I’ve said it before. To understand what Trump’s priorities are, and what he intends and what he will do, you have to listen to him. He doesn’t speak in the traditional language of diplomacy or national security, and it’s clear those aren’t native tongues for him. But he does speak clearly and intelligibly. He’s rarely hard to follow.
I think it’s the implications of what he says, more than the words themselves, that get his host of critics on these matters tied up in knots. They seem to think Trump doesn’t understand the implications he’s often invoking.
I’ve concluded the opposite. Whatever the specific case, Trump understands the implications before he even utters words in public about it. It’s his critics who are flummoxed, startled, unable to process the reality that Trump has moved on to a new set of assumptions. (And I realize that that is jarring for people. This unintentionally hilarious article at Politico lays out in laborious detail just how jarring, with its chronicle of National Security Council staffers in 2017 crying over Disney tunes because the president wasn’t submitting himself to the interagency process they were familiar with. You want to stroke their heads and tell them – all of them who are too young and have no frame of reference – that you have to go all the way back to the Clinton administration to find an NSC so discombobulated by a new president’s national security team. George H.W. Bush had run an admirably tight ship.)
Trump, in any case, has spoken clearly in the last week. His speaking, of course, doesn’t take the form Americans were accustomed to prior to the Obama years.
Obama never spoke in conventional ways either, but he was given a pass for it by the media. They didn’t point out to the public how unconventional Obama was in his method of communicating national security and foreign policy.
Basically, Obama didn’t communicate them. Instead of enunciating clear policies, he set up armies of straw men to mow down, complaining about the bad ideas of a hypothetical cast of domestic political opponents whose expectations were flawed and outdated, and asserting with triumphal flourishes that he certainly wasn’t going to do that. But you never came away knowing what he was going to do.
With Trump, there is at least the possibility of discerning what he’s going to do, if you listen and don’t auto-eliminate the unconventional assumptions that would logically underlie Trump’s choices.
It’s avoiding the latter reflex that his anxious critics have trouble with. It usually isn’t self-evident to them that conditions have changed, or that there’s another way to see what U.S. national interests or priorities ought to be in a given situation. They assume it isn’t evident to Trump either, and that he must be crashing around breaking china instead of acting deliberately.
But if you just listen to Trump, you discern that in fact he has done exactly what his critics can’t grapple with. He’s recognized a shift in conditions, or at least a different way of perceiving the situation. And his apparent premises are not necessarily without merit.
A window into this deductive process can be illustrated with three recent examples. Two come from Trump’s CPAC speech on 2 March. The third involves North Korea.
To set the stage, I will ask readers to listen to a point in principle Trump made at the very beginning of his CPAC speech. It comes starting at the 9:45 mark in the video below. Here’s a transcript (all transcriptions here made by me):
You know I’m totally off-script right now … [Brief pause.]
And this is how I got elected, by being off-script. [Pause. Cheers from the audience.]
And if we don’t go off-script, our country is in big trouble, folks, because we have to “get it back.”
Trump means this. It’s one of the keys to understanding him. When he says “off-script,” he isn’t talking about misbehaving or acting outside the confines of law or ethics. He’s talking about not letting convention and legacy assumptions steer us into political, economic, or social train wrecks. Being off-script means we can consider different ways of looking at our circumstances, and that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re violating principles.
The overlay of “how things are” can become a form of sclerosis. Trump seems to have been born to shake it up. And keep in mind: “how things are” in 2019 is not the definition of any enduring principle.
Constitutionalism, for example, an excellent principle, is often very far from “how things are” in 2019. In 2019, the U.S. government has become King George III. Having erected a multitude of New Offices over the last century, it sends hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance – something the principles and features of the U.S. Constitution, with those baleful words of the Declaration of Independence ever in mind, were intended most earnestly to prevent.
Trump sees the swarms of officers and doesn’t think of them as a sacred, irreversible assumption, but as something our Constitution is designed to help us reverse. He sees the current conditions of global geopolitics and U.S. security interests in the same way: as things the tools of statecraft are intended to reevaluate and adjust when they need it.
Trump is actually pretty systematic about this – if we take the trouble to discern what his assumptions are, instead of measuring what he does against other assumptions.
A nighttime landing in Iraq
In example one, Trump talks about his visit to the troops in Iraq right after Christmas in December 2018. The observation we’re interested in came when Air Force One was landing, apparently at Al-Asad Air Base in the desert west of Baghdad, which was where his visit occurred.
