National Security

Trump is the main threat to our national security. He has been described as emotionally overwrought, mercurial, and unpredictable. He does not read and his advisors find it difficult to brief him. He has difficulty making decisions and frequently changes his mind. He views the world through his long-held gut beliefs and prejudices. Facts do not matter and discussion of complex issues bore him. Hence, he is incapable of agreeing to coherent, long-term strategies. His ego is all that matters to him. Trump views relations with other countries as transactional and looks for concrete returns (money) from relationship and cannot grasp that national security is intangible.
The people who work for him, especially at the very top levels, must feed that ego and cater to his personality traits or be fired. Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster have all been fired to be replaced by Bolton, Pompeo. The new secretary of defense, Mark Esper, has yet to make his mark. Bolton and Pompeo are hawks on Iran and North Korea, whereas Trump wants to be friendly with both regimes. Trump appoints people who impress him on TV or through personal contact rather than background, experience and integrity; Ratcliffe’s appointment is a perfect example. Kushner has a major national security role that is weakened by perceptions that his family business interests guide his policies.
China. Trump is correct to be tackling China’s efforts to acquire intellectual property through espionage and other means but is his tariff war the correct way to go about solving this problem? The main thrust of Trump’s trade war is the trade deficit with China, but that deficit in 2017 was higher than 2016 and 2018 was greater than 2017. The first six months of 2019 are higher than the first six months of 2018. Trump has constantly stated that China is paying the tariffs that he has placed on goods China exports to the US and has not changed that statement. However, it is the US importer that pays the tariff and may pass that tariff along to the US consumer. Remember that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 plunged the world into a major depression. Tariffs are a national security issue.
Beyond trade, China is expanding its influence in the world, which bodes ill for the US in the future as countries may look to China’s autocratic system rather than the democratic, free-market system of the West. Using a plan called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is seeking to impact trade and mineral extraction across the globe through massive loans and direct investment in infrastructure in developing countries. China’s initiative in the South China Sea or the Artic present another threat. At least the US navy continues to challenge China in the South China Sea but the Chinese military presence is growing.
Russia. Trump’s hands-off approach to Russia is difficult to explain. It could be that prior dealings with Russian oligarchs, loans or possible money-laundering activities with Russian involvement, or a simple admiration for Putin explains his favorable ideas on Russia. Putin is trying to make Russia great again and Russia is now an imperialist nation with eyes on Ukraine and the Baltic states (which are NATO members). Trump does not seem to understand that Russia is an enemy that is trying to undermine American power through a massive disinformation campaign on social media.
Trump has withdrawn from the Reagan-era INF (Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces) treaty that banned all short range missiles from Europe. While this may not be all bad, as it allows America to develop new short range missiles for use against China, it makes Europe more unstable as Russia (long suspected of ignoring the treaty) could put in place missiles that can strike NATO countries. In February 2021another nuclear treaty with Russia will expire. This is the New START Treaty which limits strategic nuclear weapons. Trump has indicated that he may not push for its extension claiming it favors Russia and was one of President Obama’s bad deals. If New START is allowed to expire, there will be no US/Russia treaties governing nuclear weapons and that could lead to a new nuclear arms race.
Iran. The current tensions with Iran are the fault of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Trump attacked the nuclear deal during his campaign because Obama signed it, and it became a major issue. Trump pulled out of the deal by claiming that Iran was not in compliance with its obligations under the deal. This was not true. US intelligence, the International Atomic Energy Agency (UN), which conducts inspections, and, in Trumps first year, the secretaries of state and defense all agree that Iran was in compliance and fulfilling its obligations under the treaty.
While Iran has long been supporting actions to undermine Israel by supporting groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and influencing Shi’ite politicians and militias in Iraq, those groups have become strong in the past few years thanks to Trump’s policies on Iran. Following the withdrawal from the deal, Trump began imposing sanctions on Iran with the goal of crippling its economy. Iran is fighting back by showing it is capable of disrupting the flow of oil from the Gulf. . Bolton and Pompeo are both hawks who want regime change in Iran (not at all likely). Trump does not have a coherent policy on Iran beyond sanctions
North Korea. At least Trump and Kim are not insulting one another and threatening “fire and fury” but N. Korea still has nuclear weapons and missiles on which to launch them.
Trump should be given some credit for opening a dialogue with North Korea but talks on denuclearization have stalled. At least, Trump did not agree to pull US troops from the Korean Peninsula at the Singapore summit and walked away in Hanoi from Kim’s demand to end sanctions in exchange for talks on denuclearization. And Trump is in the history books as the first US president to enter N. Korea when he put his foot across the DMZ. Not exactly on a par with Nixon’s visit to China.
The intelligence community has made the assessment that N. Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons in the immediate future. North Korea is under UN sanctions to limit missile testing but regularly tests missiles. While missile testing stopped after the Singapore summit, they have recently started up again. China helps North Korea avoid UN sanction and is happy to support the economy of North Korea in exchange for stability. Trump will need China’s help if he wants progress.
The Middle East. The region is still a major trouble spot, not least because of the oil that fuels the world economy and the US obligation to a democratic Israeli state.
The big question is what will happen in Syria after the war there comes to an end. Assad is still in power with the backing of Iran and Russia. Trump has given the green light for Israel to annex the Golan Heights. If Syria tries to take them back, Israel will be up against Hezbollah armed and supported by Iran.
