A Strategy for the Age of Trump

A Strategy for the Age of Trump

To succeed, Trump needs to retool the national-security apparatus, shaking up its turf-obsessed, risk-averse culture while sharpening its tradecraft.

At the core of any strategy to defeat a seditious ideological movement is the need to impose a suffocating sense of futility. The rise of a self-proclaimed Islamic State, appropriating territory and resources, requires two sets of responses, both of which the administration has put in motion. The first is a decisive military operation to deny the group any territory from which it can plan and stage international terrorist operations. The second is a diplomatic collaboration of willing Arab and Muslim countries, supported by others, in a social and informational campaign to blunt ISIS’s ability to project itself as a viable entity. It will be difficult, but is necessary, for affected countries to engage families, religious authorities and children in social programs to inoculate their youth, including the very young, against the appeal of extremism. Respected figures in these societies must stigmatize the participation of any family member in murderous activities, making clear, as non-Muslims cannot, that the narratives of Islamist terrorist groups go against the true teachings of Islam and are offensive to their religion. Only when these communities regard anyone joining a terrorist movement as a person of inferior character and upbringing will the lure of terrorist appeals be blunted.

ISIS is not the first entity to claim sovereignty and, at the same time, propound a borderless “caliphate” based on a novel interpretation of Islam. The fusion of imputed religious authority with temporal political authority first appeared in the Islamic constitution imposed by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution in Iran. Khomeini’s dictum that “the road to Jerusalem goes through Karbala” implied a territorial writ beyond the borders of his own country. The regime in Tehran, despite thirty-eight years in power, has languished in the lowest tiers of global metrics of governance and legitimacy while topping the chart of state sponsors of terrorism and per-capita executions. The crISIS of the Islamic world, and its destructive impact elsewhere, will not end until political legitimacy, nondiscrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and responsible religious order separate from sovereign politics are achieved.

The fourth strategic danger to a world hospitable to American values and interests is illicit commerce paired with state corruption, a compound problem that, to date, has been addressed by governments only in narrow, specialized terms. The interagency bureaucracy is studded with anemic and duplicative programs targeted variously against illicit trafficking in weapons, drugs, persons, blood diamonds, wildlife poaching, counterfeit currency and passports, missile and nuclear technologies, and other evasions of lawfully regulated global commerce. Officials in many governments are complicit in corruptly facilitating cross-border illicit commerce, which sustains transnational criminal and terrorist entities. It is high time for the United States, and all stakeholders in a well-functioning international order, to determine that these secretive trade arteries are interconnected, have a cumulative effect and must be comprehensively obstructed. Together, they constitute a growing cancer directly undermining many U.S. policies and programs around the world.

Good governance is a work in progress for every society. Transnational networks of banks, front companies and shippers smuggling all manner of contraband rob governments of revenues from taxation, and make it harder for developing countries to become competent stewards of their own national interests. Fragile and failing states offer a breeding ground for extremist ideologies. The Atlantic Council’s May 2017 Report of the Task Force on the Future of Iraq describes a pervasive corrupt system in which businesses and citizens must endure extortion demands from local officials, adding, “The humiliation that accompanies these routine interactions alienates citizens from state institutions that are supposed to serve them and renders the state increasingly vulnerable to instability and violence.”

The global illicit economy is a burden, not only on developing countries, but on the security and prosperity of the United States and its allies. “Ungoverned spaces” of the world constitute a void where bad actors forming alliances of convenience generate physical, cyber and economic threats. Following the 9/11 attacks, as the Bush administration focused on preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons, tens of thousands of U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan were killed or wounded by easily obtainable conventional munitions. Humanitarian workers and peacekeeping forces are often unable to operate in conflict-scarred areas thanks to nonstate actors’ ready access to military-grade weaponry. The many separate U.S. and allied policy responses should now be fused into an overarching campaign to suppress the global illicit economy.