The passage starts at 1:00:00 in the video (Trumps narrates the whole conversation; I’ve added speaker identification in a few places where it may not be clear whose voice he’s speaking in):
I flew to a lovely place called Iraq. And I flew at night, and I got there at night. And I said to myself, this is interesting, because they said, “Sir, all of the lights in the plane are going off.”
I say, “Why?”
[Air crew] “Because we’re getting ready to land. We’re an hour out.”
I say, “What about the shades?”
[Air crew] “Well, we want it better than that, maybe light gets [indistinct]…”
So we turned the lights off, put the shades down…this is a big seven-forty – Air Force One. And we’re landing, and I go up and I look. And I’ve landed…I like to sit with pilots. I respect people that know what they’re doing. And these are the best in the world. I really – these are the best in the world.
And the pilot says, “Sir, we’re landing in approximately one and a half minutes,” and I say, “But there’s no runway!”
[Pilot] “No, sir, the runway’s right up there, sir.”
I say, “I don’t see it” – I have pretty good vision. At least for my age, I have good vision. I guess for my age, I have great vision. But I don’t have vision like a 35-year-old captain.
He [the pilot] said, “No, it’s right up there” [president pointing forward]…
[Trump, shaking head in mock disbelief] “I’m sorry, captain… how about this, should we lift off and try it again? – Captain, there’s no runway!”
Anyway… “No,” he [the pilot] says, “right up there.” [Pointing forward again]
And we land. There’s practically no lights, these are little pin-spots.
And I said – think of this. We spent seven trillion dollars in the Middle East. And we can’t land a plane with the lights on. Twenty years later. How bad is that? No, seriously, how bad is it? How bad is it?
Seven trillion dollars and we have to fly in with no lights!
Trump’s point here is by no means a stupid or insignificant one. It actually cuts to the heart of our national interest and purpose in Iraq – or in any other nation where we’ve deployed military force, for that matter.
If we haven’t been there for 13 of the last 16 years to make it as safe to land at night with a lighted runway as we would in a secure, functioning, prosperous nation – what are we there for?
The implications of this question get at even more profound ones. One is what justifies the blood of our fighting men and women, and does the cumulative record of “outcome” in Iraq meet that standard? Another is what value there is, on principle, in putting our military forces in places where we effectively plan to leave them subject to local conditions we have no intention of trying to alter.
Until after World War II, the U.S. didn’t think in the latter terms. Our prior mindset was what I call an “expeditionary” one, in which the assumption was that there were hardly any American national interests that would be served by open-ended military occupations.
Trump’s question here is not at all stupid. I know as well as anyone what the standard answers are to why we would think it necessary to keep military forces in Iraq. But given the tremendous cost from multiple standpoints, it isn’t irresponsible to ask Trump’s question. Rather, it’s the opposite.
Today’s national security professionals simply aren’t accustomed to asking the question, or to genuinely considering that there might be an answer different from the one they see as natural.
All that said, there is of course the factor that limitations imposed by the previous administration on our strategic purpose and rules of engagement made our presence in Iraq less effective than it could have been. But that’s an inevitable hazard of extended occupations. Administrations change.
What Trump did with his nighttime landing was go off-script, and turn a fresh eye on a very basic question about a policy the American people are deeply ambivalent about. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Before moving on to example two, I want to deposit one tweet from a national security analyst, Jonathan Schanzer, who said this on Monday:
"Forever Wars" is a term that chafes me like wet jeans. There are ancient cultures out there that measure conflicts in centuries. They take the long view of geopolitics. They understand that history existed before twitter.
— Jonathan Schanzer (@JSchanzer) March 4, 2019
I appreciate the perspective he invokes here. But I also think the purpose of the American enterprise is as much to overcome the fateful pessimism of ancient cultures as it is to do anything else, and that both Judeo-Christian principles and the tools of modern technology are about avoiding states of perpetual conflict, and making it safe to light the runways instead. No one thinks about security in geo-historical terms more than I do – but geography is only destiny if your other assumptions put it in the driver’s seat.
A faster way to knock out ISIS
Example two is Trump’s next segue in the CPAC speech. After landing in Iraq, he spoke with the handful of general officers who are running the operations in Iraq and Syria, and he had a question for them about why the estimate he was given for how long it would take to roll up ISIS was so lengthy. I’ll save commentary until after the transcript, which starts at 1:01:50 in the video.
