News has broken in the last hour that Sebastian Gorka is resigning his post as Deputy Assistant to the President. If the news is accurate — and multiple outlets are reporting it — it appears that the scale has effectively tipped against any meaningful change in U.S. national security policy.
After Steve Bannon left last week, Gorka’s was the sole remaining voice in the Trump inner circle for strategic change. Although I have never thought we needed to prioritize everything Bannon and Gorka considered vital, I do think they – along with Michael Flynn – represented the realistic hope there was to get us out of the JCPOA trap with Iran.
Their contribution would have gone beyond that single issue, for that matter. I didn’t agree with Bannon that we needed to pull out of Afghanistan, or draw back in Iraq and Syria. But Gorka and Bannon have had a most important perspective: one that was never given attention (at all, let alone sufficiently) in the Obama administration, and that appears to be off the table now in the Trump administration.
That perspective is the premise that it is high time for a clear-the-decks review of what U.S. national interests are, and for a revisit with each particular policy area based on that review. According to Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist, Gorka expressed a version of this point in his resignation letter. He spoke of his disappointment with the Afghanistan speech on Monday, 21 August, in one passage saying this:
Just as worrying, when discussing our future actions in the region, the speech listed operational objectives without ever defining the strategic victory conditions we are fighting for. This omission should seriously disturb any national security professional, and any American who is unsatisfied with the last 16 years of disastrous policy decisions which have led to thousands of Americans killed and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent in ways that have not brought security or victory.
This is a fair criticism, and one I considered making myself when I wrote about the speech. I decided against it because I do believe that Trump’s plan to change the conditions of execution for our operations in Afghanistan will make a difference. (It remains to be seen how much.) I didn’t want to dilute that point with criticism that merited a whole separate post.
But the criticism is valid. We are on strategic autopilot across the terror-producing belt of South Asia and North Africa, and we have been for some time. Operating in that mode has, in effect, given us something to do while postponing the sorely needed reckoning Gorka speaks of: “defining the strategic victory conditions we are fighting for.”
And staying on that autopilot course has meant embedding ourselves in regional problems rather than seeking to solve them. We have ceased acting like an expeditionary superpower, and slipped into acting like the sort of furtive outside patron we’ve spent decades decrying Russia and China for being. We do just enough to keep our hand in – without ever formally declaring why our hand must be in – but not enough to achieve an outcome that allows us to move on to a new posture.
With Gorka out, there is no strategic thinker left who will press the case for that hard, top-level review.
Neither Bannon nor Gorka was ever any of the ugly things the mainstream media scurrilously accused them of (nor is Stephen Miller, although in his role in the Trump White House, he won’t be driving national security policy. That’s why I’m not addressing his prospects in this post). The vile media campaign against Bannon and Gorka is not what is at issue here, at least as regards the point of my post.
What’s at issue is the rapidly fading possibility that Trump will be able to do anything meaningful – strategically transformative – about our national security posture.
It’s not all doom and gloom. I don’t foresee Trump going wobbly on homeland defense, for example. And he has shown that, in reactive situations like the one with North Korea, he can face down a Kim Jong-Un, at least in the short term. That’s actually a pretty big deal; his three recent predecessors did not manage to do it.
When America needs to react in a crisis, the command and control situation looks like it will be reasonably well in hand. But shaping the conditions for national security is something we have been extremely behindhand about over the last 10 or so years. And with the exit of Gorka, it’s clear that we won’t be getting in front of it anytime soon.
To help illustrate why, let’s look at an article from Politico today, outlining how John Kelly is bringing order to the Trump Oval Office. It starts with a brief definition of what Kelly seeks to do:
Confronted with a West Wing that treated policymaking as a free-for-all, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, is instituting a system used by previous administrations to limit internal competition — and to make himself the last word on the material that crosses the president’s desk.
It’s a quiet effort to make Trump conform to White House decision-making norms he’s flouted without making him feel shackled or out of the loop.
The article expands informatively on that:
The new system, laid out in two memos co-authored by Kelly and [Rob] Porter and distributed to Cabinet members and White House staffers in recent days, is designed to ensure that the president won’t see any external policy documents, internal policy memos, agency reports and even news articles that haven’t been vetted. Kelly’s deputy, Kristjen Nielson, is also expected to assume an integral role.
The keystone of the new system is a “decision memo” that will — for each Trump policy — integrate the input of Cabinet agencies and policy councils and present the president with various options, as well as with the advantages and drawbacks of each one.
This is classic procedural stuff for federal agencies, although to call them “White House decision-making norms” is something of a stretch. White Houses do things the way the president wants to do them, and most White Houses have some disgruntled staffers, at various times, who think things should be done differently, or who feel left out, or are allowed to insist on changing how things are done. It’s a bit fatuous to write as if there is a single procedural standard for White House decision-making.
But more importantly, it is shortsighted to take the word of proceduralists that conforming to a certain standard means making better decisions. It can help, but it’s not a magic pill. Over time, emphasizing procedure is more likely to stifle agility and initiative than it is to consistently yield better decisions.
That’s something especially visible in the realm of security policy. Politico got comments from members of the Obama and Bush 43 administrations lauding the benefits of stately procedure. But what’s noteworthy about that is that the timeline for those administrations exactly overlaps the seemingly unstoppable expansion of strategically unfocused U.S. interventions overseas. Procedure, rigorously enforced, has not noticeably improved decision-making in that regard.
Instead, we can fairly judge that emphasizing procedure has empowered a-strategic incrementalism, motoring along in a rut, at the expense of bigger and more effective thinking about national interests and strategy.
Gorka and Bannon were two men who sought to take a step back, and think better about U.S. national interests. What Kelly is stamping out is the free access to the president that Bannon and Gorka had, which enabled their perspective to have an impact on the president’s thinking, over the hum of routine (if mostly valuable) input he will invariably get from his other top advisors.
It’s important not to oversell the evils of procedure. But it’s also important not to oversell the benefits.
Keep in mind: all the ways in which U.S. policy has come to be ineffective and dysfunctional have been fully compatible with robust adherence to White House procedure. It was not for lack of disciplined procedure that we failed to respond to the Arab Spring, pulled out from Iraq in a strategically foolish way, settled for too long on an ineffective half-policy in Afghanistan, and sprayed special forces into exotic crevices all over the globe while responding with profound weakness to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and Iran’s across the Middle East.
We can’t be sure that Bannon and Gorka have left mainly because they were squeezed out from effective access to the president. There’s reason to think so from out here, but that’s not the point to focus on.
The downside of both men leaving is that Trump won’t get any creative strategic thinking on national security policy now. On issues like how to get out of stupid standoffs with Russia, Iran, and China, he won’t even hear the matter put in those terms; i.e., getting out of the stupid standoff. He’ll hear advice that assumes all kinds of status quo conditions as unbreachable givens, and that functions to shut down transformative vision.
I wish Trump well in his project to rethink the JCPOA with Iran. But he needs a strategy for seizing the initiative on that, and there is now no one left in his national security cabinet who is inclined, by policy sympathy and political courage, to help him come up with it.