Trump, Afghanistan, and Shades of the Tuesday Lunch

May 9, 2017 Topic: Afghanistan Presidency Region: South Asia Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Trump, Afghanistan, and Shades of the Tuesday Lunch


Impending choices by President Trump regarding the war in Afghanistan raise issues of national security decision-making in his presidency that in turn evoke pathologies of the past, with Trump’s personal habits threatening to make matters at least as bad as in the past.  Struggles for influence within the White House are part of the story—as Jacob Heilbrunn discusses in connection with differences over Afghanistan policy between Stephen Bannon and national security adviser H. R. McMaster—although the story is not mainly about the clout of specific personalities.  The disproportionate staffing of senior levels of Trump’s administration with military officers is another part, although the problem is not simply one of adopting a military rather than a civilian point of view.

Start with this president’s own qualities, and two of them in particular.  One is his low knowledge and understanding of foreign relations and national security.  It is doubtful that before he was elected he ever had an even halfway complex thought about Afghanistan.  The other is his exceedingly narrow channel for input of new information and insights.  That channel seems to consist mainly of cable television news and random observations conveyed directly by people to whom for one reason or another Trump has taken a liking.


These characteristics imply that a thorough policy-making process—the array of meetings, memos, and consultations among all concerned parts of the government that formulates, vets, and evaluates options presented to the president—is at least as important in correcting for the deficiencies of this president as with any of his predecessors.  A full and orderly policy process is important with any president; such a process does not always yield the best result, but without such a process there will not be a raising of all the questions that need to be asked, nor discussion of all the considerations that need to be considered.

We have a big and still fairly recent example of what can happen when a president dispenses with a policy process before a major national security initiative: the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which was not preceded by any interagency meetings, options papers, discussions in the Situation Room, or anything else in which the question of whether launching that war was a good idea was on the agenda.  We know how that decision turned out.

Trump’s heavy reliance on generals in staffing his administration does not by itself constitute a bias toward war.  Military officers who have directly experienced the pain and downsides of wars are apt to be less inclined to start new ones than the sort of civilian, non-veteran chicken hawks who played major roles in George W. Bush’s administration.  But what to do about an ongoing war such as Afghanistan is a different sort of question.  Military officers are conditioned to think in terms of using the military instrument more than other instruments of national policy.  When given a mission, they are conditioned to pursue it to an outcome that can be described as successful completion of that mission.  They are accustomed to taking as a given that completion of whatever was earlier defined as their mission is important for the national interest.  They are not accustomed to questioning whether that mission really is important for U.S. national interests, or whether it still is important even if it was once deemed to be, or whether it is important enough to continue pursuing when weighed against collateral costs and competing priorities.

It is those larger and fundamental sorts of questions that need to be applied today to policy on Afghanistan.  This is not a matter of acceding to Bannon’s concerns about fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises.  It instead is a matter of carefully assessing whether political and military events in that faraway graveyard of empires has enough impact on U.S. national security to warrant making America’s longest war even longer, let alone escalating that war.

A disturbing departure in the Trump administration from full and thorough policy processes comes to light in a Washington Post article that focuses on the  influence of one of Trump’s generals, Secretary of Defense James Mattis.  According to the Post, Mattis regularly joins the president, sometimes more than once a week, for dinner at the White House residence, at times accompanied by a couple of Trump’s other favorite Marine generals, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.  The Post reports that these “regular after-hours gatherings, focused on discussion of pressing national security matters” are “an indication of the free-flowing style that has characterized the administration’s deliberations on national security.” 

This approach, the account continues, “has sometimes generated confusion, as it did after one such dinner in late January in which Trump approved new military actions in Yemen.  The decision made outside the National Security Council process, including a tiny cohort of top officials and leaving only a light paper trail, produced weeks of uncertainty among military officials.”  The article cites, as another example of confusion resulting from the truncated and informal policy process, the public assertions about the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson heading north toward Korea when it really was sailing in the opposite direction.

The White House dinners raise memories of what became known, in the administration of Lyndon Johnson, as the Tuesday lunch.  This weekly gathering, over a meal, of a handful of the president’s top national security officials was where Johnson made most of his decisions on managing the Vietnam War.  This mechanism constituted another short-circuiting of a full and orderly policy process.  The Tuesday lunch also became a prime case study for the psychologist Irving Janis when he developed his concept of groupthink and the decision-making pathologies it entails.

Lyndon Johnson ran a war differently from the way Donald Trump will ever run one, especially with regard to LBJ’s tendency to micromanage.  But there is the same deficiency, due to truncation or end-running of a policy process, in not raising fundamental questions and not obtaining needed perspectives.  Moreover, the deficiencies associated with groupthink are at least as likely to arise over Trump’s dinner table as they were over Johnson’s lunch table.  As the concept was developed by Janis, groupthink involves not just commonality of thought but a dynamic unique to small groups in which maintaining cohesion of the group comes to take precedence over arriving at the best possible decision outcome.  The present ingredients for comity and camaraderie dominating effectiveness are easy to see.  Trump needs his close association with his generals to have some of the dust of strength and selfless public service rub off on himself, or rather on his public image and his self-image.  The generals, aware of their unique channel to this president, will try to avoid anything that risks breakage of that channel.

As Heilbrunn observes, the temptation to score anything that could be billed as a “win” may pull Trump into making America’s longer war even longer, as well as bigger.  But presidential disdain for orderly ways of analyzing how best to advance America’s interests will be another factor increasing the odds that, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Trump will make greater use of military force than is in those interests and will prove to be more of an interventionist than was hoped or expected by those who focused on his retrenchment rhetoric during the campaign, or were turned off by what they regarded as Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness.