Assessing Trump’s National Security Record
How has he done against four main threats our nation faces?
President Donald J. Trump is proud of his national security policy. He claims to have “totally rebuilt” our military and achieved numerous foreign policy successes. Most recently, his team convinced UAE and Israel to recognize one another and normalize relations — an accomplishment that his National Security advisor said should garner the Nobel Peace Prize.
But a fuller assessment of Trump’s national security policy shows few gains and many missteps. To limit this inquiry, we will put aside the dozens of critical issues that fall under the heading of defense policy and only look in detail at how the administration has attempted to meet four key threats.
A solid strategic start
National security policy is founded on strategies and plans to reach goals. To the credit of teams under H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, the Trump administration has prepared very good national security and defense strategies. Following the last set of Obama strategic documents, the key focus in the 2017 strategies has been to turn the nation’s priorities from the war on terrorism to preparing for competition and potential conflict with China and/or Russia. The Iranian and North Korean threats come next in priorities after the great powers, and the war against international terrorists behind the regional threats.
While this re-prioritization of efforts was worthwhile, it did not cover all the bases. The Trump administration focused on national defense at the expense of other national security issues. The president downplayed the threat of a pandemic, abolished the pandemic preparedness team on the NSC staff, and failed to fill the national stockpiles of equipment needed for a pandemic. When the COVID-19 crisis came, despite warnings by the Obama administration, Team Trump was caught flat-footed. Their efforts to catch up have been unsatisfactory, turning the United States into one of the least successful developed countries in combatting the pandemic. With nearly 190,000 Americans dead as of this writing, the virus continues to spread across the nation.
President Trump’s decision-making style has impeded planning and decision-making. Unlike his predecessors, he does not take long briefings or read detailed briefing materials. He has hobbled the slow but effective national security decision-making process that dates to the Eisenhower administration. And he has announced major decisions without adequate consultation with allies or, at times, even his own advisors.
The latter moves appear to stem from a mix of poor understanding and personal pique. For example, after a phone call with the Turkish president, Trump announced major withdrawals from Syria and Germany before his advisors were consulted. In the case of Syria, he left behind a small penny packet of U.S. forces who live in a sea of hostile actors. Trump announced force cuts in Germany because he was angry that the Germans have not lived up to their defense spending commitment. Cabinet officers, ambassadors, and commanders involved with U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan live in fear of the next tweet about their areas of responsibility.
As for funding the national security community’s efforts, Trump has overseen some $2.5 trillion in spending that he claims has transformed the military. But while the Pentagon has received much of what it asked for, our diplomats and development workers are pinching pennies. The president also dipped into the defense budget to fund the border wall that both Mexico and Congress refused to fund. With a booming economy and big tax cuts, Trump has also run trillion-dollar annual deficits, and that was before the need to reinvigorate the economy amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Trump has also failed to adequately fill or re-fill many senior billets at both State, Defense, and Homeland Security, preferring to deal with acting officials who have not gone through Senate confirmation.
Administration spokespeople have been careful to note that “America First” doesn’t mean America alone, but the President has generally treated our traditional allies harshly and our principal adversaries with respect and deference. He sees our traditional alliance relationships as transactional, often stressing immediate financial burden-sharing over long-term strategic effectiveness. In Northeast Asia and Europe, U.S. allies are spending more but also chafing under Trump’s pressure tactics.
We have also gained little by withdrawing from the INF treaty, the Paris Climate Accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the multilateral arms-limitation agreement with Iran, and the UN’s human rights and health organizations. Our withdrawal has allowed China and other powers to fill into the leadership vacuum. U.S. security partners are troubled by these developments and see them as evidence of a new, selfish neo-isolationism on the part of the nation that used to take pride in its leadership of the free world.
Dealing with threats
How has the administration fared with each of the major threats that it identified in its strategies?
