Why you should care
Because this administration will face more security threats than any in recent memory.
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).
The author, deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
When Donald Trump takes the oath today, he will also take responsibility for a longer list of national security problems than any recent president has had to face. He will soon discover that they do not yield easily to campaign slogans, tweets or verbal thunderbolts.
Dealing with these problems will require marshaling and coordinating diplomatic, military, intelligence and economic tools in dozens of agencies across the federal government. Watching this process through half a dozen U.S. administrations, I noticed what many other veterans have: Operating as we traditionally have, the U.S. has trouble dealing simultaneously and effectively with more than three or four of these problems at a time. Some would argue fewer.
Trump’s bombastic claims and ever-shifting narrative make it impossible to discern his real priorities. We can only hope that cool heads in his entourage will be asking what demands immediate concentrated attention and what can hold a bit?
At first blush, all of the issues appear equally pressing, but eventually administrations have to set some priorities. Personally, I’ve always tried to divide problems among four categories, recognizing that these categories will never be mutually exclusive — things today move too quickly and unpredictably. But let’s think about which issues should belong, initially, in each of four buckets: Urgent, Important, Emerging and Deserving of Maintenance. What gets a problem into any bucket is very debatable, and readers will all have their own take. Here’s mine:
What does it take to make this list? I’d say the key is the president’s responsibility to ensure the security of the American people. So the things that cross this threshold are those that threaten the lives of Americans or the physical security of the United States or our closest allies on an immediate and ongoing basis. In other words: terrorism, nuclear weapons and cyber threats.
On terrorism, Trump — who promises to banish ISIS quickly — will inherit modest progress against ISIS in Iraq. The Obama administration, working with Iraqi security forces, has clawed back close to 50 percent of Iraqi territory seized by the group. But there’s still very far to go in Syria, where the ISIS capital of Raqqa is intact and Russia’s intervention has fortified the Assad regime in power.
On the nuclear front, North Korea probably presents the most pressing near-term concern. Its nuclear and missile tests in recent years have moved the North very close to a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the United States. This could be unveiled any day. Possessing such a weapon would give the North a blackmail capability in its various disputes in Asia and with the U.S. Trump will have to look at options ranging from military measures to economic sanctions to diplomacy — or some mixture of these.
And on cyber, the threat’s immediacy is evident from Russia’s hacking of our election, which has provoked both the Senate intelligence committee and Trump into commitments to produce recommendations in the very early days of the administration.
These are issues of unquestioned importance but so complex and long-range as to be in the “this will take time” category. The Middle East’s many disputes — Sunni-versus-Shia, terrorists-versus-regimes, autocrats-versus-reformers, Palestinians-versus-Israelis, all of Syria’s problems — fall into this category and raise the overarching issue of America’s diminished standing in the region. Will Trump even want to risk getting entangled in these given his “America first” stance? We’ll have to see.
Then there is Europe. Until recently, the continent was a “not to worry” fixture on the world stage. Today Europe is in upheaval over economic pains and surging populist movements that reject the 50-year-old European integration movement, spurred on by the U.K.’s vote to exit the Union. In short, a sort of “disturbance in the force” at the very center of America’s traditional and most reliable alliance partnership — all exacerbated by Trump’s recent disparaging remarks about NATO and German Chancellor Merkel.
Also perched here are large, important countries with uncertain futures — China and Russia. China is the perennial whipping boy of presidential candidates who tend to discover, once in office, that this is a big, complex relationship — perhaps America’s most important — with a tangle of interdependencies that get in the way of simple-minded approaches. This said, China’s push for Asian dominance and its specific challenges to America’s conception of global order — Beijing’s sweeping sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas, for example — will preoccupy the Trump administration throughout its tenure.
Russia, too, will be an enduring issue with its specific course so dependent on the uncertain “bromance” between Trump and Putin, seemingly in a competition to see who can flatter the other more effusively. Beyond those personal dynamics, however, Trump’s nominees for Secretary of Defense, State and the CIA are clearly on the same wavelength as congressional leaders like Sen. John McCain. All of them worry about Moscow’s threats to NATO and its other neighbors.
Emerging — and Edging onto the Stage
This hopelessly difficult category holds many potential surprises. The administration will want to keep an eye on the controversial Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump and others have criticized. The broad issue of trade will not stay put for long given Trump’s threat to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement and to scrap agreements the Obama administration has negotiated with Asia and Europe. The Paris climate agreement is in the same bin.
Then there are a host of building problems that could burst at any moment, starting with Venezuela — the Latin American country closest to economic and political meltdown. We do not want political instability and humanitarian crises anywhere, let alone in the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves.
Maintaining Global Expertise and Insight
Then there’s the rest of the world. As the major global leader, assuming Trump wants that role, America cannot ignore much that goes on. Therefore, through its diplomatic, military and intelligence capabilities, the U.S. must be prepared for almost any eventuality.
It’s usually something that no one has planned for, like the 9/11 attacks … or the downing of an American spy plane by a hotshot Chinese pilot in 2001 … or the humanitarian collapse in Somalia in late 1992 that meant President Clinton inherited an unanticipated 28,000-U.S.-troop commitment begun by his predecessor, George H.W. Bush. So while Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa or Central America may seldom be in the headlines, a new president has to ensure that the United States maintains a pretty granular focus on such areas.
Hard to know when the Trump administration will show its hand on national security policy and his priorities. Maybe beginning in the inaugural address — or in tweets from the reviewing stand afterward. Stay tuned.