Jonathan Stevenson is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and managing editor of Survival. He served on the National Security Council at the White House as director for political-military affairs, Middle East and North Africa, from 2011 to 2013, and is the author of several books, including Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable: Harnessing Doom from the Cold War to the Age of Terror. Contributing editor Rand Richards Cooper sat down with Stevenson to discuss the state of U.S. foreign policy and national security under President Donald Trump. The interview took place in New York on March 6, 2020, and has been edited for length and updated with a postscript.
Rand Richards Cooper: When you and I talked shortly after Donald Trump’s election, you expressed confidence that a reckless president would be reined in or curbed by the national-security, decision-making apparatus and personnel around him. Have you changed your mind?
Jonathan Stevenson: Yes. My confidence was misplaced. I didn’t fully appreciate how extreme Trump’s personality was. I think some of the early players on Trump’s national security team—Jim Mattis, H. R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson—did try to shape his decision-making in sensible ways. But Trump has now purged his national-security team of anyone likely to counter his own instincts, and is surrounding himself with yes-men and empty suits. A prime example of the first category is Secretary of State Pompeo, and of the second [national security advisor] Robert O’Brien and, to a degree [Defense Secretary] Mark Esper.
RRC: What have they failed to do? When should Trump have been reined in?
JS: The Qasem Soleimani strike is probably the best example. The National Security Council’s interagency process didn’t really work in that context. I don’t think Trump was presented with options in a systematic way that ranked their advisability. As a result, he chose the most extreme option. So the process didn’t really function as a good filter.
RRC: How does this process work? Can you lay it out for us?
JS: The NSC is supposed to supervise and coordinate a robust interagency process in which different government components—the State Department, the Pentagon, the intelligence community, and often the Treasury Department—air their views on national-security and foreign-policy issues and arrive at a consensus, then ensure it is bureaucratically implemented. Under Trump, the policy-formulation role has all but disappeared, leaving the NSC merely to execute the whims of the president and his most sycophantic advisors.
Regarding Soleimani, in the previous administration, the national security advisor would call a Principals Committee meeting to discuss options for dealing with instability in Iraq. There would have been a number of options arrayed by various participants, as well as a paper prepared by National Security Council staff. The options would be discussed, then the national security advisor would reach a conclusion as to what he preferred and present it to the president, and the president would act. It doesn’t appear that any kind of systematic process like this was undertaken with Soleimani. A lot of the decisions seem to have been made in Mar-a-Lago, with different principals flying back and forth. According to news reports, killing Soleimani wasn’t considered a serious option even by some of the people at this NSC. Supposedly, it was a surprise when the president chose it.
RRC: I’m inferring that you don’t think it was a prudent thing to do. Why not?
JS: First of all, there’s the questionable legal aspect of it. And targeting Soleimani also did a number of things that will hurt us in the future. It crowded out the prospect of diplomacy and destroyed a modicum of trust between the United States and Iran that had somehow survived Trump’s disavowal of the nuclear deal, with the result being that Iran will likely move closer to nuclear capability rather than further away. It acutely antagonized the Iranians, and made it more likely that somewhere along the line, they’d seek vengeance. I don’t think it tamped down their inclination to engage in nefarious regional activities in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Finally, it rallied the Iranian people behind their government, which diminishes the prospect of regime change—practically speaking it has essentially turned reformists into traditionalists, into hardliners. The fact that none of these consequences appears to have been presented to the president in a systematic and persuasive way is evidence that the process of formulating and executing foreign policy is dysfunctional.
RRC: You wrote an op-ed, earlier in Trump’s administration, asking whether his foreign policy was radical or merely inept. Nearing the end of his first term, do you have an answer?
JS: I would say it’s both. In my view, his Middle East policy—especially regarding Israel and Saudi Arabia—basically subordinates long-term U.S. interests to those of regional partners. That’s pretty radical. So is his denigration of NATO and lack of care and feeling toward Japan and South Korea. His Iran policy is flagrantly inept, for all the reasons I just listed. He has allowed Russia to co-opt the United States with respect to Syria, in the process selling out our Kurdish allies. More broadly, Trump’s bromance with Putin has effectively weakened American efforts to tamp down Russian revanchism. On a general level, getting tougher with China and exiting Afghanistan are things any president would probably feel compelled to do, but the Trump administration’s process has been shambolic. His taste for summit diplomacy with North Korea hasn’t worked very well either.
RRC: Many people worried that Trump, with his bellicose personal style, would be recklessly aggressive with American military force. But his bluster notwithstanding, his actual use of American force abroad has been minimal. Is Trump a closet dove?
JS: Well, I wouldn’t say he’s a closet dove. I think he’s just disinclined to commit U.S. forces to expeditionary engagements from which it is difficult to extricate them. Even he understands how much pain and heartburn Iraq and Afghanistan have caused us. His base is also weary of those two wars.
RRC: Let’s discuss the treaty with the Taliban. The New York Times criticized that treaty as little more than window dressing, and suggested it echoes our abandonment of Saigon. How do you see this treaty, and more generally, what’s history going to say about our almost twenty-year involvement in Afghanistan?
JS: About the particular deal, which involves a cessation and some constraint by the Taliban in exchange for our substantially leaving, the Times is basically correct. I think Trump wants what looks like a big diplomatic win, to energize voters in an election year. All he needs is what Kissinger in the Vietnam years called a “decent interval”—relative peace and political stability, for a little while anyway, in order to sell it the deal as a victory. As for the larger question, in the fullness of time, I think the Afghanistan intervention is going to be seen as something that 9/11 made strategically necessary. To that extent, it differed from what I thought was a comprehensively misguided Iraq invasion and occupation, which was an unnecessary war of choice.
As with Iraq, though, the extent and duration of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was, I think, ultimately a product both of American strategic panic after 9/11, and of political hubris—that is, respectively, the desperate need to assert power in the wake of a huge vulnerability in the 9/11 attacks, and a rash belief that United States could squash jihadism in some kind of military-technocratic way, by imposing democracy. The other thing that I believe extended the Afghanistan engagement was misplaced operational confidence in counterinsurgency. The United States, generally speaking, is ill-equipped to carry through an expeditionary counterinsurgency. Democracies don’t have the staying power or the ruthlessness to send troops overseas for engagements that are likely to require their brutal presence for decades.