The Identity Crisis of Trump’s National Security Policy
Among the headlines on the ongoing North Korean crisis, there have been arguments in favor of and against striking the Hermit Kingdom, as well as discussions about what newfound dialogue with it might accomplish. The uncertainty surrounding North Korea and what President Trump plans to do are familiar and fit a pattern of identity crisis and lack of coherent strategy that has characterized his presidency and his National Security Strategy.
On December 18, Trump gave a speech announcing his new National Security Strategy (NSS). What he said and the importance of that document were lost amid tax reform and the holiday reason. Trump’s NSS lists four main pillars: “Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life,” “Promote American Prosperity,” “Preserve Peace through Strength,” and “Advance American Influence.” However, the paper is not clear on which means will be used achieve these ends, as the Trump administration frequently wavers between restraint and hawkishness.
Trump increased tensions on the Korean peninsula by exchanging harsh threats with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Together with the United Nations, he ramped up sanctions and received some––albeit limited––support from China. He also seems to believe, falsely, that it is still possible to get North Korea to give up all of its nuclear weapons. The NSS warns America is “ready to respond with overwhelming force to North Korean aggression and will improve options to compel denuclearization of the peninsula.” Here there lies real danger, as an immediate end of their nuclear program is a non-starter for any negotiations with North Korea and is a red line for them.
But, to the public’s knowledge, Trump has not undertaken the actions necessary to attack North Korea’s nuclear sites or to fight and win a war. American diplomatic and nonessential personnel remain on the peninsula. Trump is not surging four to six aircraft carrier strike groups or the ground forces and transports that George W. Bush did before invading Iraq. Additionally, Trump’s NSS, unlike Bush’s, did not mention the words preemption or preventive war as policy. Perhaps in a sign he is now listening to his advisers such as Secretary of State Tillerson, Trump agreed not to host military exercises during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and said he is open to talks with Kim Jong-Un. This bodes well for the idea that, at least for the time being, Trump is not going to go guns-blazing into North Korea, despite whatever foolish things he may say on Twitter.
During the campaign, Trump insisted Iran was breaking the 2015 nuclear deal and that he would renegotiate it. As president, in October 2017, he declined to certify that Iran was upholding its end of the deal. His NSS continues this theme, declaring Iran “determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people.”
At the same time, Trump has not abandoned the deal. His decertification of Iran makes it easier for Congress to reenact sanctions, but Congress has not done so, and Trump has not asked them to. Furthermore, while the NSS says Iran “has the potential to resume its work on nuclear weapons that could threaten the United States and our partners,” it does not say Iran is doing so currently in violation of the deal.
The NSS gives Syria a similar treatment. Several candidates during the 2016 election advocated a no-fly zone, even if, appallingly, it meant shooting Russian planes and risking war with Moscow. Then-candidate Trump was unclear on the idea of a no-fly zone and of ratcheting up involvement in Syria. As president, he continues to send mixed messages on no-fly zones, cooperation with Russia, and on what Syrian policy is in general.
However, Trump has improved air-to-air communications with Russian forces to prevent accidental collisions or attacks. He also, likely following the advice of Secretary of Defense Mattis, was proportionate in his response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in April of 2017. Despite the outcry from many in the media that Trump was dragging America into another Iraq, Trump launched 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian Shayrat airbase and then left it at that. Finally, beyond mentioning a desire to help rebuild Syria so refugees can return, the NSS makes no mention of regime change or even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s name.
Finally, even on Russia and China, Trump tweets are gainsaid to his NSS. Rhetorically, Trump’s NSS is harsher than President Barack Obama’s, since Trump called both countries rival “revisionist” powers whereas Obama emphasized cooperation. Bizarrely, Trump attempts to both engage America’s rivals while tweeting things that antagonize them. Uncertainty can be a strategic tool to mask one’s intent, but finesse matters. It is one thing to balance other powers, but it is another to announce such intentions so loudly and coarsely that it weakens America’s ability to play them off of each other.
Overall, the NSS, like Trump, is long on words and short on action. The document offered an important insight into the identity struggle of Trump’s administration over whether America will be more restrained or more forceful. Trump fails to set forth a coherent strategy and to connect his ends and means. This is bad, but in an era of multiple, failed, non-ending wars, incoherence might be better than a coherent, interventionist––vision. The question of when, and how, to use force remains unsolved. How Trump looks at that question may decide whether America gets through the remaining three years of his presidency without starting another major war. American should hope that the hard lessons of the last two administrations are heeded.
John Dale Grover is a Young Voices Advocate and a graduate student at George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. His articles have appeared in Forbes Magazine, Real Clear Defense, the Eurasia Review, and other outlets.