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Trump Takes Office:
The National Security Agenda He Must Address by the End of the Coming Spring
Special Contribution
By Anthony H. Cordesman
US President-Elect Donald Trump with his family

New presidents have a great deal of discretion as to the policy objectives they choose to focus on, and as to the policies they actually attempt to implement. They also come to office surrounded by advisors—inside and outside of the new White House team—that flood them with their own transition agendas and papers, while they usually need months to get their teams fully in place and ready to deal with ideas that have to be implemented rather than merely discussed.

The end result tends to be months of speculation about the new president’s agenda and priorities, the team he or she will choose, and the timing the president will select for moving forward. Much of the resulting guesswork proves to be wrong, and most of the transition studies and papers that even the president’s advisors and supporters prepare go unread, while virtually all go unimplemented.

At the same time, there are decisions that a president has to make, either because of the calendar of regularly scheduled events, or because he or she inherits issues that can’t wait, or are pressed on the president from the outside. Reality has its own agenda, and even presidents like Trump, who have run on a platform of change, have to act accordingly.

The FY2018 Budget Submission Sets the President’s Stage

In the case of national security, there are two critical issues that are driven by the calendar and by necessity—regardless of whether any new president wants to address them or not.

One is the FY2018 budget submission, which virtually has to go to Congress by April of 2018. The key submissions now include the Department of Defense, homeland security, and foreign affairs, as well as parts of other agencies and departments including each element of the intelligence community, the Coast Guard, and the nuclear weapons activities of the Department of Energy.

Money is the key to making most real world decisions in each case, and it is spending decisions that shape real world national security priorities—not speeches, doctrines or policy studies. Money in the federal government comes from a fixed budget cycle in all but real emergencies. Moreover, it is never just given. It has to be fought for throughout the budget cycle, and new ways of spending are not easily won.

A new president can wait on some decisions, and take up many expenditures and initiatives in preparing the FY2019 budget. This process begins in the spring of 2017, and the actual submission to Congress doesn’t have to be ready until early CY2018.

The key portions of the FY2018 national security budget submissions, however, have to be filled with the kind of policy statements, justifications, and priorities that shape a new president’s real world approach to national security. Waiting a year to make such changes and failing to set new spending and program priorities wastes a lot of political leverage.

This is particularly true when President Trump faces the added spending constraints in the Budget Control Act (BCA), has at least talked about major increases in defense spending and naval and air forces, and faces many Congressional figures in his own party that have their own budget plans and goals.

If Trump wants to be a strong president, he must focus immediately on the national security portions of the FY2018 budget, and put together a team that can assist him as soon as possible. He not only has to set every new priority and precedent he can, he needs to be ready to engage Congress and the media. Above all, he needs to use the FY2018 budget to lead the flow of money in his first four years.

The Key Players Are Half the Game

A new president also has to get his Chief of Staff and White House team—and as many of the secretaries, other political appointees and leaders, and key technocrats that lead the key national security agencies—in place as soon as possible. Presidents differ in style, but every president must begin to delegate as soon as he can put key appointments in place, and have his cabinet and other senior officials both support his key national security policies and be able to actually implement them effectively.

The key elements of the national security budget are too big and far too complex to try to manage in detail from the White House. There are far too many competing priorities for a president not to delegate, and much of the budget cycle is an adversarial process where strong leadership at the cabinet and political appointee level is critical to actually getting the president’s priorities funded by Congress.

This is particularly true for a president like Trump, who has no experience in administering any aspect of the federal government, and who has run on the basis of making major changes—ones he only partly defined during his campaign and many of which will now have to be modified or shaped into actual decisions, plans, and budgets.

Trump will need a lot more than people who agree with him in broad political terms. He will need leaders in every element of the U.S. national security community who can turn policies into real world plans and budgets, negotiate successfully with other administrators, Congress, and foreign governments, and make things actually work.

If Trump is to forge the support he needs to act in making any major changes in both strategy and the practical realities of U.S. military forces, readiness, procurement, foreign aid, intelligence, and counterterrorism capability, he will need to be exceptionally careful to pick the right people at the top—and to pick ones that are strong, effective, and respected enough to get the national security community to actually follow.

