President Donald Trump meets with senior military leadership and the National Security Team at the White House in Washington May 9, 2020. (CNS photo/Yuri Gripas, Reuters)

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.

You want to talk about hoaxes? Well, as a national-security problem, I think the immigrant threat is essentially manufactured.

RRC: What would have constituted winning in Afghanistan—or is that the wrong word to use?

JS: I don’t think it was ever possible in the absence of a stable indigenous government that could effectively counter the Taliban. I mean, the Taliban lives there. All they’ve got to do is not lose. Eventually, the political pressure on the United States to withdraw our troops was going to spell departure.

RRC: You mentioned Trump’s “bromance” with Putin. Trump seems personally drawn to strongmen, from Putin and Erdoğan to Orbán and Duterte. How is it that we have, as the president of the United States—the world’s greatest democracy—someone who openly embraces authoritarian styles of governance? And has this had consequences for American foreign policy?

JS: I’d say his sympathy with these people is ostentatious and almost designed to shock a democratic audience. It also vicariously makes him look like a tough guy. If you juxtapose that with the denigration of truly democratic leaders like Merkel and Trudeau, who lead countries that are traditional American allies, it reinforces the view that Trump is intent both on tearing down the traditions of American leadership—and more particularly the liberal international order—and downgrading democratic norms. I think this phenomenon, particularly his support for Duterte and Bolsonaro as well as Putin, has palpably diminished the U.S.’s reputation as a standard-bearer for democratic governance and human rights. Even more important—circling back to the domestic situation—is Trump’s embrace of these brutal autocrats in conjunction with the peremptory conduct of his own government and his support for the so-called unitary-executive theory of constitutional law. All of this has illuminated his fascist tendencies and raised fears that he will erode not only our international relations, but also American democracy.

RRC: I’m assuming you don’t use that word—fascist—lightly. As you know, since the ’60s, protesters on the left have routinely used the word fascist. Nixon was a fascist, Reagan was a fascist—

JS: They were nothing compared to Trump. The Republican Party no longer seems to be a modern political party in the usual sense. There’s very little give-and-take—it’s been commandeered and co-opted by Trump himself. At this point the Republican Party looks almost like a revolutionary political movement associated with a particular personality: his. Some of this hints at fascism. I’m not saying it’s reached that point yet, but it could.

RRC: A lot of what is alarming in Trump is his tendency to break all norms. Take that bizarre party he threw after the impeachment trial. Here was a president sitting in the White House calling his impeachment “bullshit,” while slandering his opponents as “lowlifes” and “scumbags.” And this is just what the public gets to see. You sat in on national-security meetings with President Obama, with military people. Given Trump’s habitual norm bashing, what would be alarming if we could see behind the scenes?

JS: Well, there’s the fact that he doesn’t really listen to anybody but the people who support his own half-informed—not even half-informed, ill-informed—and instinctual positions. Then there is his transactional approach to foreign policy. That’s norm breaking too. Previous positions of the U.S. government are disregarded, in search of what he considers a better deal. Precedent doesn’t seem to matter. At the institutional level, in addition to his evisceration of the NSC, he has hollowed out the State Department and marginalized day-to-day diplomacy in the conduct of foreign affairs. The Department of Homeland Security has been reduced to a spineless puppet, purged of anybody who pushes back on Trump’s draconian immigration policies. Finally, I think Trump’s rhetorical minimization of the importance of alliances—and particularly NATO—must have raised hackles among career State Department and DOD personnel. Clearly that’s one thing that made Mattis upset. In fact, I think that was one of the areas in which he and McMaster effectively did walk Trump back from some more outrageous policy moves.

RRC: You and others were hopeful early on that people like Mattis and McMaster, whom you admire, would steer policy decisions in a sane and sober way. How well did they do?

JS: Looking back, I think McMaster genuinely tried to establish a systematic emergency process. But Trump didn’t like his attempts to explain policy positions and options. I suspect he felt that McMaster talked down to him. McMaster, for his part, was often uncomfortable with Trump’s day-to-day conduct of foreign affairs, particularly his cavalier treatment of intelligence. Both he and Mattis did constrain Trump’s impulses to a degree. Perhaps naively, I hoped to see more visible pushback from them while they were serving—and certainly once they became private citizens. But military deference to civilian control is deeply entrenched in the military mind.

RRC: What happens in NSC meetings when the president says something errant or misguided—something everyone in the room considers wrong? Do they speak up?

