National Security & Defense

In Defense of Trump’s National-Security Record

President Donald Trump attends a rally in Manchester, N.H., August 15, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Whether Donald Trump gets a second term or not, he deserves credit for the achievements of his first.

After I had gotten my first cup of coffee the other day, I did what I usually do early on Tuesday mornings: I turned to Kevin Williamson’s “The Tuesday” newsletter, where I read these lines:

One of the many perversities of Trump’s presidency is that Donald J. Trump’s core deficiencies as a chief administrator — his ignorance and his laziness — are the chief practical virtues of his presidency. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know, and this has created the opportunity for some of the people in his administration to get some useful things done. For this reason, the conservative advances that have accompanied the Trump presidency (and it won’t do to pretend that these do not exist) mostly have been in the fields in which the president has the least engagement and interest, whereas the catastrophes of the Trump presidency (and it won’t do to pretend that these do not exist) are strongly associated with those few areas of policy in which he takes an active interest or is personally and strongly engaged with ex officio.

I hesitate to contradict Kevin, but in my estimation, the Trump administration has accomplished quite a lot in the field of foreign and defense affairs, and the president — who practically and constitutionally controls those responsibilities — has to be given the lion’s share of credit for it.

Let’s look at the administration’s top three national-security achievements.

China

As Dan Blumenthal and Nick Eberstadt brilliantly explained in the pages of National Review, the United States facilitated the rise of China for almost 40 years without considering the downsides of allowing the authoritarian Chinese state to embed itself in the global economy and the international system. To be sure, that began to change with the Obama administration’s “rebalance” policy, but Trump catalyzed and accelerated a shift in direction. In Trump’s first year in office, his National Security Strategy made competing with Beijing the priority goal of American foreign policy.

Since then, his administration has reviewed, upgraded, and engaged the tools of national power to protect American national security and preserve the rules-based international order against the challenge from China. The tariff war has been the most visible aspect of Trump’s policy, but the administration has also used export controls, sanctions, a robust FBI campaign against technology theft, diplomatic offensives in the South China Sea, a comprehensive approach to 5G technology, freedom-of-navigation patrols, and a spotlight on Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs to expose Chinese machinations and organize counterpressure against Beijing.

As I said, Trump’s China policy has its roots in Obama’s Asian rebalance, and some of the current tactics have been used in the past. But the administration broadened and deepened the effort, increased its tempo, and, most important, gave it strategic depth and coherence.

Trump has, in one term, pulled the national-security apparatus into the 21st century, and he did it with solid bipartisan support. It’s been messy, and not all of it has been effective. But the magnitude of the achievement ranks with that of the Truman administration in the years following the Second World War, when Truman (one of Missouri’s many gifts to the nation) recognized the Soviet threat, shifted the goals of the foreign-policy establishment, and began to build the national-security apparatus that prosecuted and eventually won the Cold War.

The Middle East

When he entered office, President Trump completely reversed the direction of America’s Middle-Eastern policy. He made constraining Iran his top priority. He discarded the JCPOA, imposed strong sanctions against Iran that starved the regime of resources, and, when Iran attacked American forces, retaliated by targeting and taking out Qasem Soleimani.

All of that restored American credibility while at the same time creating common strategic interest with the Gulf states, for whom constraining Iran is also the top priority.

Trump also took consistent action to normalize relations with Israel and reduce its international isolation. Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem was a key factor, though by no means the only one.

Trump also recognized that the Palestinian leadership would never negotiate a deal with Israel, because — for reasons of fanaticism, fear, and greed — they didn’t want one. So Trump decided to plow around them, and sent his son-in-law Jared Kushner to broker diplomatic and economic partnerships between Israel and the Gulf states on whom the Palestinians depend for support.

Trump has been ridiculed for relying on Kushner, but the Middle East is a place where family connections matter; in retrospect, Kushner’s involvement signaled the seriousness of Trump’s policy much better than sending yet another professional envoy or diplomat.

The efforts of the Trump administration have come together in the last six months to create the best chance for Middle-Eastern peace since the collapse of peace talks at the end of the Clinton administration.