Russia. Trump has failed to stand up to Russia, and questions still linger about the help he received from Moscow during his first campaign. Those questions were magnified by the Mueller report, and this past week by the report of the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee. The President’s oldest advisor, his campaign manager, his deputy campaign manager, and his first national security advisor were all found guilty or pleaded guilty to offenses having to do with interactions with Russians. Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman even traded sensitive polling data with an associate recently identified as a Russian intelligence agent. Americans are still owed an explanation of what the U.S. government has done to address intelligence reports that Russian operatives had offered bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Administration proponents will point to tough sanctions against Russia and our lethal aid to Ukraine as proof of our toughness on Russia. This rebuttal point, however, is devalued by an incident that led to President Trump’s impeachment. In return for the delivery of Congressionally appropriated security assistance, Trump demanded that the Ukrainian president interfere in our election by conducting a phony investigation of his most feared opponent, Joe Biden. The aid ultimately went through and Senate Republicans acquitted the President, but the U.S. suffered in the court of public opinion. Russia has kept its strong presence in eastern Ukraine, shows no sign of giving up its annexation of Crimea, and continues its assertive policies in Syria. Moscow’s violation of human rights is only rivaled by Beijing’s. Russia continues its military build-up, as well as its interference in U.S. elections.
China, which is both our principal long-term threat and a major trading partner. Trump pushed a trade deal through with bluster and tariffs. He has attempted to thwart aggressive Chinese tactics in the South China Sea region, but Beijing holds a strong home-court advantage in that area. He has increased cooperation with Taiwan on defense and public health issues, further angering Beijing. At the same time, Trump, according to John Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened, gave the Chinese leader his concurrence on their massive crackdown on the Uighurs, thousands of whom have been forced into re-education camps. It is hard to believe that a U.S. president could have so little regard for human rights. More recently, Trump has attempted to shift blame for the COVID-19 crisis onto China.
In all, there have been no great victories or defeats in U.S.-China relations in the past four years. Future administrations will have to contend with growing Chinese power and international assertiveness as a central dynamic of international relations and America’s most fundamental challenge.
Iran. Amid much sturm und drang, the administration’s strenuous efforts have left Iran economically weaker yet politically stronger in the region, and poised to resume its nuclear program. Under the rubric of “maximum pressure,” the administration unilaterally withdrew from the eight-party Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, restored unilateral sanctions, and tried without success to curb Iranian operations in Syria and Iraq. The United States exchanged fire with Iran in Iraq. After riots threatened our embassy, U.S. forces killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian Quds Force commander and a major troublemaker in Iraq and Syria. Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes injured dozens of U.S. troops in Iraq but did little other damage, and both parties soon took a giant step back from direct conflict. As this is being written, we are engaged with a struggle with U.S. allies and others to restore pre-JCPOA sanctions.
North Korea has not tested an atomic device or ICBM since 2017, but neither has it shown any willingness to abandon its nuclear program. Some missile testing has continued, but the circus-like fanfare that surrounded U.S.-North Korean summits has yielded little beyond a continuing suspension or reduction of most major US-ROK training exercises. At home, the Kim Jong Un regime is faced with extreme poverty, the leader’s continuing health issues, and a possible succession crisis. Despite these weaknesses, strong sanctions, and diplomatic gymnastics, the Trump administration has not reduced the nuclear or conventional threat from North Korea.
National security policy is difficult. Not only are there many contentious issues, but opposition to U.S. interests by great and regional powers is serious, continuous, and guaranteed to increase. Bureaucratic and allied aspects of these issues complicate policymaking. Today’s successes can bring tomorrow’s crises. Many problems may take decades to resolve.
Even accounting for a high degree of difficulty, it is impossible to give the Trump national security policy good marks. In its policy toward the four major threats, the administration has not achieved notable success or made significant progress. In other issues that fit under the heading of national security, Team Trump failed the COVID-19 crisis test and has also not made noticeable progress on climate change, a problem that it barely recognizes as important. President Trump’s dysfunctional decision-making is not getting better. It is past time to change horses and shift responsibility to a new set of leaders.
Joseph J. Collins is a retired Army colonel who served from 2001-04 as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations. He was a professor for two and a half decades at West Point, Georgetown University’s Security Studies program, and the National War College. Collins is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and earned a doctorate in political science from Columbia University.