Perhaps you agree with President Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, or perhaps you disagree. Maybe you support Trump’s apparent inclination to reduce dramatically our military presence in Afghanistan, or maybe you oppose it. Whichever side you’re on, you should still worry about the current state of U.S. national security decision-making — because what was once a well-established process now looks broken.
Process isn’t sexy, but it’s important. What had seemed like a relatively stable approach to the process of national security decision-making under presidents of both parties has collapsed with surprising speed under Trump. That’s bad for the way ahead in Syria and Afghanistan, but it’s even worse for the prospect of Trump confronting a true national security crisis.
National security challenges are complicated, multifaceted problems for which even the best options tend to be imperfect. That makes it all the more important that such challenges be addressed through a rigorous process.
First, national security decision-making should be intelligence-driven. It should be informed by the actual facts on the ground, or at least U.S. government experts’ best assessments of them, and by those same experts’ analyses of the likely trends and trajectories into the future. I’m using “intelligence” here in a broad sense, to include intelligence community analysts as well as others in our government who provide critical assessments and forecasts, such as the State Department’s diplomats in the field and desk officers in Washington.
Second, national security decision-making should consider the full suite of tools available. Every Cabinet member who sits around the Situation Room table represents a different set of authorities and tools, from military options to law enforcement assets to diplomatic possibilities. All of those tools should be considered as different ways to address tough problems, including in combination.
Third, national security decision-making should be coordinated. Because different parts of the government’s national security apparatus will have roles to play in implementing whatever decision is made, it’s critical that the leaders of those different parts of the government understand the full contours of the decision ultimately made and the reasons behind it. That way, implementation—both within our government and with external partners — can be coordinated and can most effectively advance the chosen policy’s underlying goals.
A Process That Evolved Over Decades
It’s true that good process can still yield bad decisions and that too much process can, itself, be detrimental to achieving national security objectives, especially in a fast-moving world. But, on the whole, there’s a reason that national security advisors serving presidents of both parties have, over the last 70 years or so, developed a process that starts with what the government knows about national security challenges (intelligence-driven), evaluates what the government can do about those challenges (the full suite of tools), and yields an outcome fully understood by those who need to implement it (coordinated).
That seems to have fallen apart in just two years of Trump’s presidency. Trump’s recent decisions on Syria and Afghanistan appear to represent the antithesis of well-honed national security decision-making. What U.S. policy should be toward both countries and what the future of our military presence in each should look like are tremendously difficult questions. Even an immaculately run process would have left any president with tough tradeoffs to consider and no obviously “right” choice.
But President Trump appears to have almost deliberately unplugged himself from a process that could otherwise have delivered to him intelligence-driven, multi-tool, coordinated options. To decide that it’s simply time to deliver on a campaign promise, as Trump subsequently framed his Syria decision, is not to be guided by intelligence or sound policy analysis. To capitulate to a foreign leader whose interests are not the same as America’s, as Trump apparently did in yielding to the Turkish president’s request for a U.S. withdrawal from Syria, is not to consider the tools available to America’s commander-in-chief. To undercut one’s own diplomats as they work to negotiate a peace deal, as Trump reportedly did with his sudden Afghanistan shift, is not to approach national security policy with even a hint of coordination.
One account has argued that Trump’s Syria and Afghanistan announcements weren’t quite as shocking within the executive branch as most news accounts and the hastened departures of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk suggest. On this view, while there admittedly was no meaningful process leading to the Syria and Afghanistan decisions, those decisions at least had been signaled internally months earlier, allowing for some preparation before the public announcement. Even if this account — which appears sourced to a single unnamed State Department official — is right, it confirms the absence of any rigorous process before hugely consequential national security decisions were made. And the account’s suggestion that Trump’s own Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State “thought they could still talk him [Trump] out of it” underscores just how uncoordinated — indeed, unsettled — the implementation has been.
Astonishment, Consternation, Abandonment
Whenever these decisions were made, the absence of process at the moment of truth represents a marked defect. After all, intelligence about the threats we face changes, sometimes rapidly. And there was virtually no coordination in rolling out the decision — hence the astonishment within Trump’s own executive branch, consternation on Capitol Hill by members of Congress of both parties, and sense of abandonment by foreign partners.
Even weeks later, the confusion continues, with Trump seeming at times to reverse himself, and America’s top commander in Afghanistan reporting that he’s received no actual orders to implement Trump’s policy as understood by other defense officials. This isn’t the result of a coherent process; it’s a mess.
And here’s the really scary part: Syria and Afghanistan are hard national security problems, but in a sense they’re easy candidates for running a meticulous process. That’s because there’s the benefit of time and advance warning for U.S. officials: it’s obvious that U.S. officials need to keep considering and reconsidering how to approach our policies toward those countries, and so there’s an opportunity to initiate and run a process to tackle those questions that’s informed by intelligence findings and that proceeds up the chain of seniority among national security officials.
What’s really hard, at least in terms of process, is generating and considering options for responding to the types of sudden, unexpected crises that all presidents eventually face. Think of President George W. Bush confronting the downing in China of a U.S. spy plane and facing the unfathomable magnitude of the 9/11 attacks, or of President Barack Obama needing to deal with the near-miss of the so-called “underwear bomber,” U.S. embassy evacuations in volatile security environments (as in Yemen in 2015 and South Sudan in 2016), and the rise of ISIS and its global waves of terrorists attacks.
It’s in those moments of extraordinary time pressure — and political pressure — that having an established process for optimizing national security decision-making and implementation is even more critical. And, given how dismal Trump’s track record is on Syria and Afghanistan, the collapse of that process provides cause for real concern whenever Trump faces a true crisis.