Can Trump make his security strategy match his Twitter feed?

Over the past few weeks, National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster has been preparing myriad audienc...

Posted: Dec 19, 2017 6:57 AM
Updated: Dec 19, 2017 6:57 AM

Over the past few weeks, National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster has been preparing myriad audiences for the rollout of President Trump's first national security strategy. I was invited to a telephone conference with a few other general officers last week to listen to the abbreviated outline and share some thoughts.

Today the Commander in Chief unveils this document, which is critically important to our military, ambassadors, Congress, citizens and our allies and foes around the world.

It is a long and complex document, one which McMaster claims was drafted with guidance directly from the President and which represents his thoughts on national security.

But the key to any successful strategy is found not in what it says, but what the person who drives the strategy does.

For those not familiar with the National Security Strategy (NSS), the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act mandates that all presidents provide their view of the world, outline their national security concerns associated with that view and then explain how they plan to deal with associated and anticipated challenges.

The NSS is important because it is the capstone document that drives other strategies in the Defense Department, State Department, Homeland Security, the Intelligence Community and myriad other agencies. All actions related to foreign relations and internal defense flow from the NSS, as it provides an overarching strategy that translates how the president sees the US in our relationship with the world.

Since Ronald Reagan published the first NSS in 1987, every president has approached this document differently. George H.W. Bush produced three NSS's (one before the first Gulf War, two after the Soviet bloc collapsed); Clinton produced one for each year of his presidency (except in 1999), giving each a different name (e.g., "A NSS for Engagement and Enlargement," "A NSS for a New Century," and "A NSS For A Global Age").

George W. Bush and Barack Obama produced two documents apiece, addressing what they saw as changing world dynamics and budget realities.

President Trump is right in his claim that his NSS was published the fastest -- his national security staff delivered it 11 months into his presidency -- and he also will likely say it is the biggest, given that the document runs over nearly 70 pages. He would be right on both these counts.

He also will claim that his strategy is radically different than all the ones that came before. The soundbite will be "America First," as the document updates the objectives and methods ("ends and ways," in strategy speak) of how the US will "compete" (a recurring word) and counter the threats to our security with our interest at the forefront.

It is in this area he will likely get some disagreement, because most previous documents have done the same thing, with different language.

That's because as with past security strategies, this document introduces many new terms, unique arguments, and interesting reflection that represents the President's world view -- so much so it will likely be called the "Trump Doctrine."

We ought to get used to the terms within the NSS. Here are just a few of many:

--The four pillars of Protecting the Homeland, Promoting American Prosperity, Preserving Peace Through Strength, and Advancing American Influence are claimed as our vital, national interests.

-- Challenging these national interests are three major groups of actors: "Revisionist Powers" who seek to shape a world antithetical to our interests; "Rogue Regimes" that spread terror, threaten their neighbors, and destabilize critical regions; and "Transnational Threat Organizations" that incite violence in the name of wicked ideologies.

-- "Principled Realism" is the approach that will guide our actions, described as how with our principles -- disciplined by our interests, and with confidence in our ability -- we will achieve a position of strength so we can pragmatically compete. The document states that America must "become competitive again" and take a "clear-eyed view of the competitive environment of the 21st Century." Competition is pretty apparent as a new way of doing business.

The document does claim we will cooperate closely with allies to ensure that no adversarial power dominates Europe, the Indo-Pacific, or the Middle East. We will also "catalyze" action to achieve better outcomes in multinational forums and when signing treaties. America, according to the new NSS, will advance its influence by championing our principles and encouraging others to move toward rule of law and individual rights in the countries we engage with. Our diplomatic and developmental efforts will achieve better outcomes in bilateral, multilateral and informational realms.

We will rebuild our military strength, the NSS says, through expanded capacity, modernized capabilities and increased resources.

These are aspirational thoughts, which have all been addressed -- with different words and terms -- in past security strategies. So the question remains: is this NSS radically different?

In some ways, it is. In others, it isn't. It says we will protect the rights and liberties enshrined in our founding documents, but it also says economic security IS national security, and economic prosperity is the foundation of our national strength. It seems economic strength has become the primary element among the four national powers of diplomacy, military might, information and economics.

Another question ought be whether this strategy is viable, feasible, supportable, appropriate and actionable. Does it represent who we are as a nation, and will it reflect the values and actions exhibited by this administration? There are disconnects between many things in the document, what the President has said in the past, and what we see daily in his Twitter feed.

There will be supporters of this new document because it emphasizes strengthening the military, demands fair and reciprocal trade and alliances, insists on the restoration of US sovereignty and puts the primary effort of rebuilding our economy at the forefront. These are the things the President promised he would do, so this strategy is a reflection of who he is, and what he believes.

But there will be detractors. Those who study strategy, policy, and national security will likely see the ends-ways-means disconnect that is prevalent in many parts of the document. Detractors will also note the lack of emphasis on American values, and they will disagree on whether the strategy can be resourced by a Congress that will likely be strapped for cash and a President that doesn't always build confidence in our allies.

And ultimately, some will ask whether Trump can "sell" the ideas in the document to his fellow citizens -- those beyond his base -- as something that contributes to our future growth and security.

Any NSS is only as good as the leadership, vision, and character behind it. The shield that protects us is as much what people perceive us to be as the armor around us and the weapons we carry, and our national strength is as much our vision for ourselves as our economic and military might.

Only the President has the ability to make the words on the paper come alive, and that is the real indicator of the value of any nation's true security.

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