In an excellent article on Tuesday, Eli Lake described a West Wing drama in which President Trump reportedly came very close – at the last minute – to refusing to re-certify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the JCPOA on her nuclear program.
The tense period was on Monday afternoon:
[J]ust as Tillerson was preparing to inform Congress on Monday that Iran remained in compliance with what is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Trump called it off, according to administration officials. He wanted to know his options and what would happen if Tillerson didn’t make the announcement.
And for a few hours on Monday afternoon, it looked like the White House was going to tell Congress it could not certify Iran was complying, without saying Iran was in breach of the pact. This would have triggered a 60-day period in which Congress could vote to re-impose the secondary sanctions lifted as a condition of the deal, or to strike it down altogether.
The attention of most readers is likely to be on the personalities involved: Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, Joint Chiefs Chairman Dunford, all said to be ranged on the side of certifying compliance. Some analysts will focus on the point that the National Security Council and the State Department are still full of Obama holdovers, who are notoriously determined to keep the JCPOA in place as-is. We can assume that McMaster and Tillerson, certainly, are getting a one-sided stream of advice from their staffs.
But from the standpoint of operational effectiveness for Trump’s priorities, this is a more important paragraph from Eli Lake:
The predicament, according to administration officials, was that Congress (not to mention the other signatories to the seven-party agreement) was not prepared. Trump had yet to even put forward a broader Iran policy. What’s more, the U.S. intelligence community feels that Iran is pushing the edges, but overall is in compliance.
The ground has not been laid for the bold move of de-certifying Iran. That shortfall maps back in every particular to the lack of a strategic plan for dealing with Iran. And if Trump waits for his group of approved, Washington-vetted advisers to come up with the plan, he’ll be waiting forever.
This is one that Trump will have to do himself. That doesn’t mean he’ll have to come up with every facet of the strategy. But it does mean only he can decide the vision and the course, in their broad outlines.
I think very highly of all the top officials who were in on this certification decision. But none of them comes with the background or proclivity for unconventional, high-stakes policy-level strategy.
What I hear in the subtext of Lake’s article is Trump wanting these men to bring him such a strategy. But they aren’t going to. They aren’t him – and they swim in an environment where all the inputs they receive all day long are from people who assure them that what the president wants is just not possible.
That’s OK. Sometimes a president has to be his own strategist, at least on the broad strokes. Reagan was his own strategist when it came to assailing the entrenched policy stronghold of power blocs and “mutual assured destruction” with the Soviet Union. His broad strokes were deceptively simple: comprehensive pressure on the USSR – economic, diplomatic, military, moral – and the game-changing concept of the Strategic Defense Initiative.
It was Reagan himself who penned the outlines of this strategy, in ways that drew intense criticism and even hoots of derision from the security policy establishment. Reagan made a seemingly ridiculous “zero-zero” proposal on nuclear weapons in November of 1981 – something Western analysts don’t even remember now. But that proposal was key to a remarkably similar proposal put forth by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. It established for the Soviets the extent to which Reagan wanted to rethink relations between the superpowers, in a way no conventional five-point plan from a professional staff could have.
The same was true of SDI, and each of several key operational-level policies Reagan followed through on in the years between 1981 and 1987, from deregulating gas to implementing the “Maritime Strategy” of defending forward, and refusing to negotiate limits on long-range cruise missiles. Some of the vituperation against Reagan’s manifestly personal determination on these matters was quite hysterical.
Of course, some of his policy choices were set up by pre-existing programs or processes (e.g., the threat of deploying Pershing II ballistic missiles in Europe, the long-term development of the Maritime Strategy). But if Reagan had waited for his Washington-vetted advisers to craft his grand vision, none of what he accomplished would have happened.
I suspect Trump can get more than 50% of what he wants from his senior officials if he starts the ball rolling with an outline. They’re good men, and would be loyal to a good and promising vision. As for the outline, Trump’s got some high-octane thinkers in the White House, and plenty of smart people in think tanks to call on for back-up. What he’s got to make happen is instilling a vision in his top cabinet members, something for them to run with that competes with, and beats back, the well-developed, highly-staffed objections to what he – the president – wants.
If Trump can’t get past the 50% mark with his cabinet by doing that, one option could be the “Nixon to China” model. Just thinking outside the box here. To make his pathbreaking overture to China happen, Nixon had to get most of the prep work done outside conventional channels.
Geopolitical strategy may not be Trump’s bread-and-butter, but finding the right people and the venues for unconventional negotiating approaches with Iran should be right up his alley.
That said, he may well find that the vision is the key. If his “generals” know he’s committed to it and has their back, and if they understand what the end-state is, their loyalty could turn into initiative, energy, and propulsive synergy.
I think Trump would understand all this. As an entrepreneurial CEO, he has a visceral and lifelong feel for what the boss has to do. And when the boss is POTUS, his number one “CEO” priority is national security and foreign policy. Setting the vision can’t be delegated. Set the vision, and a lot of the rest will take care of itself.