Why you should care
Because Donald Trump isn’t quite presidential yet, argues senior contributor and ex-CIA chief 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).
President Trump’s first address to Congress left us where Donald Trump has usually left us — in “wait-and-see” mode. While laying out sweeping promises, Trump gave us little sense of how he will accomplish or pay for them: build “new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways”; bring “dying industries roaring back to life”; dismantle “criminal cartels” and “stop drugs pouring into our country”; “demolish and destroy ISIS”; “begin construction of a great, great wall along our southern border”; “expand choice, increase access, lower costs and provide better health care”; and, in announcements before the speech, a commitment to add $54 billion to the Defense budget. Embracing the vision is easy, but it’s reasonable to ask if we can do all of this with the other promise: a “big, big [tax] cut” – especially when the administration has yet to submit major legislation to Congress.
Of course, presidential addresses in this setting are often long on grand ambitions and short on execution and trade-offs, and perhaps it is not surprising that some found the address “more presidential.” Trump’s tone was indeed less bombastic — and there was little of his trademark stream-of-consciousness improvisation. But this was Teleprompter Trump as opposed to Twitter Trump, so people are entitled to wonder who wrote the speech and how much of it the president will contradict in his next extemporaneous outburst.
But in fairness — let’s wait and see. Maybe the president has turned a corner. Here are my topline takes from his first address to Congress:
Tempered by the Teleprompter
On national security issues, much of what he said Tuesday now reflects mainstream views, thanks largely to statements by his major cabinet secretaries, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, whose views contradicting the president now seem to be gaining traction; presumably, he accepts them. Accordingly, Trump is now expressing — at least when lassoed to the teleprompter — support for NATO and fidelity to our other major allies. And he has dropped other controversial proposals, such as moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (widely viewed as an obstacle to Trump’s goal of negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace), and he has not returned to tweaking China about Taiwan (which Beijing continues to view as an organic part of China).
Vet Individuals, Not Religions
On immigration, we await the new version of his executive order, the original having been shot down in court by what Trump termed “so-called judges.” We can expect that he will make some obvious changes, such as exempting green-card holders. He would be ill-advised to continue basing exclusions mainly on country of origin, but at the very minimum he should remove Iraq from the list, as advisers have reportedly suggested; otherwise he risks losing a critical ally in the fight with ISIS and pushing Iraq further into Iran’s arms. Better for the administration to strengthen the status-quo ante, which already features intensive individualized vetting to determine whether a particular person poses a threat. Although there are probably ways it can be improved, it has been effective. The more the new order depends on individualized vetting and the less it depends on religious or national-origin bans, the better it will serve its intended purpose.
The Smart Way to Invest in Defense
Trump is also pushing for a big boost in defense spending. Hurt by Congress’ foolish “sequestration” law that several years ago directed an indiscriminate off-the-top cut, the Department of Defense does need a plus-up. But with a current top line of around $600 billion, Defense already dwarfs all other aspects of spending; the proposed $54 billion Defense increase, for example, is larger than the State Department’s entire current budget for worldwide operations.
So this is largely a matter of trade-offs. And most military officials I know argue that reducing funds for diplomacy, as Trump proposes, is not a good idea, because it’s State Department diplomacy that stands the best chance of resolving problems before they lead to costly wars. It’s important to get the right balance between hard power (our military) and soft power (our diplomats), and deep cuts in State will throw this out of whack.
What’s in a Name?
The president has long argued that we should not be shy about calling ISIS, Al Qaeda and their ilk “radical Islamic terrorists” — and in the speech he bore down hard on the term, something President Obama always refused to do. The issue is controversial and can be argued both ways, but on balance I don’t think using that phrase contributes to solving the problem. It allows the speaker to feel tough and to claim disregard for “political correctness,” but it actually gives too much credit to the murdering lunatics who carry out their criminal acts invoking Islam. They are not true Islamists. They are distorting the religion to justify what is nothing more than homicide. That’s the more important point to make, rather than hanging a label on them that is offensive to the large majority of Muslims and, importantly, to Muslim countries that choose to work with us in combating terrorism. It allows the extremists in their recruiting campaigns to claim that we are anti-Islam. This is not a gift we should give them.
The Russian Elephant in the Room
The president’s speech was noteworthy also for what he didn’t mention — and the most prominent omission was Russia. Yet questions emerge every day about his relationship with Russia and the fact that Vladimir Putin is one of the few leaders he avoids criticizing. There may be nothing to the concerns, but until a credible investigation is completed, this will dog the administration incessantly. And if Trump ever does want to make a deal with Russia — and there could be valid reasons to do so — questions will arise about his freedom to maneuver if no such inquiry has occurred.
The main investigations are underway in the two congressional intelligence committees, Senate and House, but both dented their credibility in recent days when their respective chairmen acknowledged talking to reporters at White House behest to diminish press stories speculating about Trump’s possible Moscow connections.
Pressure is now building for a special prosecutor or an independent commission, like the one Congress mandated after 9/11, to get to the bottom of this. That’s about the only way to put a definitive period on this mess and free the administration to engage Moscow without suspicion. The recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions from the investigation is a good start — but I doubt it will take much heat out of the issue. On this too we’ll have to wait and see.