Whlle impeachment has dominated the news for the past six months, Robert O’Brien, the third National Security Adviser that Donald Trump has had in three years, has been busy gutting the National Security Council. He’s already eliminated 60 to 70 career professional positions, along with Alexander Vindman’s, obviously. This has all been done with the goal of Trumpifying the council and that doesn’t bode well for either the next president or for America’s place in foreign affairs, to say the very least. New York Times:
More than simply ridding the staff of resistance to the president, Mr. O’Brien’s has locked Trumpism into the government’s bureaucratic hub. His restructuring prioritizes geographic policy (like, ironically, Ukraine policy) while cutting or combining teams in functional and transnational issues such as international economics, nonproliferation and global health. The council is now tailor made for a president who sees foreign policy in transactional, bilateral terms, as either decisions to make alone or deals to be cut with another head of state.
But a Trumpian National Security Council is a terrible fit for today’s world. The coronavirus emerging from China is just the latest proof of how rarely global events cooperate with presidential preference, and how often they spread across continents and policy disciplines. Mr. Trump may not believe the whole world is interconnected or that it requires whole-of-government policymaking, but that does not make it so. Nor does it mean he can combat a potential pandemic armed only with talking points for a phone call with China’s president. Challenges like coronavirus demand the sort of dot connecting that had once been the métier of the National Security Council, and is now lost in Washington.
At great risk to the country, Mr. Trump and Mr. O’Brien are finally winning the war at the council. But it’s the next president’s loss, and thus all of ours. Whoever replaces Mr. Trump will inherit a weaker and less worldly National Security Council, and learn the hard way it’s far easier to deconstruct a staff than rebuild one. As a result, even after Mr. Trump leaves the White House, Trumpism will continue to corrupt American foreign policy.
The National Security Council grew in size and influence after 9/11. But Trump saw the Council as the agents of globalist policies — the irony there being that if anybody is a globalist, it’s Donald Trump. In any event, the Council had a large staff working on trade deals and alliances and Trump saw fit to curtail this immediately, so that he could reign supreme over foreign policy and forget about American foreign policy of the past, just like any other dictator.
Mr. Trump certainly tried to conquer the staff, naming a loyalist retired lieutenant general, Michael Flynn, as his first national security adviser and his nationalist adviser Steve Bannon to a high-level committee within it. The message was, as a Trump hire told one member of the staff, “The president doesn’t care about the things you care about, and the sooner that you know about it, the better.”
Domestic policy is difficult enough for a leader to deal with, but a nation’s foreign policy is crucial to that country’s standing in the world and ability to interact productively with other countries. Trump’s concept of isolationism is ludicrous in the 21st Century. We are a village, whether we want to be or not.
Whatever Trump has achieved or failed to achieve domestically, he has set foreign policy on it’s ear and it is going to take the next president and administration many years to straighten out the chaotic mess that Trump hath wrought. To destroy something is easy, to build something takes a lot longer. And to rebuild something once it’s been destroyed is the most precarious proposition of all.