Why you should care
Because you need a clearheaded assessment more than ever.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Amid the tweet warfare and Broadway boycotts, President-elect Donald J. Trump has begun to give concrete shape to his administration. He’s named Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general-designate; Lt. Gen (ret.) Michael Flynn as his national security adviser-designate; and Rep. Mike Pompeo as his CIA director-designate.
What can we glean from all this? We turned to senior contributor John McLaughlin to parse Trump’s moves. Having served as the CIA’s former acting director and deputy director, McLaughlin knows what to look for when it comes to national security appointments.
Did these appointments surprise you?
John McLaughlin: I was not surprised by Flynn’s appointment — he has long been rumored for the job. I had not thought of Pompeo for the CIA post. But the designee there is often a surprise, as was Leon Panetta when Obama tapped him in 2009.
What do you think of Flynn, and what does it take to succeed in that job?
J.M.: Well, Flynn has expressed hard-line views on a range of issues — for example, his talk on Islam is tougher than what we hear from mainline conservatives. And like Trump, he seems to favor a closer relationship with Russia, again at odds with many traditional conservatives. His critics also allege he has conflicts of interest because of work he or his consulting firm has done with countries such as Turkey and Russia.
Leaving aside whether his critics are correct, one thing is clear: The national security adviser’s job is absolutely critical to the conduct of a successful national security policy. The role requires great interpersonal skill and tolerance of others’ views, along with decisiveness, attention to detail and commitment to follow up. The core of the job is to convene the senior national security team — such as the secretaries of defense, state and treasury, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the CIA director — and to ensure he fairly represents their views to the president. Based on that synthesis, the adviser formulates a set of recommendations, spelling out the pros and cons, to help the president make decisions.
General Flynn is entitled to his own views of course, but national security advisers who can’t represent the views of others are not effective and seldom last. The most accomplished team I saw in this job was the combination of Gen. Brent Scowcroft as national security adviser and Robert Gates as his deputy in the George H.W. Bush administration from 1988–92. The team was organized, decisive and focused on implementation. And trust me, in foreign policy, 25 percent is planning and 75 percent is implementation — which is the hard part.
What about Pompeo at CIA? Is he qualified?
J.M.: I would have to say yes, based on his background and experience. He was first in his class at West Point, served as a U.S. Army officer, graduated from Harvard Law School and has served on the House Intelligence Committee, which is exposed to all aspects of the intelligence world. He has a reputation among colleagues for working hard to really understand the issues — all good signs.
Do these appointments suggest the Trump administration will bring back the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that Obama ended?
J.M.: I strongly doubt that Pompeo will try to reinstitute these practices or that the administration will ask him to do so. I know Trump said as much during the campaign, but the mood in Congress is strongly against this. For its part, the CIA was so burned by the experience, as so many political leaders walked away from what it had been directed to do, that no one there would favor a replay. Before even considering it, CIA officers, even those who judged the program effective, would demand unqualified approval — on the record — from all three branches of government. Ain’t gonna happen.
What makes for success and failure in a CIA director?
J.M.: Well, a member of Congress has to cross a kind of Rubicon and leave the politics behind. Pompeo is a conservative Republican who has strongly criticized the Obama administration on issues such as Benghazi and the Iran nuclear deal. Whether or not his views are correct, at CIA he will have to weigh all sides of the arguments and get as close to a factually based and objective assessment as is humanly possible. Most people coming to the job discover that’s harder than it looks from the outside.
The key is to realize that, unlike Congress or the president, the CIA is not there to make policy; it is there to inform policy and provide the factual basis for policy decisions by others. This is often a tough transition for newcomers used to policy positions.
Some people say the CIA rejects outsiders and tries to undermine them. True?
J.M.: This is false. CIA officers are smart enough to know that if their director succeeds, it’s good for them and for the institution. The vast majority start off committed to respecting and supporting the new boss. One thing that can queer the deal is if the new person shows up already determined to turn the place upside down overnight, and with a retinue committed to the same. As a colleague of mine says, the best way for the new director to arrive is to get out of a car alone, walk in and take some time to get to know people and take stock. This is especially true right now as the CIA has, for the last 18 months, been in the midst of the most sweeping restructuring in its history.
So how will all of this work out?
J.M.: It’s hard to form an opinion until President-elect Trump fills in his whole team. The success or failure of an administration in foreign policy — perhaps in all things — is determined by something greater than the sum of its parts. Yet unknown are factors such as whether there will be positive personal chemistry within the team and whether power will be dispersed among cabinet secretaries or concentrated in a White House inner circle — and how quickly key appointees can win Senate confirmation. So stay tuned … and watch for these things.