Political skills and taking strong stands are one thing, but Trump will need people who can actually make things happen—rather than simply posture and talk. Far too many presidents have learned this the hard way, and this is no game for apprentices. “You are hired” is the critical choice. Every failed place holder—or “you are fired” that follows a president’s initial choices—is a defeat.

He also will have to get a team in place in both the White House and each key department and agency by no later than the end of February. This team must know when to keep the real experts that are often critical to effective action in specialized areas, and will choose lower ranking political appointees.

He will then only have a few more months in which to ensure that the national security transition brings in the right appointees. He will also have to find people who can pass the vetting and confirmation process, and then get almost all of his new team in place by early August at the latest.

Reshaping the Momentum of Ongoing Events

From day one, President Trump will face a wide range of key national security decisions and events during his first months in office that grow out of the actions taken by previous presidents, his own statements in running for office, external events beyond his control, and the inevitable doubts and testing that foreign leaders bring to a new presidency. Power is a contact sport that has neither rules nor referee, and many key games are fully underway when a new president takes office.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the “Forgotten War”

Both Trump and Clinton could—and did—more or less ignore the Afghan War as candidates. No president can forget the growing problems in the Afghan War, the divisions and weakness of the Afghan government, the growing economic crisis in the country, the gains the Taliban and other insurgents are making, and U.S. problems with Pakistan.

If the new president is to influence this situation, and particularly add U.S. air power and more advisors, he needs to act before the new campaign season begins in the spring of 2017. If Trump does not act, there is a serious risk that the Afghan government will lose significant parts of the country and popular support, and that any public trust in the central government and U.S. support will reach the crisis level.

The new president does not have to make such a commitment. There is a case for focusing on other strategic issues, letting Afghanistan lose or simply deteriorate, and forcing Afghanistan’s neighbors to do what they can. However, if Trump does not act quickly, he may well make this decision by default.

Iraq, Syria, and ISIL/ISIS/Daesh

The current fighting may well largely defeat ISIS in Mosul and largely defeat its “Caliphate” in Raqqa by the time the new president takes office. This, however, will leave many terrorist and insurgent elements of ISIS still active, deprive the competing factions in Iraq and Syria of a common enemy and expose their differences, and create new pressures and tensions on the part of outside powers like Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

The new president will have to make key choices about U.S. involvement in Syria and Iraq almost immediately after taking office. He will have to decide how active the United States will be in a post-ISIS Iraq, how to deal with Assad and Arab rebels in Syria, what U.S. military posture is needed, how to restructure the U.S. global anti-terrorism campaign to deal with the fact that ISIS is no longer the central focus, how to counter Russian influence and how to deal with a steadily more active and authoritarian Turkey. February-June 2017 will be critical, and Trump must act or watch the situation deteriorate critically by sheer default.

Iran and America’s Arab Security Partners

The timing on the Iran nuclear agreement is not particularly critical as long as Iran largely complies. In fact, Trump may find it better to focus on enforcement rather than ending the agreement. What the new president cannot do, however, is ignore the message he has given to the Muslim world, and the distrust that has built up from President Obama’s indecisiveness, the negative impact of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, growing Iranian influence in the region, the rising role of Russia, and Congressional actions like JASTA, and legislation that might block U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia.

As is the case throughout most of the world, Trump the Candidate did much to create deep uncertainty about U.S. commitments and leadership at a time when President Obama and President Bush had already raised doubts in the Middle East. President Trump must act quickly to make his policies clear.

If he wants to keep today’s security partnerships with most moderate Arab states, have the U.S. secure the world’s main source of oil and gas exports, and have Arab and Muslim partners in fighting terrorism and extremism, he needs to do this as quickly as possible in his new administration.

He will also have to show that the United States is committed to dealing with the other threats Iran poses—such as Iran’s buildup of conventional missile forces, steady expansion of its asymmetric forces in the Gulf, and ongoing efforts to expand Iranian influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other parts of the region.

Burden sharing is not an issue. Most Arab powers spend more of their economy on security forces than does the United States, but effective coordination, planning, and exercise activity again has to be shaped for 2017, and hopefully to be improved if the new president sees the region as a key security interest.

The new president will face limited immediate pressure in dealing with Israel, but he will have to make it clear whether or not the United States still supports the two-state solution. This does not necessarily mean any need for action—expectations and probabilities for real progress in peace efforts are negligible and a new aid agreement already exists with Israel. Israeli-Palestinian tensions have, however, reached the point where publically deciding on future U.S. policy will be necessary.

