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Think Before Shooting, Mr. President

Think Before Shooting, Mr. President

By John McLaughlin


Because “fire, aim, ready” won’t work for long.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

The author, deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He recently joined nine former senior officials in signing a declaration opposing the president’s executive order on immigration. 

“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. We have to be tough. …”
— President Donald J. Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast, February 2

Tough. It’s how all political leaders want to be seen. In my time in government, serving seven presidents, I’ve seen plenty of chest-beating and declarations of toughness. Here’s what I’ve concluded: It’s easy to proclaim you’re tough. It’s much harder to be tough-minded.

Tough is a declaration of intent, easy to say and always applauded. But being tough-minded takes real guts, real planning, real deliberation and detailed — and even annoying — solicitation of views from others about secondary and unintended consequences. It’s not sexy. It’s hard, grinding work that requires attention to detail and a formulation of plan B for when things go off the rails, as they often do in the chaotic world of domestic and international politics.

So far it looks like the Trump administration is good at talking tough but has a lot to learn about tough-mindedness. Take these cases:

The executive order suspending immigration from seven countries 

The chaos and near-universal criticism is what a quick resort to tough gets you. Tough-minded would have meant taking a day or two more to run the idea by experts from the FBI, CIA and Departments of Justice, Defense and Homeland Security. No doubt our visa policy can be tightened and improved, but in the process I describe, someone would have said, “Wait a minute, Iraqis are helping us fight ISIS — a blanket ban on them is dumb.” Someone else would have pointed out that most terrorist attacks in the U.S. have been by U.S. citizens. And so forth. 

The Trump team says the cabinet secretaries were not all confirmed and couldn’t be consulted, and they wanted to move before the idea leaked. But some seniors were in place, and besides, plenty of smart professionals were still in the agencies. By the way, if they can’t keep something from leaking for a couple of days, well, we have a bigger problem. 

Putting Iran “on notice”…

… as National Security Adviser Michael Flynn did after Iran conducted a medium-range ballistic missile test last week. Such tests are not prohibited by the previous administration’s nuclear limitation deal with Iran, but they may violate a U.N. resolution if the missile is proven to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. 

Putting Iran “on notice” sounds tough, and we can all agree that Iran really is a bad actor — even if the last administration’s nuclear agreement has constrained some of its bad behavior for at least a few years. But did we do the annoying tough-minded stuff? This would include devising a plan for what to do if Iran thumbed its nose at us, and considering its various means of retaliation in a military dustup. For instance, Iran-controlled militias could threaten U.S. forces in Iraq, and the country may be able to turn terrorist group Hezbollah loose on U.S. facilities. Being tough-minded would require that we factor in other complexities too: Iran is one of the few regional countries actually fighting and dying in the battle against our enemy ISIS, and is tight with that other country with which the administration wants better relations — Russia.

Of course, maybe the administration has worked through all of that. I hope so. Being tough-minded would not mean being weak or showing complacency about Iran. It would just be smart planning.

Pulling out of the Trans-Pacific trade agreement

That seems really tough. Candidate Trump said he’d do it, and he wasted no time delivering, claiming that it was a bad deal for the U.S. and would take away American jobs and income.

But a tough-minded approach would have put the withdrawal under an interagency microscope for a few days, during which someone would have (annoyingly) argued that the administration has the economics wrong and that the strategic import of the deal almost outweighs everything else. They’d point out inconvenient facts — that pulling out angers our allies in Asia who have invested political capital in compromises negotiated over a decade, and that all the participating countries now fear getting sucked into the Chinese economic vortex. The strength of that vortex will only grow as Beijing steps in with the competing regional partnership it is pushing. Tough-minded might have concluded that it would be better to negotiate some modest changes and keep the deal alive rather than abandon the field to Beijing in a region critical to our economic future.

Other cases of “toughness” abound: casual talk about NATO “obsolescence”; hints that sanctions on Russia might come off; slaps at Australian leaders about refugee transfers. It all feels too much like the classic “fire, aim, ready” fallacy that administrations normally outgrow.

Some commentators theorize that there is strategic method here, that the Trump team is really just trying to keep everyone off balance in order to gain advantage in future bargaining. I doubt it. Such examples are reminiscent of a pattern I’ve seen over the years with new administrations of both parties, although in the present case, they are more pronounced. Victors usually come to office convinced that the previous crew was incompetent or worse, and think that the worst thing is to be judged less tough than their predecessors.

Then they discover that governing is really quite difficult, that the last guys were not the idiots they thought they were, and that they need to be a bit more tough-minded in decision-making.

None of us should wish anything but success for a new president, so let’s hope that I’m either misjudging what I see — or that the transformation occurs very soon. 

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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