I met some incredible people. I met some incredible people. Generals. One of them came from Syria, the operation in Syria. And I was upset with my generals, because they weren’t getting it finished. I wanted the job done. I want to bring our people back home. It’s not fair. And this is why I flew.
So I met generals I didn’t know. General One, General Two, General Three… I mean, these generals – there’s no person in Hollywood that could play the role. These guys are like perfect people.
I said, “What’s your name?”
[A general] “Sir, my name is ‘Raisin.’”
What the hell kind of a name? I said, “Raisin, like the fruit?”
He goes, “Yes, sir, Raisin.”
[POTUS] “What’s your last name?”
Raisin Caine. I said, “You gotta be kidding me.” It’s true. It’s true. [Note here: the general was Brigadier General J. Daniel Caine of the Air National Guard, an F-16 pilot and the Deputy Commanding General (Forward) for Operation Inherent Resolve. “Raisin” is clearly his aviator’s callsign. Callsigns frequently end up being plays on words, especially when they produce a goofy or ironic as opposed to a heroic effect.]
Raisin Caine – gen – I just made him a big star. [Yeah, he’ll appreciate that. – J.E.] Just like I did with Mattis when I said, we’re gonna give you a new nickname. ‘Cause “Chaos” is not a good nickname. So we changed his name. We called him “Mad Dog.” But it wasn’t working too well. Mad Dog wasn’t working too well. So what happened? I flew to Iraq, I wanted to meet the people on the site. Because I learn more sometimes from soldiers, what’s going on, than I do from generals.
I do. I hate to say that, and I tell the generals that all the time. But I didn’t have to go there. I didn’t have to go there. Because I meet – and I land at this airport, the most incredible thing… We must have spent 3 billion dollars building it. – One of the reasons I don’t want to leave Iraq so fast. I’m like, how do we leave this?
So I have Raisin Caine, three other generals, colonels, sergeants, and I said, “Bring the cameras, I’m gonna make a movie. This is the most incredible thing.”
And I said to the generals: “Listen. We gotta get out. I want to know, why is it gonna take two years to knock off two or three or four percent [of ISIS in their still-held territory]?” – which is what we had left.
[General] “It won’t, sir.”
I said, “Tell me why it won’t.”
“It won’t, sir. If we attack them in a different manner, we can do it much faster.”
[POTUS] “OK, General Raisin Caine. How fast can –”
[General] “Sir, we can have it totally finished in one week.”
I said, “One week?! I was told two years. One week?!”
[General] “That’s right, sir. We’re only hitting them from a temporary base in Syria. But if you gave us permission, we could hit them from the back, from the side, from all over, from the base that you’re right on right now, sir. They won’t know what the hell hit ‘em.”
[Throwing up hands, Trump mimics his own reaction] I – it’s true…
[General] “They won’t know what the hell hit ‘em, sir.”
And I said, “Why didn’t my other generals tell me that? Why didn’t they tell me that?” I said, “Did you tell them that?”
[General] “Not our place to say it, sir. They come in from Washington, sir. We have to take orders. You’re the first one to ask us our opinion.”
True. It’s true. True. True.
So I went back and I said, “I’m gonna get back to you soon, Raisin, I think you’re great. I like you, Raisin Caine!”
But I did say, I said, “Now, listen, we’re in Iraq. Isn’t that very far away from –”
[General] “I was here in very short time, sir. I flew right in.” Of course he’s in a plane that goes 2,000 miles an hour. [Maybe (obviously not on the 2,000 mph). Not sure about this trip. – J.E.]
But – incredible. What you learn from being on the site. [Trump continues with reflections on lessons from his father about getting out and visiting building sites.]
I know every senior military officer out there is chomping at the bit to weigh in on chain of command, scope of vision, understanding of big picture, reasons for not getting out of your lane, etc., etc. Consider all of it rogered and acknowledged. I know it too. Been there, done that. General Raisin Caine, all ANG O-7 deputy CG of him, wasn’t right about this just because he said what Trump liked to hear.
He wasn’t necessarily wrong about it either. What would make him right or wrong isn’t what level of command he was in, but how the problem and the objective were defined.
And if Trump’s advisers in Washington were telling him it would take two years to blast ISIS out of that last two or three or four percent of territory, it sounds like they were defining the problem and the objective differently from what Trump had in mind. Caine’s “week” sounds overly optimistic. But “two years” wouldn’t even be an estimate for the same operation.