Similarly, the United States must make its policy toward Egypt clear. It cannot simply wait, leave security ties ambiguous, and ignore Egypt’s growing political and economic crisis.

More broadly, Trump the President will have to come to grips with the fact that Muslims are key U.S. partners in the broader fight against Islamist extremism and terrorism, and Trump the Candidate went too far in talking about excluding them from the United States. Vetting, not exclusion, gives him a clear option, but not one that can be left while the situation festers.

This is one of several cases, however, where Trump the President will have to distance himself more publically from Trump the Candidate. Building an efficient “wall” of intelligence and counterterrorism activity would not alienate the vast majority of Muslims who oppose extremism as much as we all do, and publically focusing on counterterrorism partnerships with largely Muslim states would help.

China, North and South Korea, Japan, and Other Asian Security Partners

The calendar is less urgent in dealing with China and many aspects of U.S. national security policy in Asia. Once again, however, the new president will still have to make his actual broad policy goals clear as soon as he can—and do so even before the inauguration, where possible. Being “almost President” offers him a limited level of freedom he will never have after his inauguration.

China and other Asian states must be told whether and how the United States will or will not try to “rebalance” in dealing with China. They need to be told how the United States will shape and sometimes reshape its strategic partnerships with its Asian allies. North Korea and the South China Sea are both areas where the new president must now start speaking like a president, although the details of actual changes in U.S. action can be deferred.

As is the case in the Middle East, President Trump will need to stop focusing on burden sharing, and focus on security relationships. There is nothing wrong about asking allies to do more if it is clearly in their interest and if they know the United States will be an active partner. It is absolutely critical, however, that the United States ask them for what is credible and what is needed, and to show that it is reliable and making efforts of its own. Here, an early dialog with Japan and South Korea is critical. North Korea must get a clear message that the United States is not disengaging, and Trump must show that he can find the right early balance in mixing cooperation and competition with China.

There is no rigid calendar for such action, but the core actions needed to shape these policies and relations should have been taken by March, and certainly no later than the end of April. Above all, the president will need to demonstrate the kind of gravitas that a candidate could largely avoid.

NATO, Russia, and Burden Sharing

Finally, President Trump must assert himself early on in dealing with Putin, and make it clear that he will react decisively to any ploys and provocations. This does not mean confrontations unless they are forced upon him. It does mean that every action and test—and some are sure to come—will be met with at least an equal reaction and test.

Dialogues, negotiations, and conferences are fine in their way. Syria and Ukraine have shown, however, that the negotiations can easily become little more than a stalling exercise or a cover for advancing a very different real agenda. The United States should never reject cooperation with Russia where this produces the right results, but it should not simply passively wait in cases like Syria. There are always counter options—limited arms transfers to the Ukraine, spoiler ploys in Central Asia, etc.

And once again, Trump the President needs to distance himself from Trump the Candidate in dealing with our allies. The issue in dealing with NATO and America’s European allies is not simply burden sharing. It is getting the right priorities for specific forms of common action, asking for the right changes in allied forces and actions, and showing that the United States remains a reliable partner.

Key allies like Britain, France and especially Germany can and should do more in some areas. The issue is not, however, spending 2% of their GDP. It is creating the right kind of command capabilities and actions. Here, President Trump might consider reviving the kind of NATO Force Planning exercises the United States helped initiate in the early 1960s. Creating common defense plans focused on a common capability to deter and protect the nations on the edge of the former Soviet Union (FSU), and project power collectively to limit any new Russian adventures.

Supporting the New President as Reality Intervenes

There are many other areas where President Trump will encounter the need to make new decisions and be ready for new challenges. History has already made it all too clear that presidents cannot choose their crises or predict the new events outside the United States that shape much of their successes and failures. In fact, no one can predict even the nature of many of the challenges the new president will have to face between January and April of 2017.

What one can predict is that President Trump will need as much support from the U.S. national security community as possible. The last thing the new president needs—or the country needs—is constant criticism. The same is true of a failure to provide support or advice when it is requested, and to try to refight an election that is over. It is not just the new president who faces all of the previous challenges, it is the United States and its allies.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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