Nearly three months after James Mattis resigned as defense secretary, the US administration is now weighing its decisions more politically than any time before the presidency of Donald Trump. The personnel decisions that followed Mattis’s resignation illustrated the White House’s veering into presidential election mode and paved the way for the rise of an unrestrained Trumpism—a combination of strategic confusion and diplomatic confrontation largely driven by the conservatives consolidating their power. There are crucial trends inside the Trump Administration that reflect the declining clout of the Pentagon and the impact this decline might have on US foreign policy.
The reverence Trump had for Mattis in his first year in office began to fade gradually as both men clashed on critical foreign policy issues, from the Middle East to transatlantic relations, among others. Trump gradually removed Mattis allies from the government, most notably former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. With Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney simultaneously serving as acting White House chief of staff since last December (and poised to become the permanent chief), his focus on national security issues is limited, if not uninformed. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan remains a temporary choice and certainly lacks Mattis’s gravitas, but more importantly, he will not gain congressional approval until Trump makes an official appointment to this position.
With the two non-obstructionist “yes-men” at the helm of the Pentagon and White House, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner are starting with a clean slate and seem to agree, more or less, on a formula to synchronize their views on foreign policy. Kushner remains in full control of US relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia, including the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio. Bolton leads all Russia-related issues and coordinates the diplomatic push on Venezuela and Iran through the State Department’s Elliott Abrams and Brian Hook, respectively. Rather, Pompeo is acting as a diplomatic emissary of the president, communicating or defending White House messages instead of representing the State Department’s voice at the National Security Council, as most of his predecessors did. Vice President Mike Pence also remains effective in having Trump’s ear and in anchoring the evangelical agenda.
Beyond this significant change of guard in the national security apparatus, there are indications and trends that will most likely define Trump’s foreign policy—most notably in the Middle East—for the rest of his term.
National Security Budget: Money Talks
A first look at the latest FY 2020 proposed budget from March 2019 gives some clues. The White House announced a defense budget of $750 billion, arguing it was an increase of 4.7 percent over the $716 billion Congress enacted for FY2019. However, the Trump administration is overselling the FY 2020 defense budget, which does not represent a departure from preceding defense budgets nor does it offer a significant shift in US military strategy.
The Trump administration is overselling the FY 2020 defense budget, which does not represent a departure from preceding defense budgets nor does it offer a significant shift in US military strategy.
The proposed FY2020 defense budget includes $576 billion for the Pentagon, $165 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), and $9 billion for an “emergency requirement” that includes $8.6 billion to build the contested border wall with Mexico. Hence, the actual defense budget is minus the sum allocated for building the wall, which will be vetoed by Congress, and minus the inflation from 2019, which means that the FY2020 budget continues the flat trajectory in defense spending—if not an actual decrease.
To avoid the mandatory spending caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act, the White House opted to have a maximum cap level of $576 billion as the core budget while doubling the OCO account, which funds current military operations overseas. Doubling the OCO budget does not match US policy on the ground at a time when the war on terrorism is supposedly winding down and the Trump Administration is cutting the number of US troops in Afghanistan and Syria ($550 million was allocated for the Syrian Democratic Forces in FY2020). The budget shows that the Trump Administration also plans $156 billion of OCO for FY2021 before returning to the $20 billion caps for FY2022-2023, while the Pentagon’s initial plan was to limit the OCO budget to $20 billion starting in FY2020.
House Democrats and Republicans are already opposing this proposed OCO budget; indeed, a bipartisan agreement is expected to limit the highly ambitious White House budget proposal. However, doubling the OCO budget for FY2020-2021 furthers two major policy objectives: 1) for the next two years, the White House plans to keep troops on the ground in the Middle East to continue attempts to deter Iran by diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions; and 2) the White House remains invested in counterterrorism for the foreseeable future and has delayed shifting resources to deter the rise of conventional powers like Russia and China, as stipulated in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), which was Mattis’s landmark achievement. This strategic shift in US military thinking seems to be on hold for now, which adds confusion and ambiguity to the national security strategy and the Trump Administration’s approach to the Middle East.
Moreover, the State Department’s proposed budget has continued its decline to unprecedented levels. In the FY2020 budget, it was cut by $13 billion (23 percent), decreasing from $55.8 billion to $42.8 billion. Pompeo, who argued that these cuts will not impact America’s “swagger,” was chastised for approving them on March 27 by House Republicans and Democrats. Kentucky Representative Hal Rogers, the senior Republican on the House appropriations subcommittee, noted that “given what the world looks like right now, this approach seems detached from reality.”
While Pompeo’s voice on behalf of the Trump Administration is omnipresent, the State Department seems marginalized as an institution.
While Pompeo’s voice on behalf of the Trump Administration is omnipresent, the State Department seems marginalized as an institution. US embassy staff in Saudi Arabia have complained that Kushner kept them away from meetings when he visited Riyadh in March. Bolton spoke at the State Department when the Trump Administration announced the United States will deny or revoke visas for International Criminal Court staff, a move against the core of what the State Department typically stands for. This shows the extent of the leverage Bolton has in Foggy Bottom. Moreover, the White House is selecting only 58.6 percent of career officers as ambassadors while mainly relying on financial contributors to the Trump campaign to fill these vacancies. According to the Government Accountability Office report issued in early April, the high number of State Department vacancies is “contributing to the low morale” of foreign service staff. As a result, the number of Americans applying to become career diplomats has dropped to the lowest level since 2008 with only 8,685 taking the foreign service exam between October 2017 and October 2018—a decrease of 22 percent from the year before. Instead of prioritizing the importance of foreign service officers, Pompeo seems to be more interested in more mundane decisions, such as establishing a policy on the proper use of the comma by State Department staff. The lack of expertise and policy impact is not only weakening the State Department but also how America employs its diplomacy abroad, given the expansive role of non-foreign service career staff at the White House.
