As president-elect, Donald Trump will now receive much more in-depth intelligence briefings. Learning of reality, he’ll then have two choices: He can continue to pretend that Russian president Vladimir Putin is an American friend and that the United States should be a vulture abroad; or he can apply business 101 to foreign policy — and learn from recent administrations’ success and failures.
He should choose the latter course. Opposing both isolationism and unrestrained interventionism, Trump should favor hard-headed realism. If he articulates such a vision, Trump will attract support from those who have previously disregarded him. Here are my suggestions for whom he should appoint to key national-security positions to help forge a new American foreign policy.
Secretary of Defense
‐ Robert Gates: As secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011, Gates served under both President George W. Bush and President Obama. A lifelong public servant and former CIA director under President George H. W. Bush, Gates is also a skilled master of the Pentagon bureaucracy. If Trump is serious about reforming the national-security infrastructure to make it more efficient and effective, Gates would be a great pick. Gates’s greatest strength is his experience. He has fought the Cold War and the War on Terror in equal measure. Gates is respected around the world — and by Democrats and Republicans alike here at home.
But there’s another significant benefit: By appointing Gates, Trump would show he prioritizes the nation’s needs over his own ego. Gates was publicly critical of Trump for his more extreme comments during the campaign. Trump needs to show he can rise beyond the era of late-night Twitter rants by embracing one of America’s most accomplished foreign-policy hands.
There’s one complication. While Gates is — like Trump — skeptical of foreign entanglements and wants NATO members to increase their defense spending, he is no fan of President Putin. He might well refuse Trump. Nevertheless, the president-elect should pursue a meeting.
‐ Current-defense secretary Ashton Carter: Respected for his leadership in the fight against ISIS, in deterring Russia, and in balancing Obama administration appeasers, Carter is also an effective Pentagon manager. Retaining Carter would serve three purposes. First, it would bring experience and stability to the transition period. Second, it would support Trump’s call for bipartisanship by offering an olive branch to Democrats. Third, Carter’s appointment would signal to U.S. allies that Trump won’t render himself Putin’s tool.
Secretary of State
‐ Tennessee senator Bob Corker: As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker would serve as a bridge to establishment Republicans. Many Republicans are concerned by Trump’s positive commentary on Vladimir Putin. While Corker has expressed interest in becoming secretary of state, he has not shied away from taking a tougher line on Putin and Syria than Trump. Articulate and measured, Corker would present a reassuring face for the Trump administration abroad.
‐ Former governor of Utah, 2012 presidential contender, and U.S. ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011 Jon Huntsman: While he did call on Trump to drop out of the race in October after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, Trump would be wise to consider Huntsman. An intermediate speaker of Mandarin and a charismatic figure, Huntsman would help Trump navigate the increasingly difficult future of U.S.–China relations. Foreign governments and media would also warm to him, affording Trump time to win over skeptical allies. Perception is important in foreign policy — and at present, Trump has a big perception problem. Appointing Huntsman could go a long way toward solving the perception of Trump as an unstable leader, unwilling to seek wise counsel.
National Security Adviser
‐ James Mattis, former commanding officer of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) under President Obama: Less well known than David Petraeus, the retired Marine four-star general is the exceptional general officer of the last 15 years. A proven warrior who led from the front in both Afghanistan and Iraq (read Bing West’s No True Glory), Mattis is also a scholar of military history and strategy. And while Mattis was removed as CENTCOM commander for advocating a tougher approach on Iran, Mattis is no neoconservative. Instead, he’s a hard-headed realist. Hopefully, Trump would appreciate his no-nonsense attitude and would come to trust his advice. Moreover, by addressing the flaws in the Iran nuclear deal, Mattis could develop a strategy that served U.S. interests while mitigating the risk of undesired escalation with the Islamic Republic.
‐ Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker: A career State Department Foreign Service officer, Crocker commands global respect. During his tenure as ambassador to Iraq, Crocker’s cajoling of Prime Minister Maliki was instrumental to the success of the so-called Surge and the relative political stability that followed until the 2011 U.S. withdrawal. Still, Crocker’s service extends beyond Iraq. At various points in his career Crocker has served as ambassador to Afghanistan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Syria. That diversity of experience would offer Trump two key benefits. First, Crocker would serve as a guide through the minefield of Middle Eastern politics. Second, Crocker’s appointment would be proof that Trump prefers robust advisers over pandering sycophants.
Of course, these are only a few of the top positions in America’s national-security apparatus. At least in the short term, when it comes to other posts, Trump should endeavor for stability. For example, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford, has proven himself a capable chief military adviser to President Obama. Trump should prioritize his retention. Trump should also consider retaining James Clapper as director of National Intelligence and John Brennan as CIA director. Former NSA intelligence officer John Schindler would be well placed to lead a professional post-Snowden era at the NSA. But if Trump wants to shake up our national-security system, he should at least end America’s crony tradition of appointing unqualified donors to prestigious ambassadorships abroad.
As U.S. adversaries — especially the Russians — and perhaps even some allies seek to take advantage of Trump in the opening days of his administration, Trump will need help plotting a steady course. He will also need executives who understand the complex terrorist threat by which ISIS confronts the West.
Ultimately, Trump faces the challenge of his lifetime. President Obama’s foreign policy has failed because he trusted the unqualified (Ben Rhodes) and the strategically timid (Susan Rice) over the realists (Bob Gates). Trump must not make the same mistake. Rightly confident in his authority, he should build an experienced team focused on building a new American realist foreign policy.