Under Trump, US foreign policy is increasingly being left to the generals

Defense secretary James Mattis, on the right.
Defense secretary James Mattis, on the right.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Qatar is home to the US’s largest military base in the Middle East and a long-time US ally. Since its Gulf neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia, imposed a blockade two weeks ago, president Donald Trump has enthusiastically praised the blockade and attacked Qatar—contradicting the messages from his own Defense Department, State Department, and Senate Republicans. His ex-ambassador to Qatar, who abruptly stepped down last week, this week took to Twitter to cheer the State Department for chiding the Saudis.

That same day, Trump chastised China’s attempts to rein in North Korea, tweeting that it had “not worked out.” That must have made for an uncomfortable meeting, just hours later, between top Chinese defense officials and diplomats and the US secretaries of State, Rex Tillerson, and Defense, James Mattis.

US foreign policy experts who spoke to Quartz, many of whom work or worked in the National Security Council, State Department, or Pentagon in the past, say they’ve rarely seen such a wide-open divide between what a US president is saying and long-stated US government agenda, or between the president and his own top policy and security advisors. “It looks like we have two governments at the moment,” said Edward Goldberg, a professor at New York University’s Center For Global Affairs, and author of The Joint Ventured Nation: Why America Needs A New Foreign Policy.

Aside from contradicting his own officials, Trump has made a habit of bypassing them. This week his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and the Trump Organization’s former legal counsel are in Israel for peace talks with Israeli and Palestinian authorities—cutting out the State Department and its decades of experience. Kushner will brief Trump, Tillerson, and national security advisor HR McMaster on his return, according to the White House. During Trump’s last visit to the Middle East, Kushner sat in on a meeting with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, while McMaster was left outside, reportedly for hours.

White House officials seem to have given up trying to reconcile the conflicting approaches. Asked on Air Force One on June 21 how the president’s tweets affected Mattis and Tillerson’s meeting with Chinese officials, a spokeswoman had only this enigmatic response: “The president is not going to project his strategy. And tweets speak for themselves.” While Trump has focused on a few hot spots, the result is that the bureaucrats and generals are running much of US foreign policy.

Split government

Traditionally, the National Security Council (NSC) is supposed to serve as the president’s chief advisory body on foreign policy, funneling information from State, Defense, and intelligence agencies into a cohesive action plan. Some tensions are normal; in the Barack Obama administration, friction between the Oval Office, NSC, State, and Defense ran high over how to respond to ISIL and the Russian invasion of Crimea, among other topics.

But this time is different. Mattis, McMaster, and usually Tillerson are increasingly united around traditional US policy goals, as in Qatar. Trump, backed by a tiny group of personal confidantes with no foreign-policy experience, including Steve Bannon and Kusher, is disregarding them.

Not only are officials from these agencies openly contradicting the president; more quietly, some are recommending that his public statements be ignored. US foreign policy still works fine if “the international community realizes they don’t have to react to every Trump tweet,” explained one defense department official, who asked not to be named.

The message to the rest of the world “is that it is not a systematic policy development process,” said Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Council of Foreign Relations and a former advisor to the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It is poorly managed, poorly coordinated,” and is going to be a challenge for any US embassy to try to understand and explain. “You can’t take a garden variety statement from the president or the secretary of State as US policy,” said Biddle.

In the worst case, this confusion could cause the US to bumble into a war. “We might find ourselves in a major military conflict with Assad, Iran, or Russia,” without knowing why, exactly, or what US interests are, said Ilan Goldenberg, a director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, and a former State Department chief of staff.

Some military heads of command “have already had a conversation about what to do if Trump gives an order they can’t comply with,” said a former National Security Agency analyst who still consults for the US government, citing direct conversations with military agency personnel. “If it gets to a point beyond their comfort level, they’re well trained” by the military not to disobey, said the defense official. Instead, expect the military leaders to “just say ‘I’m out.’”

The Kushner factor

Kushner’s close relationship with Saudi prince Mohammad bin Salman, the 31-year old who has just been named successor to the aging King Salman, has shaped Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia, analysts say. He has also helped moderate the president’s views on China. Because he has the president’s ear at any time, his influence has proven hard to counteract. “Kushner has proven tough to work around,” one lobbyist in DC with foreign clients said.

But Kushner’s foreign-policy inexperience is a risk for the situation now developing in the Middle East. It’s “much more dangerous than other previous spats,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. What the Saudi royal family is doing is “arguing whether the ruling family of Qatar has legitimacy,” he said. “If the Saudis want to push it all the way to its logical end, this could become a very dangerous crisis in the Gulf.”

Moreover, the special prosecutor investigating the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russian election hacking is now investigating Kushner’s business dealings. If he becomes a bigger focus of the probe his star, and his influence, is likely to fade.

No brakes, or no driver?

One Washington, DC consultant to Middle East governments compares Trump’s stance on Qatar to a car with no driver but only a set of brakes—in the form of State, Defense, and the NSC. The brakes are all that is stopping the tensions around Qatar turning into an all-out war against a US ally.

One emerging outcome of this is that foreign policy in general is increasingly under the control of the military. “Mattis has a tremendous amount of autonomy, billions of dollars of weaponry at his disposal,” and political capital, said Goldenberg. “He can make decisions and back them up with real action.” In particular, Mattis has been given full responsibility for troop levels in Afghanistan, normally something the president decides.

Described as both “deeply thoughtful and extremely aggressive,” Mattis earned a fearsome reputation for leading Marine troops in the bloody 2004 attack on Fallujah, but said last year he thought the Iraq war was a “strategic mistake.” Since taking the Defense job, he has urged for the US to provide more military support for anti-Iranian forces (paywall) in Yemen, and has armed Syrian Kurdish fighters.

McMaster, himself a general with experience in the Middle East and Afghanistan, has ex-Army officials Derek Harvey and Joel Rayburn on his team, giving even more heft to the military point of view. In contrast, Tillerson, as a civilian voice on foreign policy, is hampered by running a department with large numbers of senior posts and ambassadorships still unfilled, while trying to defend its budget, which Trump has targeted for nearly 30% cuts.

Taken together, the team is smart and well-respected, said Goldenberg. But, “sometimes things can’t be figured out” with a military solution, he said. Sometimes they “are grayer and murkier and uglier” than good guys and bad guys.

A White House spokesman, Michael Short said that questions about a disconnect between the president’s words and the State and Defense department’s actions were “nebulous claims.” Trump and Tillerson, he said, “have both stated publicly that there are steps that Qatar needs to take to address concerns about support for terrorists and extremists. Given the high stakes involved, the United States is disappointed that this dispute between our partners in the Gulf has not been resolved.”

The State Department is still pointing to a diplomatic solution. “The president and the secretary both want to see the Qatar dispute resolved quickly,” one official said. “Through the secretary’s phone calls and meetings, he believes it can be resolved.”