The Armed Forces

The single-most-insane piece of national-security legislation during my years in Washington was the defense sequester that passed Congress on a bipartisan basis in 2011. It officially went into effect in 2013, and cut the defense budget by hundreds of billions of dollars in the years thereafter. Then-secretary of defense Leon Panetta called it “shooting ourselves in the head.” He was right; as then-secretary Jim Mattis said in 2017, “no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than the defense sequester.”

Trump campaigned on the promise of peace through strength, and early in 2018, with yeoman help from Senator John McCain and Representative Mac Thornberry, he got the sequester lifted and defense spending increased by $100 billion. It was by no means enough to fix the damage to American power, but it was the best piece of budget news for the armed forces in decades.

At Trump’s insistence, the Pentagon has finally begun increasing the size of the Navy — it has reached 300 ships, up from 271 five years go — and Congress created a Space Force to upgrade and manage America’s satellite architecture. Both are necessary steps in reshaping the armed forces to meet an increasingly aggressive China. Beijing has been emphasizing the maritime domain for years and recently reorganized the People’s Liberation Army to give space forces a higher priority.

This is probably the place to note that Trump is the first president since Reagan who hasn’t started a war.

Trump engineered the elimination of the ISIS territorial caliphate without getting American troops mired in the Syrian mess. He avoided a confrontation with Turkey over the Kurds when just about everyone in Washington wanted one, and was then able to negotiate a cease-fire with the Turks instead. He could have gone to war with Iran in the Persian Gulf last year, but instead responded to Iranian provocations by taking out Qasem Soleimani — a bold and brilliant stroke that restored the credibility of American deterrence after the red-line fiasco in 2013.

Williamson ascribes much of the Trump administration’s success to the Washington establishment and specifically to “Conservative Inc.” Whatever the merits of that claim with respect to the administration’s domestic policy, it’s not credible where national security is concerned, for two reasons.

First, for good or ill, the president runs foreign policy. Success in national-security affairs is difficult even with good presidential leadership, and impossible without it.

Second, the doleful fact is that, from the end of the Cold War until Trump took office, the record of the national-security establishment consisted largely of one catastrophic mistake after another.

Even a partial list of those mistakes is long and discouraging:

* The failure to anticipate, much less prevent, the 9/11 attacks.

* The prosecution of a global war on terror without adequately identifying the aims of the conflict, or even defining the enemy.

* The intelligence mistakes that led to the Iraq War, the errors that prolonged it for so long, and the abandonment of Iraq in 2011 after our armed forces had sacrificed so much to secure it.

* The failure to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.

* The naïveté where Vladimir Putin was concerned, which culminated in the 2009 “reset” policy and the unilateral abandonment of the missile defenses bases in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

* The pointless war in Libya, followed by the red-line fiasco in Syria, that gave Putin a doorway into the Middle East.

* The overuse and underfunding of the armed forces, culminating in the disastrous sequester.

* The blind continuation of engagement with China, long after it was clear not only that Beijing would never liberalize its political institutions but that it represented a first-order threat to American interests and, more broadly, to the international order itself.

Each of these blunders weakened America, and they were mostly if not exclusively the product of the Washington establishment — Conservative Inc. or Liberal Inc., or both.

I do not say this with any pleasure. I have immense respect and no little affection for many of the experts in the national-security establishment. More to the point, I’ve been part of that apparatus in one capacity or another since 1993, and I bear my full share of the responsibility for the decisions in which I participated.

I say it rather to clarify the extent of Trump’s success. He inherited a much weaker hand than his predecessors, yet he created strategic purpose, energized the civilian tools of power, began to rebuild the armed forces, restored important partnerships, and built new ones, and wrested the initiative from the aggressors.

The global-threat environment will remain high no matter who is elected next Tuesday, but America is at least better positioned to deal with such risks than it was four years ago. Whether Donald Trump gets a second term or not, he deserves credit for the national-security achievements of his first.

Jim Talent is a former U.S. senator for Missouri and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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