National Security

An Intelligence Perspective – The Trump Conundrum

“In this light, let’s analytically consider several current events and give context to President Trump’s actions as well as note how they conform or deviate from his predecessors.”

As the first of several articles providing an intelligence perspective on President Donald J. Trump’s approach to implementing policy, this article sifts through the political rhetoric of the establishment state, the deep state, and non-governmental power structures to reveal that he has ushered in a period of reflection in America’s global position.

While the outcome of this period on international affairs is far from determined, it is worthy to thoughtfully consider President Trump’s approach, what impact it is having on the traditional pillars of power, how it is changing social discourse, and what it portends for America’s future role in the world.

President Donald Trump’s rise to power and the segmentation of American’s political and social structure did not occur in a vacuum. In fact, President Trump may be more conventional in deed and action than was his predecessor, President Barack Hussein Obama, who entered office with the articulated mandate to transform America. So what transformation took place and how does President Trump’s policies and actions contrast to both our near and long-term history?

The foundation of President Obama’s legacy was based on his often articulated belief in an anti-colonial and globalist vision, in which America’s position as a super-power derived from its influence as a role model for political, social, economic, and environmental fairness. In short, a fairness doctrine from one perspective and a leadership perspective from another.

The foundation of President Obama’s legacy was based on his often articulated belief in an anti-colonial and globalist vision

Much of this approach is supported across America’s political establishment, from regional trade agreements which aid developing nations from one perspective and which provide the US with international influence from another, to the establishment and enforcement of universal human rights standards which protect the weak from one perspective and which project democratic values from another, to international environmental agreements which protect the climate for future generations from one perspective and which require a US presence and US products in developing nations from another perspective.

President Trump is neither a Democrat nor Republican, despite the necessity conforming to traditional power structures, but represents the outspoken voice of an anti-establishment sentiment which has existed in America since the Founding Fathers. Inarticulate, crass, and combative, President Trump is a lightening rod for the traditional domestic and international establishment community and, as such, the independent analyst is challenged to assess the direction and impact of individual policies and actions of President Trump.

To conclude that any actor, from Donald Trump to Kim Jong-un is irrational or wholly self-destructive is convenient but analytically weak and intellectually dishonest.

President Trump’s vision is conventional and reformative, in contrast to President Obama’s stated intent and approach to transform America socially, culturally, and internationally. President Trump’s approach to foreign policy is disconcertingly apolitical and pragmatic, eshewing the Cold War divisions of friends and foes among the global community, and demonstrating a willingness to cooperate with nations and leaders, with fundamentally different values from our own, in the pursuit of mutually beneficial outcomes. It harkens back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cooperation with the Soviets during World War II, or Ronald Reagan’s cooperation with Mikhail Gorbachev forty years later.

This is not to justify or besmirch President Trump’s approach to foreign policy, as conventional or unconventional as it may at times appear, but to highlight that the foundation of intelligence analysis is to understand and translate the actions of a leader, group or organization so that the policy-making audience can do so to serve the interests of their constituency. To conclude that any actor, from Donald Trump to Kim Jong-un is irrational or wholly self-destructive is convenient but analytically weak and intellectually dishonest.

In this light, let’s analytically consider several current events and give context to President Trump’s actions as well as note how they conform or deviate from his predecessors. Arguably, Asia represents the most important region for both international stability as well as a flashpoint for conflict so it’s a reasonable place to start.

In the South China Sea, President Trump inherited a complex challenge and a weak position, re the US posture, influence, and trust. In part due to the gradual focus of US leadership on transitioning governments in Central Europe during the post-Cold War period, and on poverty, instability, and the rise of extremism in Africa and the Middle East, Asia was unattended while China’s economic and military strength increased exponentially.

The unfortunate outcome of 911 and the George Walker Bush Administration’s focus on Counterterrorism, often to the exclusion of other key issues, created simplistic bilateral relationships in which US partnership and influence stemmed from an outpouring of money through intelligence and military cooperation channels.

This was starkly contrasted by the Obama Administration’s transformative global agenda, in which partnerships with existing and potential allies fractured under the demand for conformance to international human rights, environmental, and legal standards. Thus, key bilateral and multilateral initiatives in Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Vietnam were eroded as internal political pressure led these existing and future allies on the South China Sea initiative to become increasingly open to and dependent upon China’s economic engine.

Analysis of President Trump’s engagement in Southeast Asia, to date, suggests an intent to reemphasize engagement on areas of mutual interest, such as containing China’s military expansion, rather than promoting or upholding President Obama’s role model vision for the projection of US influence.

On North Korea, analysis of President Trump’s actions draws from several aspects of a leadership analysis profile. The first is that President Trump has displayed a tendency to compartment his engagement with interlocutors, such that he can be simultaneously engaged in a bitter dispute and concurrently in close cooperation with an individual, group or organization. Such is the case with China, in which President Trump has openly criticized China’s trade practices and regional aggression, while seeking to build cooperative momentum on addressing North Korea’s nuclear program.