There is a fifth strategic danger, addressed in the May 11 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community under the label “Environmental Risks and Climate Change.” The melting of polar and alpine ice, and rising ocean temperatures and sea levels, according to the assessment, are “projected to fuel more intense and frequent extreme weather events” with particular impacts on coastal populations, and generate “heightened tensions over shared water resources” in some regions. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review warned that these changes confer a “threat multiplier effect” that will “aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” Another 2014 DoD report warned that these environmental impacts could affect its ability to “defend the nation.” Already in 2017, extreme heat has forced the grounding of civil aviation in parts of the United States.

Assessing the consequences of rising temperatures is necessary, and does not imply adjudication of the science of climate change, as the intelligence community assessment made clear. The United States must plan for critical water shortages, food insecurity, population displacements, impacts on military facilities and future operations, and large-scale property destruction. There is a need to develop resilience, mitigation and response strategies, and capacity building. Assuming the trend in global temperatures does not soon stabilize or reverse, U.S. interests require a continuous search for measures showing a potential to arrest these conditions before more catastrophic effects become unavoidable.

HAVING LED the international pursuit of greater security, stability, justice, self-determination, human rights, development and free-market economics for the past seven decades, the national-security community needs better ways to manage the momentous tasks that lie ahead, including more efficient, effective use of resources. The administration and Congress should codify strategy, but encourage flexibility of policy approaches. For too long, policymakers have clung stubbornly to policies, once announced, even when changed conditions have rendered them ineffective. Media correspondents have portrayed any deviation from stated policy as evidence of failure or disarray, when all that matters are results. Military experts remind us that no war plan survives first contact with the enemy; U.S. civilian policymakers must be given license to adjust ineffective approaches, repeatedly as necessary, and unapologetically, to maintain progress toward strategic goals.

The tip of the proverbial spear of American influence among 7.5 billion people in over two hundred foreign countries and territories is not, and ought not to be, itself a spear. Senior diplomats should be out in front, influencing other governments, persuading their populations of the merit and sincerity of American policies, dissuading potential adversaries from acting contrary to U.S. interests, and providing political direction to defense and intelligence campaigns. Yet the State Department, as of this writing, faces major proposed budget reductions, and most politically appointed positions remain unfilled. There is much one could say in defense of the foreign service officers, civil service officers and foreign service nationals in Washington and around the world; this is a competent, expert workforce. Even so, change is needed. The country will be ill served if a pivotal moment of institutional reckoning fails to produce transformative measures to re-energize and empower the diplomatic function.

Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has described as the State Department’s primary focus the need “to protect our citizens at home and abroad,” the State Department must look beyond the ramparts to advance the long-term national interest. Conflict resolution must be a core mission of American diplomacy, for no other party is better positioned to understand and mediate the political issues animating destructive conflicts worldwide. When the United States is not shaping the conditions that determine war and peace, war is the more likely condition. The internationally deployed head count of United Nations peacekeeping forces and civilian field workers has increased more than sevenfold in this century, to over 120,000 people, with open-ended missions monitoring unresolved conflicts, and no end in sight to the rising trend. Some critics fear that the UN is too powerful; yet it has only the mandates and resources assigned by the member states. The United States should lead, and leverage the UN’s capabilities, in efforts to stabilize conflicts. The burden of diplomatic exertions, often onerous, is far less than the price of allowing destabilizing conditions to fester.

Foreign assistance is also facing proposed major reductions—yet the better course will be to reform rather than cut assistance. For years, despite exhaustive annual reviews by embassies, combatant commanders, the Departments of State and Defense, and OMB, levels of foreign assistance have stubbornly reflected congressional predilections, whether or not these coincided with policy priorities in the field. The messages of U.S. ambassadors have been disregarded with impunity in foreign capitals, as many governments have relied on their representatives and lobbyists in Washington to pursue assistance appropriations directly on Capitol Hill. Moreover, most assistance funds are inflexible once appropriated; the perennial scramble to muster resources in response to an unanticipated crISIS has often entailed walking back important prior commitments.