The Trump administration is nearly ready to roll out its first National Security Strategy (NSS), a document that promises to make concrete the president's campaign-trail pledge of a dramatic about-face from the adventuresome and often counterproductive foreign policy of the post-9/11 era.
The plan reportedly has the support of all relevant cabinet-level advisers, and, per Axios' scoop, is intended to serve "as a 'corrective' to the past 16 years of American foreign policy," a time in which Washington chronically "overestimated America's influence and importance and lost track of priorities."
A more restrained approach focused strictly on core interests of defense instead of peripheral concerns like solving internal political conflicts in distant countries would be a welcome corrective. But unless the NSS inaugurates a radical departure from the Trump team's own foreign policy to date, this is a correction unlikely to be made.
President Trump's first year in office has seen little in the way of foreign affairs innovation, unless we count his escalation of the status quo of his recent predecessors. The president's policy strength is asking good questions rather than providing good answers. It's a safe assumption this NSS will not repudiate the Trump team's record so far.
Until that expectation is fulfilled, let's speculate a little about what the NSS is likely to be, and how it could still be made better. The plan has four broad themes, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster explained at the Ronald Reagan National Defense Forum in California this past weekend: "protecting our homeland, advancing American prosperity, preserving peace through strength … and finally enhancing American influence."
McMaster declined to outline what those bromides mean, other than suggesting a continuation of what military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich has aptly labeled a "pattern of promiscuous intervention." In the last decade and a half, U.S. troops and taxpayers have paid a high price for that pattern.
"When it comes to promised results—disorder curbed, democracy promoted, human rights advanced, terrorism suppressed—the United States has precious little to show," Bacevich wrote at Foreign Affairs last year. Those words are no less true today despite a new Oval Office occupant. "As if on autopilot, the Pentagon accrues new obligations and expands its global footprint, oblivious to the possibility that in some parts of the world, U.S. forces may no longer be needed, whereas in others, their presence may be detrimental," Bacevich wrote.
Tellingly, McMaster touted Trump's August speech on Afghanistan, echoing "the American people's frustration … over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly, lives trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests."
This promising start was fatally undermined when Trump immediately announced his intention to maintain exactly that foreign policy of frustration for unknown generations to come. Trump absurdly imagined the risk in exiting Afghanistan after 16 years is that we might do it too hastily.
He observed that "the American people are weary of war without victory," only to set the impossible victory of bombs over ideology as the United States' unachievable goal. He even decried nation-building, and then promptly promised to continue doing it under another name.
McMaster likewise promised to "no longer confuse activity with progress," an admirable change, only to speak enthusiastically of busily trying to remake other nations in the United States' image with military intervention all around the globe. He praised Trump's decision to launch airstrikes on Syria's Assad regime despite the real risk of great power conflict it entailed, and in an interview format after his talk, he made a truly dangerous case for preventive war as an acceptable response to North Korea's provocations.
Activity without progress abounds.
I highlight McMaster's address not only as one of the few sources of information on this forthcoming NSS, but also because his support for the plan should itself give pause to anyone hoping for a corrective.
Widely regarded as a knowledgeable and experienced military leader, the former general has a long record of support for an expansive American footprint abroad, nation-building and military interventions, unconstrained by considerations of cost, plausible conclusion, or even whether vital U.S. interests are actually at stake. He has decidedly not learned the lessons our Mideast misadventures are begging to teach us.
If we have reason to believe the new National Security Strategy will change little—or little for the better—how might it yet be improved? Bacevich rightly argues that the first step is to take honest stock of our present morass, to fundamentally question whether the United States must preserve her current military commitments overseas. (The answer is indisputably "no," though reasonable people might differ on the extent and pace of the changes so desperately overdue.)
From there, Bacevich continues, the foremost strategy aim must be to "to restore a bias in favor of restraint as an antidote to the penchant for reckless or ill-considered interventionism, which has cost the United States dearly while reducing places like Iraq and Libya to chaos."
If the new NSS could deliver something like that, it would stand a real chance at embodying Trump's better foreign policy angels and correct Washington's decade and a half of "overestimate[ing] America's influence and importance and [losing] track of priorities."
I'm hopeful, but I confess I won't be holding my breath.
Photo Credit: Shealah Craighead/ZUMA Press/Newscom