance.” Turkey’s establishment of a de facto safe zone north of Aleppo, with an understanding from Russia, is a new and potentially powerful opportunity to protect Syrians and serve as a military and political basis for uprooting ISIS down the Euphrates Valley. Kurdish areas and southern Syria are other options.


  1. Negotiate hard with Moscow: The Trump administration should test Russia’s commitment to combating terrorism in Syria, restraining the Assad regime, and bringing about a workable political settlement by renegotiating the Joint Implementation Group agreement struck with Moscow last autumn. Key will be setting up clear dilemmas to determine Moscow’s intentions. And keeping Washington’s covert program going in order to be able to deliver key parts of the opposition in stabilization and attempts at national reunification.


  1. Split Iran and Russia on Syria: Tehran and Moscow support the Assad regime with militia and airpower, respectively. But the question remains to what political end. The U.S. should negotiate with Russia on a sustainable Syrian settlement that will keep Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shia militia out of Syria. This will go a long way to fulfilling the Trump administration’s goal of getting a better outcome from the recent Iranian nuclear agreement and checking its regional expansion.


All the papers can be read here.

Although these think tanks will likely have the greatest influence on Trump Administration policy, it’s important to remember that Trump has proven himself to be eclectic and focused more on results than ideology. We can expect other think tanks to come into the policy mix over the next four years.