At the very least, it wouldn’t be an estimate for the operation Trump thought he was asking about.
Rather than speculating or pontificating, I suggest pondering what was going on in Washington before this, if the generals in theater had a ready answer for how long it would take to just shwack ISIS in its Syrian territory and start packing out, whereas the planners back in Washington were seemingly reluctant to even address the question on that basis.
I write this as someone who has repeatedly argued that we needed to cut off Iran’s “land bridge” to the Mediterranean, and affirm a strategic stake in Syria, for our own national interests. I’ve never thought we needed to have a significant footprint in Syria to do that. But I haven’t argued for hauling out of Syria lickety-split, and certainly not for doing it in a precipitate manner.
If we’re going to block Iran’s land bridge from inside Iraq, instead of in Syria, there are advantages to that. It may be that we are. We have food for a lot of thought from this little episode, however, which seems to illuminate a tension between a script in Washington for extending the anti-ISIS mission, and a president going off-script and not wanting to.
I can think of non-nefarious reasons why some senior advisers would want to define the mission to take two years. It does seem curious, however, if, knowing what the president actually wanted, they weren’t being clear that that’s what they were doing.
“Big exercises” with South Korea
For the third example we need no transcript. All we need is a reminder that one of the features of the ongoing negotiation between Trump and the Kim regime in North Korea is a reduction in the exercise profile we maintain with our allies in South Korea. Trump announced this shift after the June 2018 summit with Kim Jong-Un, and reaffirmed it after the summit in Hanoi last week.
Trump doesn’t do the one thing that would make it easier for me to explicate his policies, and that’s frame them in the traditional terms of security policy and foreign affairs. To be very honest, I think that’s partly because he knows he would be ambushed and sandbagged by the media if he said very much. It’s partly because his style as a negotiator is to not show his whole hand – and a national leader’s strategic path from here to the objective is very much part of his “hand,” however much it is also an informational tool for shaping expectations and reactions in the other party.
Either way, Trump’s approach does leave us with approximately the same need we had with Obama to divine the president’s intentions from incomplete information, rather than having them spelled out for us.
That acknowledged, however, Trump does say things that provide big clues. And he tweeted out a brief comment on Monday that gives us one.
The military drills, or war games as I call them, were never even discussed in my mtg w/ Kim Jong Un of NK—FAKE NEWS! I made that decision long ago because it costs the U.S. far too much money to have those “games”, especially since we are not reimbursed for the tremendous cost!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2019
Trump has come in for heavy criticism for his stance on the exercise schedule with South Korea, and understandably so. The major exercises with South Korea have been a pillar of our posture in the Far East for many years, serving both military and political ends. Critics have justly pointed out that our joint effectiveness with South Korea will decline if we aren’t practicing interoperability and combat skills robustly and regularly.
Trump has nevertheless decided on principle to cut back on the previous level of exercise commitment. The very large exercises, staged to practice thwarting a mass invasion and major regional disruption by North Korea, are being sidelined. Trump puts the decision in a framework of monetary cost.
But here’s my question. Who really thinks, at this point, that North Korea is going to mount a mass invasion of the South, and lash out at Japan in order to get at the U.S. bases there? Is there any real prospect of China or Russia smiling on such an enterprise? Hasn’t the whole dynamic of the North-South tension already changed – such that we are effectively waiting now not for war to break out again, but for a path toward unification of the Korean peninsula to be found?
Given the sum total of events and shifts in regional conditions over the last two years, is there a real possibility now of going back to the outline of the old stasis? Or is it more likely that we will continue to grope forward toward something else?
If I were Trump, I think that’s what I would be discussing with South Korea and Japan. The moving finger has writ, and is moving on. I don’t know exactly what kind of exercise regime – what kind of overall military posture – we need with South Korea now. But it’s probably not one that insists a mass invasion from the North is an imminent danger. It’s more likely to be one that would shape the incentives for negotiation and long-term decisions about a different tomorrow, and the fate of one Korea.
Trump has undeniably gone off-script with his decision about exercises on the Korean peninsula. But conditions have also changed, and significantly. If I had to choose, I’d rather have a president who recognizes that – as Trump clearly does – even if he tends to communicate it elliptically by talking about overhead costs being uncompensated and unjustified, and value for our dollar being questionable under an outdated strategy.