Why you should care
Because if knowledge is power, Trump wants some of it.
In this special election series, OZY has been looking closely at how Donald J. Trump is reshaping the Republican Party. Today, we explore the foreign policy issues the billionaire would face if he took over the Oval Office — and what a briefing on his strategy might look like.
As the former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, John McLaughlin has briefed no fewer than four presidents — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, in addition to some past presidential candidates — alerting them to the dangers and opportunities faced by America’s bravest at home and abroad. Here, we asked McLaughlin to share his wisdom: How should an intelligence briefer today advise the next commander in chief — if his name happened to be Donald J. Trump?
OZY: What are some of the first things to know about briefing presidents?
John McLaughlin: Well, it’s important to know, and to make sure a new president knows, that as intelligence briefer, you are not recommending policy and you are not in any sense “political.” Your job is to lay out the facts, the situation on the ground and an assessment of where things are heading. And sometimes the facts punch a lot of holes in simplistic campaign slogans and promises, of which Trump has fielded more than his share.
OZY: Let’s say you’re advising President Trump on foreign policy matters. What are the key takeaways given the global volatility we’re seeing today?
J.M.: Well, understand that any president will drive the briefing. You may think you have a bunch of points that have to be hammered home, but whether you can depends on where he or she insists on taking the conversation. That said, you are probably going to have in your own mind some starting points — some way to convey priorities among all the problems and threats that are out there.
For me, it was always useful to start with the things that threaten the lives of Americans and our closest partners, or the physical security of the United States. So first, you’d be walking a new president through the facts and complexities surrounding terrorism, weapons systems that confront us, the proliferation of dangerous materials, especially nuclear and cyber threats.
OZY: What would you tell him about terrorism?
J.M.: Among other things, the president is going to have to figure out how to deny the terrorists of today — principally the Islamic State — the safe haven they have, which is larger than any safe haven terrorists have possessed in more than a dozen years, given that they occupy a large swath of the Middle East and North Africa. That safe haven allows them to plan and plot attacks. I don’t know whether Trump really meant it when he said we should just let the Islamic State take out the Assad regime, but you would have to caution him that this would enlarge their safe haven.
OZY: What about on the issue of volatile weapons systems overseas?
J.M.: I would be surprised, as a briefer, if a new president did not ask: How is the Iran nuclear agreement progressing? Is Iran living up to its side of the bargain? Are we able to detect cheating if it occurs? And is there anything in this for us, beyond having postponed the development of their potential nuclear weapons program by 15 years?
OZY: How would you advise the president on Russia?
J.M.: We’ve regrettably arrived at a point where the international problem that is most pressing for the president, Syria, is unlikely to be solved without Russia’s cooperation. That’s the pro to working with the Russians.
But there is a con as well. For whatever cooperation they provide, they will have a price. And I suspect the price will be more favorable treatment on the things hurting them, such as the sanctions that have been imposed on them on Ukraine. The other downside is that, to the degree Russia succeeds in becoming important to us, they also gain more status in the world as a diplomatic heavyweight. Which is what they’re working to achieve in the Middle East at precisely the time when many people in the Middle East think our leadership is faltering. It’s a complicated dance with the Russians right now.
OZY: How important might curtailing immigration be in his future strategy for protecting the border?
J.M.: He’d be getting his advice on this from other parts of government — mainly the Department of Homeland Security. But you would probably have the unpleasant job of reporting Mexico’s refusal to pay for that wall he pledges to build. Maybe he has some secret plan to get them to pay. But I remember Nixon saying in the 1968 campaign that he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War. Voters bought it. The war ended in 1975.
OZY: Any final thoughts as you’d prepare this briefing?
J.M.: To run for president requires a great deal of hubris or confidence from anyone, and almost inevitably, even when they know in their hearts and minds that these are tough, complicated problems, they find out it’s harder than it seemed from a distance. I’ve seen it in administration after administration: They come to office and think the previous guys didn’t know what they were doing. And actually, they discover that these are difficult problems.
By the time you’re done briefing, the world will look a lot different to a new president than it did from a high school gym in Iowa. Facts are stubborn things, and in the intelligence world, there is no “spin room.” In fact, to “spin” is the ultimate sin in the intelligence profession.