JS: It’s hard to generalize. I don’t think President Obama made many such statements, if any. He listened. In the case of President Trump, there might be somebody who would quietly attempt to suggest a different interpretation. But at this point, I don’t know if there’s anybody left in the administration to do that. It’s hard to imagine Pompeo or O’Brien or [Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard] Grenell saying anything that even remotely contradicted Trump.

RRC: Almost twenty years ago, after 9/11, you wrote that Europe needed to tackle the root causes that make young Muslims resort to terrorism. How well has Europe done that?

JS: Well, it has varied from country to country, and the rise of the Islamic State certainly cut back on progress that had been made against al-Qaeda. Then the immigration crisis came, and it wrongfooted everybody. It coincided with, and in some ways prompted, a backlash against immigration that has drawn in the Muslim community.

RRC: How do you view German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to take as many immigrants as Germany did a few years ago?

JS: I thought that was a brave decision. She was clearly looking at Europe as a whole and attempting to counter the xenophobic backlash that was occurring in other leading European Union countries. And in Germany too.

RRC: It’s disturbing to see right-wing nationalism on the rise, both in Europe and also here in our own country. Why is this happening?

JS: Well, that’s the big question, and I don’t really know the answer. It’s clear that the propitious moment at the end of the Cold War—the moment when liberal internationalism might have been able to take off under the stewardship of great-power democracies led by the United States—hasn’t crystallized. There’s a growing perception that democracy might not be up to the task of forging progress in the world and protecting a sufficient number of people—that more drastic action needs to be taken that might involve a reversion to more autocratic styles of leadership. I certainly don’t embrace that view. I think it’s wrong.

RRC: The issue of immigration and borders is arguably the essence of Trumpism—the notion that we have an emergency on our southern border, an “invasion” almost tantamount to war. How do you view the relationship between immigration, borders, and national security?

JS: I think illegal immigration is not anything like a strategic threat. Immigrants’ contribution to the United States economy is on balance positive. Most immigrants are more law-abiding than American natives. Trump grossly exaggerates security threats in order to obscure an essentially nativist agenda that panders to racist elements of his base. Simple as that. You want to talk about hoaxes? Well, as a national-security problem, I think the immigrant threat is essentially manufactured.

RRC: Let’s talk about Russia. How should we understand Vladimir Putin and Russia vis-à-vis our own national priorities and interests?

JS: First of all, I think it’s wrong to regard Putin as a singularly powerful evil genius. He’s a staunch Russian nationalist seeking to leverage limited national assets. They don’t have a big economy; they’re almost completely dependent on oil, and on a willingness to break rules to disrupt the orderly functioning of geopolitical rivals—principally the United States and Western Europe—and create opportunities for Russia to reestablish itself as a great power. Putin wants respect, and he’s going to coerce it. He orchestrates a lot of disruptive things, including election meddling, and it riles up the United States.

RRC: Why do you think Russia wanted Trump elected?

JS: Well, ineptitude in your main geopolitical rival’s leadership is generally an advantage. Look, to some extent Putin is just trying to do what the CIA has been trying to do for a long time, which is manipulate the political processes of governments. Although I like to think that that’s been dialed back a bit on our side, at least since the Cold War.

I don’t think that the so-called postwar liberal international order is dead.

RRC: People who know the inner workings of the State Department or Justice Department suggest there’s a great deal of demoralization. Is that true of the FBI and CIA? What’s going on inside these organizations under Trump?

JS: I think there is quite a bit of demoralization within those agencies because of Trump’s distaste for objective intelligence—or really for anything that counters his own policies or interpretation of the facts. I can’t imagine that morale is great in the intelligence community. Especially after the Grenell appointment. I mean, this is the guy who’s supposed to coordinate the intelligence organizations, and his appointment blatantly politicizes the intelligence community. The reality is that Trump installed a sycophantic tool in order to more directly shape national-intelligence estimates. More particularly, Trump wants Grenell, or whatever other toady succeeds him, to massage and even suppress assessments of Russian electoral interference, both in 2016 and potentially now.

RRC: So by the politicization of intelligence, you mean appointing someone who has two or three very particular, political missions—missions to steer, or curb, or limit, or skew intelligence so that it serves something that Trump wants to do or not do.

JS: Yes. These guys don’t have any real experience as collectors, analysts, or disseminators of intelligence. I mean, look, you can certainly suss out Trump’s attitude by looking at the way he has treated CIA assessments of Russian interference. He has periodically said it’s just not true—and has said so publicly with Putin at his side, basically. He also dismissed agency assessments that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal.

RRC: If a Democrat is elected in November, what does the next administration have to do right away to begin to repair the damage done by Trump to our foreign policy, national security, and relations with other countries?

