By Clint Watts*
(FPRI) — The Trump administration’s week one roll-out of executive orders should not be seen as a shock. In all cases, whether building a wall across the Mexican border, issuing a travel ban on seven countries, or reigniting debate on torture, President Trump delivered on campaign promises. These promises have erupted American resistance in ways not seen since the 1960s. Protests opposing nearly every Trump action have sprung up across the country and even around the world.
More surprising than Trump’s executive orders has been the lack of coordination across his administration. New appointees, namely Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly appears to be in disagreement with the policies being executed by his agency. Detentions and deportations at airports have been surrounded with confusion and it appears the Department of Homeland Security’s lawyers, which govern the Customs and Border Patrol, were overpowered and ignored by Trump’s inner circle pushing the travel ban. When referring to Stephen Miller, the Trump administration’s aggressor for the travel ban, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe said,
“You’ve got a very young person in the White House on a power trip thinking that you can just write executive orders and tell all of your Cabinet agencies to go to hell.” Scarborough said Washington is in an “uproar” this morning because Miller decided “he was going to do this without going through the regular agency process.”
The Trump administration’s fumbled coordination and implementation of his first executive orders smells of irony in retrospect to his railing on the Obama administration as a disorganized “disaster”.
The week concluded with even more surprising news – the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA Director and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs were removed from full membership of the National Security Council and replaced with White House strategist Stephen Bannon. Key national security posts essential to decision making were substituted for a political strategist. Trump meanwhile brought back a discussion on torture but then used new Secretary of Defense Mattis’ objection to the tactic as his reason for backing away from such calls.
All of this points to the power of an inner circle close to Donald Trump pushing an ideological agenda not receptive to feedback. Steve Bannon, Reince Preibus, Stephen Miller, and Jared Kushner are pushing their power and a new vision for America focused on toughness, ideology, and action. These ideological zealots have been accompanied by the scorned and fiery National Security Advisor, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, and a line of national security advisors pushing for a “War on Radical Islam” – notably Sebastian Gorka, Clare Lopez, and Whalid Phares.
Organized and operating without the need for Congressional approval, this aggressive strain of White House advisors have raced forward with policies while those implementing those policies have been awaiting confirmation or just assuming their cabinet posts. These ideologues have also been essential in selecting Trump administration appointees they can control and influence, many of which appear to be figureheads, supporters, and donors loyal to the new administration but light on qualifications and experience for their new positions –- notably nominees Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Betsy DeVos for the Department of Education.
Pragmatists with years of governance and leadership experience will soon match the zealots of Trump’s inner circle as they come on board to lead key national security positions. Retired Generals James Mattis at the Department of Defense and John Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security, while known for their battlefield prowess, have much cooler heads and will seemingly run headlong into the ideological Bannon inner circle.
These retired generals have been accompanied by a string of billionaire appointees. The ultra wealthy leading parts of the administration, in one sense, beg the question of how a small group so unlike the masses can adequately represent the best interests of the American citizenry. However, these businessmen and women achieved great success by being excellent decision makers — weighing the consequences of their choices, plodding carefully trough tough decisions, leading large organizations, carefully executing strategies over long periods of duration. Rex Tillerson, the incoming Secretary of State, may very well have the skills to effectively negotiate in ways John Kerry has proven incapable, but shockingly had yet to discuss Russia policy with Trump just a week before inauguration. Vincent Viola, the nominee for Secretary of the Army, I know personally to be a thoughtful, dedicated American recognized for his prudent business sense. These veteran leaders and successful businessmen will require inclusive consultation and it’s unlikely they will blindly follow orders counterproductive to American security.
For example, Mattis and Tillerson need Muslim majority partners to pursue terrorists, especially when America loathes deploying hundreds of thousands of troops again to the Middle East. Trump’s hasty and messy travel ban confirms jihadist narratives of America’s war on the Muslim world, alienates Muslim majority countries providing essential counterterrorism support on our behalf, and will also likely grow terrorist ranks in the process. It’s hard to imagine Mattis and Tillerson will further policies that make their jobs more difficult.
Trump’s pace of executive orders will slow in the coming weeks and his appointees, just assuming duty, will face challenges to their legitimacy trying to defend and explain policies not of their creation. I imagine this will set the stage for a coming battle inside the Trump administration between those believing they have the world figured out – “The Zealots” — and those that know from experience what to do – “The Pragmatists.”
America’s adversaries are unlikely to waste much time before testing this erratic administration and pursue their interests. When America’s enemies advance, who will win out in the administration? The ironically cooler-headed “Chaos” Mattis or the astonishingly angry Bannon?
If it’s the latter, and Trump’s “Zealots” reign supreme, America should prepare for war, which may be exactly what the inner circle seeks as conflict often brings allegiance when its against a foreign adversary — i.e., the “rally `round the flag” effect. But let’s hope it’s the former, and the “Pragmatists” can keep things calm, weigh options, and pursue for America strength through patience, partnerships, and principles.
My guess: we’ll know which side wins the war inside the Trump administration in the summer of 2018. Past administrations with strong internal rivalries usually see the first causalities of bureaucratic war emerge during year two when they’ve lost favor with the White House. The first appointees and strategists we see exit the Trump administration because “they achieved what they set out to do” or “to spend more time with their family” will be the public sign to America as to who wins the battle between the “Pragmatists” and “Zealots.”
About the author:
*Clint Watts is a Robert A. Fox Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East as well as a Senior Fellow with its Program on National Security. He serves as the President of Miburo Solutions, Inc. Watts’ research focuses on analyzing transnational threat groups operating in local environments on a global scale.
This article was published by FPRI.