Trump and National Security Critics Need to Reconcile
President Trump has done something his critics said he would never do. He has changed his mind on some major issues—and admitted that he did so.
In the most explicit example of a policy turnaround, the president said he no longer considers NATO “obsolete.” However, he did stick to his argument that several member nations are not paying their fair share for the common European/Atlantic defense.
At their meeting last week, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, agreed that financial commitments are lagging and praised the U.S. president for highlighting the issue. Under Trump’s prodding, three member states have now increased their contribution to the stipulated 2 per cent of GDP, with more to follow.
The other dramatic example of the president’s new thinking was last week's cruise missile strike against the Syrian airfield from which Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on his own people. After an even more lethal attack in 2013 that crossed President Obama’s famous “red line,” candidate Trump cautioned his predecessor against a U.S. military response. “What can you gain by bombing Syria?” he asked.
What changed his mind, he acknowledged, were the televised images of Syrian children, including babies, gasping for breath and dying in terrible agony. (Criticized earlier as lacking compassion for Muslim children trying to enter the U.S., he was now faulted for reacting "on the basis of emotion.")
In a Wall Street Journal interview, the president also moderated previous positions on economic retaliation against China. He said he would not label it a currency manipulator and might not crack down as strictly on the trade imbalance as he promised during the campaign.
However, on those points, he made clear he expected something significant and tangible in return for his forbearance, namely, China’s meaningful help on resolving the North Korean nuclear problem. In effect, he changed a tactical position as president in order to achieve a strategic objective he had consistently advocated in the campaign. There is evidence Xi Jinping is taking the Trump message seriously.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Haley lambasted Russia for supporting the Assad regime and his criminal actions and promised to retain sanctions on Russia as long as it continues to violate Ukraine's sovereignty. The supposedly cozy Trump-Putin bromance has now dissipated in the face of moral outrage, geopolitical reality, and the burdens of presidential office.
Now that the president has confounded his critics by demonstrating a deftness and agility in the policy area that many thought candidate Trump lacked, a little reciprocal humility and grace seems in order. In particular, there are the 122 former defense and foreign policy officials who signed the anti-Trump letter drafted and circulated by Eliot Cohen.
I added my name after the letter was published, strongly resisted the Trump nomination until it was a formal reality and there was no viable alternative, then just as vigorously opposed the Clinton candidacy and, encouraged by his statements on Asian security, welcomed a Trump victory. Throughout the process I was motivated by the urgent need to prevent a continuation of the dangerously weak Obama/Clinton/Kerry foreign policies of the past eight years—for me, "never Trump" was trumped by "never the Clintons again."
While I would have written the protest letter somewhat differently, I regret neither my preference for other Republicans I thought at the time more likely to defeat Clinton, nor my subsequent support for Trump, the change agent over the status quo alternative.
In any event, whatever our collective or individual misgivings during the nomination and/or election periods, the campaign is over, we have a new president, and he leads a country under multiple foreign threats. He has assembled a first-class national security team at the Cabinet level and has proved himself receptive to the new facts, fresh ideas, and quality advice they have provided on key issues.
The president has earned broad approval for his firm, no-nonsense approach toward Russia and China and their despotic client allies, Syria and North Korea, and for the support he and his administration have offered Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Ukraine, the Baltics, and NATO.
The competent performance that has already brought positive results should prompt former critics to look forward, not back, when gauging administration policies and the desirability of serving it. The president should do the same when judging future loyalty from a talented, experienced, and patriotic national security bench. It is time to end the mutual boycott; it is time for all hands on deck.
Joseph Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense, 2002-2010.