In his resignation letter last month, James Mattis delivered a quiet yet devastating critique of President Trump. The powerful impact went beyond the outgoing defense secretary and retired Marine general showing how the president diverges from “my views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors.”
Mattis noted that his views are “informed by four decades of immersion in these issues.” He essentially rebuked the president for the way decisions often are made in the White House, the disdain for expertise reflected in the absence of a consistent process that seeks to take advantage of the collective knowledge and experience.
When pundits and others talk about the “adults” in the room, this is part of what they mean, shepherding a decision-making process that covers for the president’s most glaring shortcomings, ignorance and impulsiveness. Actually, the Rex Tillersons, H.R. McMasters and John Kellys have relied on such a process in their organizations, public and private: Assemble the best team, gather the relevant facts and make sure there is room for a candid and fair discussion, participants comfortable enough to tell decision-makers what they don’t want to hear.
The process doesn’t always follow the ideal. Officials and executives err in judgment, sometimes colossally. Mike Dawson, a veteran of George Voinovich’s years as governor, recalls that the worst decisions invariably came with the fewest people in the room. In that way, an informed, inclusive and open process beats the alternatives.
There were two on the phone, President Trump and Recep Tayyip Erodgan, the president of Turkey, before Trump tweeted last month that American troops would be leaving Syria “now.” That is what Erdogan wanted. Trump evidently believed his counterpart’s assurances about protecting Syrian Kurdish forces (key American allies) and taking the fight to the remainder of the Islamic State.
A gathering of experts would have explained there is little reason to trust Erdogan, his pledges almost laughable. They would have added that if an eventual withdrawal from Syria is sound, it must proceed carefully with the many strategic factors in play, from the projection of Iran to the presence of Russia and the future of Syria.
No doubt, Mattis and others said as much when they got the chance. Yet they were blindsided by the withdrawal decision, with Mattis soon stepping down.
This past week, John Bolton, the national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, visited the Middle East to clean up after the president. As recently as September, Bolton had declared the 2,500 American troops would stay in Syria. He tried to get back there, or as close as he could, insisting the White House would not withdraw until “objectives” were met, including the defeat of the Islamic State and guaranteed protection for the Kurds.
The trouble for Bolton and Pompeo is that friends and adversaries reasonably wonder: Do they really speak for the president? It isn’t hard to see how American credibility and influence suffer.
It didn’t help to learn last week from the New York Times that Bolton doesn’t consult widely, either. The Times reported that in leading the National Security Council, Bolton “has largely eliminated the internal policy debates that could have fleshed out the troop decision with timetables, conditions and a counterterrorism strategy. …” Perhaps he is too busy trying to keep pace with an erratic president.
The president favors a degree of unpredictability. Yet the Syrian matter isn’t the only place where the approach has proved unhelpful. The current government shutdown is another example. In this case, the White House had a process for crafting a budget plan. It proposed $1.6 billion for a "new border wall," plus $600 million for other border security. The $5.6 billion the president now wants, and triggered the shutdown to get, didn’t take center stage until later, notably, after he backed out of the bipartisan deal to keep the government running until early February.
Maybe this style works in striking real estate and branding deals, though the multiple financial implosions suggest that isn’t so. A presidency benefits from those immersed in policy, in the way government works, aware of the many at home and abroad who look for and depend on sound White House decision-making. That is what James Mattis took with him when he left.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.