In New Crises, Our Enemies See How Vulnerable We Are
President Trump’s bold assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani has risked escalation of tensions -- or war -- with Iran, as he faces provocation from North Korea following a dark December that cemented the instability and liabilities of his administration. He’s a president consumed and distracted by a coming Senate trial, impeached for interfering in next year’s election and still using Kremlin talking points to explain 2016 election interference. Trump’s also dealing with a recent exodus at the Pentagon and a secretary of state likely to leave for a Senate campaign. Revelations in the New York Times last week that our top three national security officials could not convince the president to release congressionally approved aid to Ukraine last summer underscored the strategic weakness that results from a leader unwilling to act in the national interest.
There are substantive questions about the efficacy of Trump’s three-year policy record toward North Korea and Iran and the two maximum pressure campaigns that have not brought the Iranians to the table, nor convinced Kim Jong Un to disarm his nuclear arsenal. He has answered Kim’s ominous hint of a long-range ballistic missile test by calling the murderous dictator “a man of his word.” But his shocking decision to order the latest airstrike, which the administration characterized as “defensive action” against the Iranians, is likely to, at best, demand more U.S. forces in the region just as Trump sought to draw them down while threatening the safety of American service men and women in the region. At worst, he has begun the very hot war he has opposed throughout his campaign and presidency.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted on Twitter that “it would be ironic and worse yet tragic as well as dangerous if an administration that wanted to reduce the US footprint in the Mideast has set in motion a dynamic that will draw us in much further at a time we face challenges from China and NK in Asia and Russia in Europe.”
President Trump stands at this brink having depleted the trust of allies around the world. Indeed the only alliances Trump seems to be strengthening are the ones between our adversaries. As he was carrying on about Hillary Clinton and “Crazy Nancy” last week, the Iranians participated in naval exercises with the Russians and the Chinese, an ominous signal to any national security expert not lost in a tweet storm.
What’s more, those nations, and non-state actors, that seek to harm U.S. interests must be delighted by what they see in Washington, D.C. While the U.S Embassy was still under attack in Baghdad they saw our commander-in-chief tweeting about something someone on Fox News said about Peter Strzok. They have seen him demean as “human scum” patriotic Foreign Service officials who revealed his Ukrainian shakedown; retweeted an article outing the whistleblower; pardoned war criminals within the U.S. armed services; and then referred to the military leaders who opposed such a breach of the warrior code of conduct as “the deep state.” They have read the crazed six-page letter Trump sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the eve of the impeachment vote in the House, and they saw his wife’s face as he laced into Pelosi again on New Year’s Eve, a tuxedoed tailspin about how Pelosi should be ashamed of herself, and she’s so “overrated.”
They also know the Russian government, perhaps trolling us as President Vladimir Putin enjoys doing these days, informed us of his latest conversation with Trump before our government owned up to it. They know Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is managing fallout from the Ukraine scandal he’s complicit in along with both new security crises while he weighs a Senate bid. On Wednesday Pompeo canceled his second planned trip to Ukraine to visit with President Volodymyr Zelensky, whom Trump tried to extort. In November it was impeachment that kept Pompeo away, and this time he remained in Washington because of the attacks in Iraq. In the intervening two months he has made time to meet with donors, travel to Kansas, and update his personal Twitter account as well as his old campaign website.
Like Pompeo, many others who have served for nearly all of Trump’s tenure in office will soon be leaving as the end of a first term is a traditional time of attrition in every administration. Yet turnover in Trump’s administration has set a record. As he takes on two new international crises, this won’t get better -- stepping into consequential roles in a dysfunctional administration during a tumultuous election year isn’t high on the list of most credentialed experts best suited to fill the openings.
Beneath the surface of Trump’s erratic and reactive leadership during three years free of international crises, he has also destabilized the infrastructure meant to bolster the defenses in place to manage them. A flurry of departures at the Pentagon, including some people who started their jobs last year, has worried national security officials concerned that the combination of vacancies and people serving in acting roles has undermined our capacity and damaged morale in ranks across the departments of state, homeland security and defense, where cohesive policy goals and a clear mission are necessary for effective outcomes.
Six of 21 deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy positions are either vacant or filled in an acting capacity. The recent firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, resulting from his disagreement over Trump’s controversial pardons, was followed by the exit of five additional top officials in December, including the head of personnel and readiness, a top Asia policy official, senior adviser for international cooperation, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Four of the announcements occurred in one week. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he expects more departures soon.
While President Trump has said he enjoys the “flexibility” of having unconfirmed staff in “acting” roles, those officials traditionally don’t enjoy the authority, or often resources, to enact change, lead their teams and maintain morale.
According to the political appointments tracker compiled by the Partnership for Public Service, 136 key positions have no nominee, 83 are nominated but not confirmed, and 515 of 743 have been confirmed. At the State Department, that includes 26 positions with no permanent nominee -- among them the special envoy for North Korea human rights issues, an assistant secretary for south Asian affairs, ambassador to Japan, ambassador to Ukraine, undersecretary for arms control and international security affairs, and assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense. At the Department of Defense there are nine and at the Department of Homeland Security the five positions without permanent nominees including secretary, director of ICE, deputy secretary, and general counsel.
There are currently too many vacancies in critical positions, leaving the government unable to respond to challenges -- beyond the current crises -- that we cannot even yet anticipate, said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service.
“Challenges to our government become more dangerous and complicated, not less, over time,” Stier said. “Having a robust and effective government is fundamental to our safety.”
While Stier said there is blame to go around for a system that is backlogged by far too many positions (1,200) requiring Senate confirmation, leaving so many open or staffed by those without adequate authority creates an unnecessary and potentially dangerous vulnerability.
“That’s not the way this government is supposed to work, that’s not the way the Constitution says it’s supposed to work,” he said. “This should be something that worries people.”
Crises cannot be avoided. But reliable leadership, with every available resource behind it, is required. Trump meets his most critical test yet without it.