An Administration in Chaos
When asked if he wants to be defense secretary, the former Boeing executive Shanahan enthusiastically responded “of course.” However, the president is stalling the appointment of Mattis’s successor perhaps to test Shanahan on the job and give him a chance to prove himself. Meanwhile, Democrats are increasingly against his nomination, most notably because under his leadership, the Pentagon announced on March 25 it was directing $1 billion to help fund a border fence with Mexico. The delay might also be linked to an investigation opened by the Pentagon’s inspector general to probe whether Shanahan favored former employer Boeing over other corporate rivals. In addition, Shanahan’s approval of Trump’s decision to withdraw all US forces from Syria reportedly precipitated a clash with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham during a meeting in Munich in February.
Unlike Mattis, who challenged the president on this issue, Shanahan is following Trump’s orders, which might win him a White House endorsement but weaken his support in the Senate. Bolton and Pompeo, who competed with Mattis over influence on US policy, reportedly believe that Shanahan has the qualities they are looking for: loyalty and compliance. Moreover, the high-level names considered to lead the Pentagon are declining to accept this nomination due, more than anything else, to the president’s difficult character. Shanahan seems to echo the president’s views by calling on Pentagon staff to focus on China while avoiding the mention of Russia. He also named Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist as under secretary of defense, which means that the top two officials at the Pentagon have fiscal management experience but no military or national security expertise. If Shanahan is appointed and confirmed, the White House would be able to shape key positions in the Pentagon through him, most notably in light of the resignations that followed Mattis’s departure. If Shanahan were ultimately nominated and the Senate approved him, he would most likely not challenge the president or the conservative wing of the Trump Administration.
Beyond the Pentagon, the most crucial player in shaping US national security is the intelligence community, and specifically Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
On March 6, Trump signed an executive order revoking a three-year-old requirement for the CIA to report annually on airstrikes in major conflict zones like Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan, among other countries where the CIA conducts drone strikes. This reporting includes an estimate of combatant and civilian casualties caused by those strikes, which is typically lower than the estimated number by respected monitoring groups. The Trump Administration failed to release this report last year but kept the requirement, before completely scrapping this policy. While the Pentagon’s activities might be published in other official reports, this move empowers the CIA by making its drone activities covert in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. The Pentagon’s special operations forces and the CIA are the only entities that launch drone strikes against militants affiliated with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS). This move comes as the CIA is expanding its drone mission to Nigeria and Libya and taking the lead in drone strikes in Somalia, where the US military is scaling down its involvement. Since Haspel took the lead in the agency, the CIA has maintained its policy differences with the White House but has kept a low profile and is reportedly waiting for the Trump presidency to pass. There is concern that potential anti-White House leaks from the agency might anger Trump and lead to executive measures that could impede the CIA’s job. In return, Trump seems to advocate restoring the CIA’s covert role abroad, which was curtailed by his predecessor Barack Obama.
The intelligence community’s reluctance to differ with the president restrains its ability to offer unbiased information that helps shape US policy in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world.
Coats is also walking on thin ice as reports—based on anonymous sources—continue to emerge about his potential firing by Trump. Coats previously pushed back against allegations that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump and he had to apologize to the president last July after subtly ridiculing Trump’s invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Washington. Pence seems to be mediating between Trump and Coats, an initiative that helped Coats navigate the sensitivity of relations with the president. The intelligence community’s reluctance to differ with the president restrains its ability to offer unbiased information that helps shape US policy in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world.
Conservatives Consolidate Their Power
The rise of conservatism is evident in issues like Iran and Venezuela, where the Trump Administration is employing all diplomatic and economic tools. However, this hawkish approach is subdued in places like Syria and Afghanistan where Trump is overruling his advisors on the priority of cutting troops and losses in these two war zones. This lack of a coherent White House strategy is disconcerting especially as the Trump Administration struggles to define and advance its Middle East policy. The lack of internal deliberation on the withdrawal from Syria and the secretive Palestinian-Israeli peace plan, the obsession with revoking Iran’s nuclear deal, and the unwarranted favoritism given to Saudi and Israeli leaders are all constraining Washington’s ability to project viable regional influence.
Trump’s misguided support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is evidence of the often-impulsive nature of Trumpism. The president himself recognized this fact in a moment of lucidity during a speech on March 7 by explaining how lightly he came to the critical decision of recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights during a meeting with Kushner and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Further, the intersection of interests between Pence, Pompeo, and Bolton is advancing the evangelical agenda by linking American foreign policy to the 2020 US presidential elections. This consolidation of power by conservatives, at a time when internal bureaucratic barriers to filter the White House’s foreign policy are no longer in place, promises to make 2019 a tumultuous year for US policy in the Middle East as Americans begin to ponder whether to give Trump a second term or choose an alternative leader.