There is a temptation, when a new presidential administration comes into office, for its members to assume everything the previous administration did was idiotic, and that a wiser course of action would have been to do the precise opposite. We saw this in 2017, for example, when President Trump and some of his aides had an almost pathological obsession with the former president’s team and policies. But the Obama administration, too, seemed overly eager to distinguish itself from the Bush administration in its early years.
The problem is that presidential administrations are almost always filled with talented, hard-working people, and it’s a mistake to reflexively jettison whatever it was they decided upon for policy. And so those of us who left the last administration—who have been all too ready to criticize this new one—should keep an open mind regarding the things this administration might be doing well. It’s perhaps especially important to look for these things when each new day brings a fresh irresponsible tweet or poorly staffed policy decision. With that in mind, and writing as someone who is genuinely concerned about the soul of the Republic, here are four things I think the Trump administration got right in 2017.
The fight against the Islamic State
I’ve always admired the way the Bush administration approached the financial crisis in 2008, when it cast aside a lot of conservative orthodoxy to bail out banks and spend what was necessary to stabilize the markets. The Obama administration, for its part, largely carried on the good work that had been done.
The same can be said for the Trump administration and the fight against the Islamic State. I wrote a year ago that the Trump administration would preside over the defeat of the Islamic State, because anyone with even a passing understanding of the conflict knew the momentum was on the side of the coalition by the end of 2016. That said, give Donald Trump some credit for keeping the Obama administration’s campaign plan and field commanders in place. Are you angry he’s now claiming credit for what the previous administration accomplished? Well … who cares? The Islamic State has been largely defeated, and that’s what is most important.
(Also, as an important aside, don’t be so quick to blame him for the spike in civilian casualties we saw in 2017: My gut always told me the civilian casualties would get worse as the campaign moved to Mosul and Raqqa—the last two urban strongholds of the Islamic State. It’s also entirely possible civilian casualties during the Obama administration were worse than previously thought.)
Critical national-security appointments
Okay, the less that is said about the state of the State Department, the better. Aside from that, the personnel situation in the critical national security departments and agencies looks a lot better.
At the Department of Defense, the balance of power between the uniformed and civilian leaders is still heavily weighted toward those in uniform. That’s somewhat natural at the start of any administration, but it’s more pronounced in this one, where the secretary has run the Department more like a combatant command and less like a government department. (No surprise, since his last major command was U.S. Central Command or CENTCOM—civilians at the Pentagon jokingly refer to it as “Pentacom” now.) It’s also worth noting that it’s taken a lot of time—too much time—for key civilian billets to be filled. But a lot of the civilians that have been hired have been great selections, with several particularly talented individuals coming into the building in the latter half of the year, and I believe that in 2018 they will begin to prove their worth to a secretary who isn’t used to having so many civilians working for him. As for the secretary himself, by all accounts, he has forged a tight relationship with the president and continues to provide wise counsel. The Pentagon thought it hit the cabinet secretary jackpot in January of 2017, and it still feels that way a year later.
Mike Pompeo has also grown close to the president, and that’s especially important given his role as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA is in the customer service business, and it serves one customer over everyone else. If Mike Pompeo has to spend half his day at the White House explaining the world to the president, well, that’s not ideal, but it’s fine.
And H.R. McMaster had always been seen as a future national-security adviser. Since being selected as such to replace Mike Flynn, he has empowered some seriously talented individuals beneath him, from Nadia Schadlow and Fiona Hill to the Bajraktari Brothers, Ylber and Ylli—two of the most important and best people in the federal government you’ve likely never heard of. Nadia wrote the recently published national security strategy, while Fiona Hill has been fighting the good fight on Russia. Ylber and Ylli, meanwhile, are among those who understand how to actually get things done in government, which is something this administration needs more of, having disqualified so many previous Republican officials from serving after they criticized the president during the election.
Picking sides in Saudi Arabia
Another administration would have hedged its bets on Mohammed bin Salman. Not this one. This one has—with very few exceptions—largely endorsed the young crown prince’s reform agenda and claim to the throne.
And I don’t think that’s unwise. I think that’s a highly defensible strategic decision.
First, if Mohammed bin Salman ascends to the throne, he could be the king for half a century. The United States will want a close relationship with him. Second, the economic and social dynamism in the Kingdom is real. Sorry folks, it is. The reflexive cynicism about Saudi Arabia you find among most Western observers of the region has blinded us to what is going on there. Tom Friedman’s interview with Mohammed bin Salman may have been cringe-worthy for its obsequiousness, but Friedman wasn’t all wrong: the reform agenda—to include the crackdown on corruption—is broadly popular, and we should all be rooting for a more liberal and economically diverse Saudi Arabia. (Besides, the alternative is a nightmare for U.S. interests and global security.)
That having been said, my question for the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia is the same one I have for it with regard to Israel: It’s great that personal relations are better, but what exactly does the administration intend to do with them? With Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration’s message to the Saudis should be the following: You are embarking upon one of the most ambitious economic and social programs the world has ever seen. You need as few external distractions as possible. So stop obsessing about Iran—let us do that—and wind down your engagement in Yemen and your spats with Qatar and Lebanon as soon as possible. Focus on the Kingdom.
Asking dumb questions
Apparently Donald Trump made all of his generals and diplomats explain to him, in detail, why the hell we need all these thousands of troops and bases abroad.
I don’t mind when senior decision-makers ask dumb questions or float dumb ideas (so long as they don’t ultimately choose them). Doing so forces everyone to review their initial assumptions—which may not have been reviewed in some time—and rearticulate why we have been doing business as usual for as long as we have been doing it. (Besides, my rule for policy-making has always been that if I can’t quickly explain a policy’s merits to a family dining in a Cracker Barrel back home in Tennessee, I probably need to revisit the policy in question.)
In this case, politicians need to be reminded that there is an actual cost to asking the U.S. military and others in security-related departments or agencies to doing all of the things they ask them to do. Yes, our global footprint far outstrips that of any peer competitor. But no one is asking France or China to deter both Iran and North Korea—both of which are 6,000 miles from the continental United States.
If you want the U.S. government to do less abroad, great. But until you tell the Department of Defense and its sister departments and agencies where they’re allowed to start assuming more risk, don’t complain about the price tag.