To thoughtful observers in this country and abroad seeking to objectively assess the performance of the Trump Presidency, a genuine paradox is emerging. It lies in the striking contrast between the 45th president’s volatile and often inconsistent record in domestic matters and the relative order and continuity in his approach to national security.
A growing regard for the quality of the Administration's National Security profile crystallized with the December release of the "National Security Strategy of the USA"(hereafter NSS).
An annual report mandated by Congress, the NSS historically has been overly broad, bureaucratic, vague on specifics, and consequently meriting little public attention. This year's NSS released in concert with a speech by the President marks a sharp departure from past practice. It is a document notable for its clarity, specificity, and relative brevity. In substance it also represents a distinct change of direction from the Bush and Obama years.
Apart from those reflexively unable to credit anything coming from Trump, this NSS has drawn high praise from respected sources including some who have been highly critical of the Administration's domestic policy. Among these is Walter Russell Mead- long a Senior Fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations- and Norman A. Bailey, a former Assistant Director at the National Security Council (NSC).
In an article in the venerable AsiaTimes - "Trump National Security Strategy Marks a Return to Realism" (1/4/18)- Bailey called the NSS "realistic, moderate in tone, firm in conception and worthy of respect".
Mead who over the years has sharply criticized what he called the "excesses of both Bush and Obama" praised the new direction in a Wall St. Journal article (11/29/17) entitled " Trump Brings Foreign Policy Back to Earth".
In this and a later article (WSJ 12/27/17) analyzing the new NSS, Mead defends the widely derided slogan "America First" as representing a much needed corrective to 16 years of over-extension, over-commitment, and over spending on an unending cycle of debilitating wars on two or more fronts.
What in a nutshell does the NSS actually say? It enunciates four overarching goals.
1. Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life
2. Promote American prosperity
3. Preserve peace through strength
4. Advance American influence.
Unlike previous NSS, which usually avoided naming enemies, this NSS specifies the main threats to US Security: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and "jihadist terrorism" (a concept scrupulously avoided in the past).
As Bailey points out this is "a strategy of principled realism guided by outcomes not ideology". Mead amplifies this unequivocally stating that "America's post-Cold War Strategy had run out of gas". Filled with an "End of History" giddiness after the collapse of the Soviet Union the US dramatically expanded its international mission to include- often with Congressional encouragement- ideologically tinged goals- promoting Democracy in the Middle East, protecting religious and sexual minorities, "Nation- building" from Niger to Ukraine, gender equality, climate change etc.- that inevitably proved to be unrealistic, unsustainable, unexplainable to the American people, and ultimately a ruinous distraction from the looming tsunami of national indebtedness.
In making their sharp indictment of past practice both Mead and Bailey recall NY Times columnist Bret Stephens’ 2014 book America in Retreat which bluntly stated that national security is "less to make dreams come true than to keep nightmares at bay".
The question many are asking is how a relatively undisciplined President like Donald Trump can produce a highly disciplined and ground- breaking NSS. Mead answers thusly: "the NSS is a vision that blends the pragmatic approach of three generals with the less than disciplined but still sometimes acute insights that helped (Trump) win the election".
The three generals in question are Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. Mc Master. The enormous credibility of this trio is reflected in their overwhelming Senate confirmation votes. Even those who detest Trump readily acknowledge that the country is fortunate to have three individuals of great character, experience and ability at the center of what is at once the most important and dangerous portfolio in American government.
Through long and distinguished careers they have demonstrated courage on the battlefield and extraordinary qualities of skill and leadership. They embody those values described by General Douglas Mac Arthur in his last address at West Point: Honor, Duty,Country.
A most unusual President has given them a most unusual opportunity to serve the Nation. We all must wish them well in their perilous endeavors.
Bill Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.