Now What? Trump’s Long List of National Security Unknowns

Many questions remain about President-elect Donald Trump's foreign policy plans.

AP/Evan Vucci

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Many questions remain about President-elect Donald Trump's foreign policy plans.

Nobody knows what the president-elect will do about ISIS, NATO, or the size and shape of the U.S. military and intelligence workforce.

We now know Donald Trump is the next commander in chief. Beyond that, there is so much we don’t know about his plans for U.S. national security issues and U.S. military operations. On the campaign stage, despite wall-to-wall television coverage of the horserace, Trump was allowed to remain vague on national security and military issues while simultaneously pledging both a more aggressive and more reticent United States on the world stage. But from the Oval Office, Trump’s immediate decisions could affect everything from 100-year-old global alliances to the number of Americans who return home in flag-draped coffins from the heretofore largely special operations war on ISIS.  

Right now, nobody knows what the president-elect will do about ISIS, NATO, North Korea, nuclear weapons, Russia, Assad, Iran, or the size and shape of the US military and intelligence workforce.

“We’re not sure,” said Leon Panetta, who served as Obama’s defense secretary and CIA director, and was White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, in an interview on CNN on Wednesday. “There’s a lot of concern.”

Panetta said Trump still will need to build international coalitions to tackle global threats and the world will be watching to see whether he can.

“That is going to be a huge challenge for this next president,” he said.

And nobody knows who will lead Trump’s war cabinet and national security teams. Only a few names have floated around, like retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who helped lead the hunt to find and kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006. The recently retired Flynn can’t lead the Pentagon without the GOP-led Congress’ intervention, and it’s unclear they’d want to; Flynn’s support of Trump damaged his stock among Washington’s national security illuminati of both parties. His nomination first would have to get past Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who survived the election and will remain Senate Armed Services Committee chairman.

Beyond Flynn, there is a very small list of Republican national security names who supported Trump, and a longer list of questions. Nobody has a clear bead on who will replace Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the Pentagon or CIA Director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, or even Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford — not to mention hundreds of political-appointee deputy jobs that do the real work for those agency chiefs. It’s especially unclear whom Trump would select — and where he would find qualified people — if they’re supposed to be new faces of Trump’s non-establishment movement as his voters want and not GOP regulars from administrations past, like disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was creamed in GOP primaries in 2012 yet is reportedly angling for a comeback return to government as as secretary of state.

On issue after issue, candidate Trump contradicted, flip-flopped, or stayed murky on national security policy. He’s questioned U.S. military intervention and aid in the Middle East, but also pledged to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS there. Currently, the U.S.-led military campaign to defeat ISIS on the ground is an intricate combination of airstrikes, special operations forces assaults by American and foreign military and intelligence fighters, and tens of thousands of local troops and security forces the coalition has trained to lead the ground assault into ISIS strongholds of Mosul, Iraq, and, soon, Raqqa, in Syria. Will Trump increase ground operations to accelerate the attack on ISIS? Or will he show the patience to use local fighters and limit SOF engagements, as U.S. war leaders like Gen. Joseph Votel, of Central Command, have advocated? War leaders from the Joint Chiefs to ground commanders in country publicly have cautioned that the fight for those cities could take months, while the fight against ISIS ideology could take decades. What, exactly, will Trump do differently? He’s never said, but one thing he’s never shown a taste for: patience.

Trump is seemingly on a path to sending more U.S. troops into harm’s way sooner than later. One year ago, he said, “We’ve got to get rid of ISIS quickly, quickly.” In June, he said Obama was holding back U.S. generals from more quickly attacking ISIS, according to unnamed retired and active duty generals he said he spoke with. In September, Trump said, “Immediately after taking office, I will ask my generals to present to me a plan within 30 days to defeat and destroy ISIS.” The day after his election, Middle East leaders already were wondering what was Trump’s plan for them.

On NATO: Trump, who first called the Atlantic alliance “obsolete” in March, repeatedly denigrated it as outmoded and unnecessary. But by the autumn presidential debates, Trump was saying that the U.S. should get NATO to help join in the Middle East. (NATO defense ministers had already agreed in June, as an alliance, to enter the ISIS campaign.) In July, he suggested the U.S. would not honor Article 5 of the NATO treaty and defend an American ally that was attacked if that ally hadn’t paid their bills. “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes,” he told the New York Times.

After that stance was criticized by all sides in national security circles from NATO to DC, Trump softened on reneging on the treaty obligation, but took credit for NATO members pledging to pay more. Which will it be, come January? How much will Trump have the U.S. pull back its treaty pledge to defend NATO members, like those bordering Russia, or what deal does Trump have up his sleeve to convince European capitals to increase defense spending? Or was it all bluster?

Trump extended the idea that friendly governments should pay up for protection extended beyond NATO. “The countries we defend must pay for the cost of this defense. If not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice,” Trump said in August. Forget countries that remain enclaves for terrorism, like Afghanistan, who rely completely on international funding to function. Trump meant allies Japan, South Korea, and others. If they don’t pay up, Trump suggested, it would be fine for those countries to be left to their own defense, and have their own nuclear weapons. “It’s not like, gee whiz, nobody has them,” he said in April. Later, he said others misconstrued him to mean he advocated for nuclear weapons in Asia, when he really meant they need to pay more for their defense.

“As far as Japan and other countries, we are being ripped off by everybody in the world. We’re defending other countries. We are spending a fortune doing it. They have the bargain of the century. All I said is we have to renegotiate these agreements. Because our country cannot afford to defend Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, and many other places. We cannot continue to afford. She took that as saying nuclear weapons,” he said, in the third presidential debate.

On other hotspots, Trump has said little more than continuing the status quo (keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan) or suggesting there was little the U.S. could do to change things (saying out of Libya), or that the alternatives were worse (like letting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain in power.)

The very composition of the military services and intelligence community also are now up for redesign at Trump’s will. The candidate in October pledged to enact a federal government hiring freeze, but exempted military and public safety jobs.

A first concrete glimpse about Trump’s vision for the future of the military may arrive with his first budget request next spring. For now, those that covered candidate Trump offer warnings about the perils of predicting what he’ll do once he takes the oath office.

“And again, as someone researching him for 15 months, there’s no position he can’t/won’t immediately change on,” tweeted Andrew Kaczynski, senior editor at CNN.

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