These conflicts are likely to be exacerbated by President Trump’s apolitical and combative nature, seeking confirmation and recognition vice compromise.

There have been similar interactions between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, during which the US has imposed economic sanctions on Russia while concurrently requesting cooperation both on Syria and North Korea. These outreach initiatives, which have shown signs of success in pressuring North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, have been melded with unprecedented threats directed at North Korea and an enhanced regional force posture in collaboration with South Korea and Japan.

Whether intended to break the will of the young North Korean leader or to incite a repeat of the Tonkin Gulf incident, the increased rhetoric and uncertainly has placed increased pressure on China to act more decisively to protect its long term national interests. Although controversial, as were the actions by President Reagan in forcing the Soviet Union to the Reykjavik Summit, the actions of the Trump Administration are neither unprecedented nor without merit.

On the TransPacific Partnership, President Trump’s withdrawal from this agreement is most demonstrative of his policy independence from the US political establishment. As noted previously, whether to aid underdeveloped communities or as a mechanism of economic power, the Democratic and Republican parties have promoted trade agreements as one facet of their respective foreign policy positions.

President Trump, in contrast, appears to evaluate the relative merits of these agreements through the optic of competitive advantage rather than as a piece of a broader foreign policy. There are indications that President Trump has challenged the content of this and other agreements with the intent of renegotiating their terms and conditions but, to date, unsuccessfully.

However, analysis is still unclear whether President Trump’s actions are a negotiating tactic born of his business background, whether they are to fulfill election campaign promises to maintain his political base of support, or whether they represent isolationist sentiments prevalent during the first half of the 20th Century.

Again, with the possible exception of a delay in Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, Iran’s activities were unchecked by a coherent or collaborative US foreign policy when President Trump came to office.

Balanced analysis of his intent would recognize that pro-labor politics, including President Obama and many in the Democratic Party, have challenged the value of free-trade agreements and, thus, President Trump’s policy statements are consistent with the mainstream of pro-union, pro-labor communities. More directly, in recent bilateral discussions between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, that President Trump’s direct challenge to President Xi to correct unfair trade policies resulted in the unilateral lowering of tariffs on 187 products.

While other climate and trade agreements entail similar considerations to those already mentioned, another foreign policy initiative that is worthy of intelligence analysis is Iran. As a state-sponsor of terrorism with a highly capable paramilitary force investment in Hizballah, an expansionist military operating in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and a developing nuclear and ballistic missile program, Iran is a significant regional threat.

Likewise, in coalition with China and Russia, Iran has the capacity to exert economic and political influence across the Middle East and into Europe. Again, with the possible exception of a delay in Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, Iran’s activities were unchecked by a coherent or collaborative US foreign policy when President Trump came to office.

Consistent with his approach to North Korea, President Trump has concurrently challenged the Iranian leadership directly, while developing support for a complex and unnatural alliance among Sunni Saudi Arabia, Shiite Iraq and Israel to counter Iranian expansionism. This initiative is hampered by the absence of a clear and unilateral US Middle East policy during President Obama’s term, coupled with regional hesitancy based on the unnecessary destabilization of the region during the George W. Bush Administration.

In contrast to the developing international doctrine of President Trump, intelligence analysis also highlights complicating factors to his success.

Further complicating President Trump’s initiative to marginalize Iranian influence is the emergence of economic relationships between Iran and Western Europe after the lifting of sanctions. The Middle East has presented a challenge to many US presidents and there is no evidence President Trump will be more or less effective than his predecessors, but analysis indicates a consistency of approach which will predictably entail outreach by President Trump to Russia and China, as well as other regional partners.

In contrast to the developing international doctrine of President Trump, intelligence analysis also highlights complicating factors to his success. First, there is considerable intelligence to suggest that President Trump’s compartmentation of key aspects within his personal and professional relationships is not shared by his interlocutors. Thus, he has been and will likely continue to be faced with creating unnecessary conflict within international partnerships due to public criticism of one key aspect of the bilateral relationship while simultaneously seeking closer cooperation on another.

These conflicts are likely to be exacerbated by President Trump’s apolitical and combative nature, seeking confirmation and recognition vice compromise. This is particularly true in his engagement with Asian partners, China in particular, where strong national identities and the cultural significance of public humiliation will compel leaders to react negatively and decisively in reaction to public pronouncements made by President Trump.

Consistent with the challenges President Trump’s approach is likely to have on foreign partners, he will likely continue to rally opposition against his agenda with leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties, and alienate key cabinet staff by public pronouncements critical of their performance, decisions or actions.

If continued, these unnecessary complicating factors could undermine the successful implementation of his broad vision and agenda, based on tensions created in one or more key aspects of these partnerships.

Dan Harris

Dan Harris retired after more than 31 years of service at the Central Intelligence Agency, conducting and managing intelligence operations across five continents.

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