JS: Very early on, a Democratic administration would want to ramp up staffing and rejuvenate morale at the State Department. The Democratic president would also reassure NATO allies of its primacy in American foreign and defense policy, and refrain from harping on European defense spending. I think he would want to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change pretty quickly, and lay down the law to Putin regarding interference in the U.S. political process, and rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if Iran were still in substantial compliance. Reorienting policy on China, Israel, and Saudi Arabia would require more time. But you’d want to look at it. I think there’s a general view that a U.S. president did need to get tough on China, just not in the way Trump did. There’s also a general sense that Israel has shifted to the right, and that the craven, subservient support Trump has given to Netanyahu is not the way to go. And that Saudi Arabia presents a difficult quandary for American policymakers, given our historical relationship and its position, for better or worse, as the principal Sunni regional rival of Iran.

RRC: Do you feel confident that Trump will not be reelected?

JS: I don’t feel confident, no. But I do think that with the way things have developed in the Democratic primaries, there’s a better chance that he won’t—assuming Biden is the candidate. Centrism is enjoying, at least for the time being, a resurgence, and in my view that’s the safest way to go at Trump.

RRC: You’ve written about different administrations’ failure to fulfill America’s mission as a humanitarian nation. How well do we perform as an agent of humanitarian actions in the world?

JS: During the great period of humanitarian intervention, the 1990s, the Clinton administration came around to a policy that was quite effective and did do some good. Both Balkan interventions, for example, were on balance successful. Obviously the elephant in the room was Rwanda. Somalia didn’t work out too well, but I don’t think anybody could have done that right. Overall, humanitarian problems did gain greater strategic resonance. Since 9/11, you can point to some humanitarian benefits that have flowed from the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan—more rights for women in Afghanistan, maybe a general increase in welfare with the new Iraqi governments, at least sporadically. But overall, the strategic priorities of countering terrorism, and now great-power competition, as usual, are crowding out the humanitarian missions that some Americans, at least idealistic Americans, would like to undertake.

RRC: Is there something we should be doing in Syria that we’re not doing?

JS: We’ve dropped the ball diplomatically on Syria and ceded leadership to Russia. That would be something that a new Democratic president would do well to rejuvenate. In terms of militarily intervening there, no, I don’t think so.

RRC: If you look ahead twenty or thirty years, do you think history will show that we are now at a moment roughly similar to the one Great Britain was at after World War II—that Trump is, in effect, the agent of a historical paradigm change whereby the United States is gradually subsiding, and the era of American dominance is over?

JS: I do think that we’re going to have a more multipolar world. The question is, which way does that bend? Does it mean you’re going to have a geopolitics involving spheres of influence with relatively illiberal governments presiding over them? Or does it mean that you can try to carry forward a more consensual vision of liberal internationalism?

RRC: Do you think we need to try to assert that attitude?

JS: I do. I don’t think that the so-called postwar liberal international order is dead. It took a long time to build it up, and I think it enjoys some resiliency. True, it has taken a hit under Trump, but it would take more than one term of Donald Trump to kill it. And so I think it is susceptible to being revived, up to a point. Without our own government standing in the way, this wouldn’t be an intractable problem.



RRC: Jonathan, since we spoke a few weeks ago, a virulent global pandemic has profoundly upended life as we know it. We all recognize that the virus poses severe public-health and structural economic dangers. Can you assess its national-security implications—and evaluate the administration’s response?

JS: The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly a matter of both national and international security as well as public health. An appropriately calibrated response by our government is needed to protect the American public and, by extension, other populations. The Trump administration’s response has been dismal, hindered by the same inadequacies in the interagency process that have plagued national-security decision-making throughout his presidency. Trump ignored repeated warnings from the intelligence community, conveyed through the President’s Daily Brief, that reportedly began in early January. He paid no attention to the World Health Organization’s alarm. While some senior NSC officials believed the federal government should be doing more to prepare for the onslaught of the virus, none proved persistent enough to persuade Trump to act sooner rather than later.

Part of the problem appeared to be the elimination of the global health-security directorate at the NSC, depriving the White House of an orderly and systematic means of formulating a fully informed course of action. Trump’s willful determination to buoy financial markets at the expense of public health might have thwarted that effort in any case. In public-health terms, the administration’s response has been late and at best improvisational. Trump recklessly downplayed the risks posed by the coronavirus, frequently contradicting his own senior health officials and the medical community and conveying outright falsehoods. Unsurprisingly, the president has also been unwilling to marshal the bipartisanship necessary for smooth congressional action in a crisis that affects everyone. Until this administration, the United States could be relied upon to lead the global response to a worldwide health crisis; now it cannot even effectively manage its own.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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