Dear President-Elect Trump: Congratulations on a winning a hard-fought campaign. I haven’t always been your biggest fan (I wasn’t your opponent’s either) but you will soon enter the Oval Office facing more diverse security challenges, in more corners of the globe, than perhaps any of your predecessors. You’ll need help.
The world you’re about to encounter as our commander-in-chief is more dangerous and discombobulated than any new president has encountered in many decades. Your bumbling predecessor hasn’t exactly done you many favors either. Let’s walk through some must-dos, with a healthy dose of geopolitical reality.
Russia: You made being friends with Russia a cornerstone of your campaign. You’re about to find out how tricky that will be in practice. Washington and Moscow have deeply embedded strategic interests that aren’t necessarily compatible, beyond platitudes. Vladimir Putin wants to shake your hand but he will not be charmed out of defending his country’s vital interests. President Obama’s denial and timidity together comprised one of the main causes of the West’s current problems with Russia. Putin runs a country that, aside from its several thousand nuclear weapons, is in economic and demographic decline: it’s hardly more than Mexico with ICBMs. Yet Russia can still cause enormous damage to the international system. Putin is a cunning operator thanks to his KGB background. We can partner with Russia on some issues but never mistake partnership for genuine friendship: Moscow doesn’t do that.
Europe/NATO: Our NATO allies never had much faith in your predecessor and during your campaign you scared the hell out of them. The Atlantic Alliance isn’t in good shape, and it’s facing a real enemy for the first time in a quarter-century. Unless you want to dismantle NATO—which would be very unwise, strategically—there’s hard work to be done. Military spending by NATO members, beyond a few outliers, still lags below the notionally required two percent of GDP. You need to get our partners to ante up; try to be tactful, they dislike you already. Moreover, unless you can seriously charm Putin, limited NATO deployments in Eastern Europe may be the start, not the end-state, of what the Alliance must do to deter Russian adventurism. Make clear to our allies that we are behind them, that you understand Article 5, but they need to meet their alliance commitments too. Drop talk of NATO expansion—it’s not going to happen and just feeds the Russian agitprop machine. Finland and Sweden are different, they’re welcome, but that’s as far as that should go right now.
ISIS: The Islamic State is slowly losing ground in the Middle East but is still very much alive and dangerous. We already have “boots on the ground” fighting ISIS, but the final defeat of this jihadist death cult is still years away. President Obama’s diffident pseudo-war against this enemy never truly got off the ground and promises to drag on without resolution. Resist extremes of over-commitment of forces and just walking away: neither is a realistic strategy. “Bombing the hell out of them” is a tough-talk fantasy that the Pentagon will quickly disabuse you of. Containment can work, given time, but you must remember that your real mission is keeping ISIS out of the West. You’re refreshingly willing to call our jihadist enemy what he actually is. You have a good shot at degrading ISIS significantly, with most of the heavy lifting being done by our allies, while not lying to the American people about the nature of our foe. Try not to alienate the entire Muslim world while doing so, we need them to win this fight.
Syria: Here Obama’s foreign policy sins are manifest, and your options are therefore limited. By abandoning his own “redline” over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons back in the summer of 2013, and letting Putin “fix” the situation, Obama outsourced U.S. policy in Syria to the Kremlin. Hundreds of thousands of innocents have died since, and as you were getting elected, Putin parked his navy in the Eastern Mediterranean to bombard the already wrecked city of Aleppo. Moscow has gotten what it wanted in Syria—preserving its client in Damascus while demonstrating Russian power—and you cannot change that now. There already is a No-Fly Zone in Syria: Putin’s. Our top generals and admirals will explain the messy military realities in Syria, including that Russia isn’t really fighting ISIS much in Syria. Listen to them.
You will soon discover that your ‘wall’ is a fantasy and having Mexico pay for it is an even bigger one.
Iraq: Here, again, President Obama has done you no favors. His leaving-then-returning act in Iraq was an unfunny comedy of errors, and Iraq’s mostly ramshackle military—built at enormous cost in American blood and treasure—isn’t up to defeating ISIS alone. The good news is the Iraqis have gotten military help and they’re finally making progress against ISIS. The bad news is that help is Iranian. Under Obama, Baghdad became a nearly full-blown satellite of Tehran, and that won’t change anytime soon. Neither will the reality that few Sunnis and Kurds want to be part of this Shia-dominated and Iranian-puppet-mastered country. Post-Saddam Iraq, created by George W. Bush and nurtured by Barack Obama, will never be a functional unitary state. Accept that reality and set achievable goals: Defeat ISIS, slowly, use American influence where we can to keep Iraq together, unhappily, and understand that Baghdad considers Tehran and Moscow to be its real friends—not Washington.
Afghanistan: There’s no good news here. At the beginning of his presidency, Obama was told by Joe Biden, a surprisingly savvy strategist, to minimize American commitments to Afghanistan to achieve long-term success: eschew nation-building to focus on counterterrorism, the key mission. Obama didn’t listen, opting for an Afghan “surge” in what Democrats called the “good war” (as opposed to Dubya’s disaster in Iraq). It didn’t pan out, of course, because it took little account of Afghanistan’s ethnic, political, and economic realities. Now the Taliban are on the march and Kabul’s security forces—built, again, with lots of American blood and cash—are incapable of holding their ground, much less turning the Taliban back. After 15 years, America’s longest war is on the precipice of taking a turn for the truly awful. Total collapse of Afghanistan is the nightmare you must avoid if you wish to not replay Saigon in the spring of 1975, with helicopters evacuating panicked people off the roof of the American embassy. There can be no getting out of Afghanistan without some sort of parley with the Taliban: everybody knows this but nobody wants to tell you this basic reality. Perhaps empower Biden to open lines of communication with our enemies, secretly. That’s frequently how ugly wars eventually end. We need a radical break from what we’ve been doing in Afghanistan since late 2001.
