Foreign Policy Dysfunction in the Trump White House
Susan Glasser reports on an example of the ongoing dysfunction in the running of the Trump administration’s foreign policy:
What’s not is that the president also disappointed—and surprised—his own top national security officials by failing to include the language reaffirming the so-called Article 5 provision in his speech. National security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all supported Trump doing so and had worked in the weeks leading up to the trip to make sure it was included in the speech, according to five sources familiar with the episode. They thought it was, and a White House aide even told The New York Times the day before the line was definitely included.
It was not until the next day, Thursday, May 25, when Trump started talking at an opening ceremony for NATO’s new Brussels headquarters, that the president’s national security team realized their boss had made a decision with major consequences—without consulting or even informing them in advance of the change.
If that’s true, it shows how poor the communication between the president and his top foreign policy officials is, and it demonstrates how little respect he has for all of them. It may also reflect a certain insecurity on the president’s part if he feels he has to hoodwink his National Security Advisor and leading Cabinet members on this issue because he doesn’t know how to make an argument for a different position. This time it happened to center on a reaffirmation of Article V at a NATO summit, but this could have been about almost anything that these officials considered important.
That points to a deeper problem with the way Trump is conducting foreign policy: he cuts his top officials out of the loop, makes a decision without their knowledge, and then relies on them to provide him with political cover later on. Even if you happen to think Trump is on the right side of a given issue, that is a toxic and unsustainable way to run foreign policy. It not only creates unnecessary friction with top officials, who will understandably not appreciate being misled and surprised on a regular basis, but it also makes those officials much less effective in their dealings with other governments. The next time that McMaster or Mattis or Tillerson tells a foreign leader that U.S. policy is X, the other leader will have good reason to doubt that his interlocutor actually speaks for the president. On top of that, these officials are left offering ridiculous spin that Trump said things he didn’t say, and in the process they are making themselves seem less credible by the day.