As Dan Coats stated before Trump fired him, ISIS has not been destroyed. The remnants of its leadership and its fighters are said to be re-grouping in Iraq and still pose a threat through terrorism such as the attack on a church in Sri Lanka Easter 2019. While Trump wants to pull all US troops out of Iraq, it is conceivable that Iraq will need US troops for the foreseeable future. Politically, the US needs to work to keep Iraq out of the orbit of Iran.
Trump promised the “deal of the century” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and put Kushner in charge of putting the deal together. Kushner’s peace proposal, two years in the making, was unveiled in June 2019 at a meeting in Bahrain. It is a typical Trump deal. It calls for a $50 billion investment over ten years with other countries and private investors providing the funding. There were no Palestinian representatives at the meeting and there is no development aid for East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as their capital. The plan will not work, as it does not address the political aspects of the conflict. That will come in stage two but do not hold your breath.
Afghanistan. Yes we are still there and Trump wants us out. We neglected Afghanistan after the Russians left (the Bush 41/Clinton years) and the result was the Taliban and El Qaeda.
The Trump administration has been negotiating with the Taliban in Qatar since 2018, but there are no, repeat no representatives of the recognized Afghan government at the table. It was reported on Aug 8, 2019 (Time) that the US and the Taliban are close to a deal that would allow for the withdrawal of most US forces by November of 2020 (the election). The Taliban and the Afghan government would negotiate a separate peace after the deal is agreed upon. The Taliban now control about 40 percent of the country. An agreement is still not certain. The US wants to maintain a residual counter terrorism force and intelligence presence. The Taliban, while guaranteeing to oust all foreign fighters has not yet disavowed El Qaeda. Any cease fire coming from this agreement would apply only to US forces and not the Afghan army. A good deal for Trump but not for the Afghan people.
From personal experience, I can say that the average Afghan did not enjoy the rule of the Taliban during the 90’s. It was force and intimidation that kept them in power. America went to war in Afghanistan as it was the base for El Qaeda. Afghanistan is now a base not only for El Qaeda but also for ISIS.
NATO. Trump began his presidency with a strange view of NATO. He viewed NATO as a monetary enterprise in which the US was (and is) contributing more than other countries. He did not seem to understand that NATO has no military forces and that member countries put their military at the disposal of NATO in the event of an emergency.
In 2014, NATO members committed to spend 2 percent of GDP on their militaries if possible with no penalty for not meeting that goal. While the US spends over 3 percent due to a world-wide commitment of forces, only, Greece, Estonia, the United Kingdom and Poland have reached 2 percent or more. Luxemburg is at 0.6 percent. (2017 figures.) A March 2019 CNN report added Lithuania to the list of 2 percenters.
Article Five of the NATO treaty that pledges member countries to come to the aid of any member that is attacked has been invoked only once since the organization was founded, immediately follow the attack on America on September 11, 2001. Trump did not mention Article Five in his first speech to NATO leaders.
One problem within NATO that Trump should be watching is Turkey, a NATO member, becoming closer to Russia. Turkey has just bought an air defense system from Russia and that is a problem. Trump to his credit did suspend the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey. The Trump administration has just prevented Turkey from launching an invasion of North-Eastern Syria, an area controlled by US-supported Kurdish forces.
Cyber Security. Trump still will not publicly admit that Russia hacked into computers during the 2016 campaign. It appears that his ego is more important than the nation’s cyber security.
It is a fact that Russia hacked into the e-mails of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta and state electoral systems. The FBI and the intelligence community have warmed that Russia and other countries will attack again in 2020. North Korea is quite capable of doing serious damage. Think back to the 2014 attack on Sony Pictures, an attack that destroyed 70 percent of Sony’s computers. North Korean hackers regularly steal hundreds of millions of dollars from banks and other entities around the world. China trains North Korean computer engineers and is home to N.K. servers. China and Iran are also capable of cyber attacks on the US.
What is Trump doing to counter this threat? While Trump has signed a series of cyber bills passed by Congress, there is no cyber coordinator in the White House; John Bolton fired him. This means a lack of a coordinated strategy from the top and Congress left to pass legislation in a piece meal fashion
Trumps 2020 budget has increase funds for cyber security by a billion but most of the increase goes to the military with an increase of 10 percent. The budget has smaller increases for other agencies, State 10 percent, Energy and Justice 7 percent and Treasury 3 percent. DHS, which has responsibility for securing the election in 2020, gets no increase. Other agencies, such as HHS and the VA, will see a decrease in cyber security funding. Of particular note, Trump has proposed cutting the funding of the Science and Technology Directorate, the research army of DHS by 73 percent.
Bolton appears to be behind a stepped-up wave of attacks by Cyber Command (nice to know that we have one). It is a DOD/NSA headed by the director of NSA but each service has a cyber unit , including one that just before the 2018 election, disabled the Internet access of the Russia troll farm that was behind the social media onslaught in 2016. The ability to do unto others is useful but the ability to stop others doing unto us needs more coordination than is coming from the Trump administration.
Final Thoughts
The national security scene is ever changing and moves rapidly. This is a thumb-nail sketch of some issues in the news that may come up in discussions. It is important to stay informed.
Just today (8/13) we learnt that the Trump organization is building a resort in Indonesia which may be financed by a Chinese bank and use a Chinese government construction company to build part of it. China is involved through the BRI. The optics are not good. – Peter Hancon