Iran: Here, too, you’re inheriting a tricky military and diplomatic situation created by your predecessor. Obama’s Big Deal with the mullahs—officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – is already ailing, despite all the shallow media fanfare last year, given Iran’s rising willingness to confront the U.S. Navy in and around the Persian Gulf. Ditching JCPOA sounds easy but won’t be so simple in reality. Don’t expect good behavior from the Islamic Republic on any front—nuclear weapons are just one worry alongside Iranian terrorism and subversion across the Middle East—and be prepared to push back. Your actual agenda is: no Iranian nukes while you’re in office. Getting along with Putin may help here, since Russia’s only slightly more excited about Tehran having The Bomb than we are. Congress will be breathing down your neck on Iran; work with them in a bi-partisan manner if you want to avoid a debacle later in your term.
China/North Korea: Beijing won’t become America’s peer competitor, militarily speaking, during your presidency, but it will get closer. Chinese risk-taking in the South China Sea is only going to rise, since it sells well at home, and Obama’s caution about sending our navy to conduct freedom of navigation operations in those contested waters didn’t work as intended. Beijing is an old-school power that’s not seeking to utterly overturn the Asia-Pacific status quo that’s prevailed for decades, but it does want significant changes to it. This will test your resolve, especially because your talk about trade wars has infuriated party leadership in Beijing. America has been a major force in the Western Pacific since Admiral Dewey prevailed at Manila Bay in 1898; you don’t want to be the president who changed that. From Pyongyang, you can expect nothing but trouble: dangerous games, nuclear antics, omnidirectional saber-rattling. You have surprisingly little leverage over North Korea, as you will soon discover. The only phone calls Pyongyang answers are the ones from Beijing, and China has no more interest in a nuclear war in Northeast Asia than we do. That said, don’t expect the Chinese to sell out their North Korean buffer state, no matter how badly they behave. Beijing remembers 1950 with clarity. This is a problem to be managed; there is no palatable fix.
Border Security: Your campaign made it abundantly clear that securing our southern border is a national security issue, and it’s obvious that many Americans agree with you. You will soon discover that your “wall” is a fantasy and having Mexico pay for it is an even bigger one, but it is very possible to reduce the surging flows of illegals coming into the United States to a trickle through rigorous enforcement of existing laws. There will be national security benefits from preventing drug traffickers and narco-terrorists from entering from Mexico—be sure to remind Congress of this on a regular basis.
U.S. Military: You’re about to become the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military on earth. America alone can fight wherever it wants, however it wants, at a time of our choosing. However, that overmatch is waning and our impressive war machine is creaking. It’s tired from interminable commitments in the Greater Middle East that never end in anything like victory. Major reinvestment in expensive weaponry, across the board, will become an issue during your presidency. It cannot be dodged for long. First, however, you need to make serious efforts to reform the Pentagon’s utterly broken acquisitions and budgeting processes, as revealed by debacles like the F-35, which must not be repeated. Congress will be willing to help you, so long as it’s sold as assisting national defense with greater efficiencies in leaner times. Last, our military leadership is skeptical of politicians, after 15 years of failed wars of choice, but they will respect your office. Treat them with respect—stop the public comments about what idiots and losers our generals are—and they’ll respect you in return. Our men and women in uniform want a leader they can trust to not commit them to wars they will never be able to win. Be that leader, always be straight with them, and you will earn their loyalty and admiration.
U.S. Intelligence: During your predecessor’s two terms, America’s sprawling spy empire went off the cliff: the Snowden debacle, cyber-attacks on virtually everything in Washington, plus the humiliating loss of the security clearance paperwork of 22 million Americans thanks to non-existent security in Washington. You’re inheriting an espionage system without equal on the planet, but it has serious defects which need remedy. This is the secret shield which defends Americans while they sleep, so the Intelligence Community needs your attention. You must force much-needed reform to broken security processes. Start with the National Security Agency, which has just had another Snowden-like counterintelligence failure of the kind that Obama tolerated—but you must not. The IC is wary of you, given your ties to Russia and your insulting comments about America’s spies, but you can win them over by showing you can listen and you’re serious about getting intelligence right.
Cybersecurity: The whole country is getting robbed blind online, our private companies as much as our government, and every American now knows about hacking and identity theft, often personally. Your rival in the campaign was a textbook example of what happens when you don’t think about online security. You’ve said you will take this issue seriously, but it will be difficult to make meaningful progress. When you encounter resistance from the Washington bureaucracy here—and you will—go to the public and tell them how important this issue is to America’s national security and prosperity.
You have a big job ahead of you as commander-in-chief. Your natural instincts are pugnacious and secretive. Avoid those as commander-in-chief. Listen to our national security professionals. Many Americans, including those who didn’t vote for you, care deeply about our national security. Assemble a top team there, including voices from across the ideological spectrum. Obama made national security as partisan as everything else he touched. Don’t repeat that mistake. The stakes today are too high.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.