FPI Bulletin: How Trump Can Lead on National Security

February 28, 2017

In an address to Congress this evening, President Trump will lay out his agenda for his first year in office.  Although he will likely focus on domestic issues, Mr. Trump should take advantage of this opportunity to announce a set of concrete national security proposals that have the potential to win bipartisan support. While the president’s overall vision for foreign policy rejects the traditional U.S. commitment to international leadership based on American values, there are some immediate and practical steps he can take that are consistent both with his own agenda and that of many of his critics.  Five subjects President Trump should address are:

Terrorism: President Trump recently declared that he would “totally obliterate” ISIS, an achievement that would be welcomed by all Americans. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has already submitted a set of proposals for accelerating the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and is currently reviewing recommendations for Afghanistan. While taking the time necessary to review Mattis’ advice in detail, President Trump should make clear tonight that he will give his commanders the resources they need in order to win, rather than forcing them to comply with politically driven timelines and manpower limits. The president campaigned as a critic of long-term interventions, yet if he demands victory, he will have to accept responsibility for reversing the damage done by his predecessor’s rushed withdrawals and incremental commitments.

Iran: Although the new administration has put Iran “on notice,” Tehran has not altered its malignant behavior in the Middle East. What the Trump administration will do next regarding Iran or the 2015 nuclear agreement is uncertain.  E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior officials that the United States intends “to stick to the full implementation of the agreement and all its parts,” in spite of President Trump’s criticism of the deal during the campaign.

While the administration weighs how best to correct the many flaws of the nuclear deal, it can impose a broad range of non-nuclear sanctions without violating the terms of the agreement. These include sanctions in response to Iran’s regional aggression, human rights abuses, and ballistic missile tests. One vehicle for such measures is the Iran Non-Nuclear Sanctions Act, introduced in the Senate earlier last month.  By lending his support to this bill, the president would demonstrate to Tehran with actions, not just words, that it is now on notice.

North Korea: The high-profile assassination of Kim Jong-nam was not only an act of terrorism; but a chemical weapons attack inside a major international airport. While the Malaysian authorities are continuing to uncover how this incident was planned and carried out, President Trump should immediately re-designate North Korea as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.

As the Wall Street Journal noted last week, this is not the first time that North Korea has conducted a terror attack since it was lifted from the terror sponsor list in 2008. In 2010, its agents sought to assassinate a high-level defector who fled southward, while targeting another defector in South Korea the following year. Re-designating North Korea may not impose immediate costs on Pyongyang, but it would send the message that the new administration is preparing to exert maximal pressure on the North in order to contain its nuclear program as well as its aggression toward its southern neighbor.

Ukraine: Policy toward Russia has become a flash point thanks to President Trump’s aggressive defense of Vladimir Putin from charges of interference in U.S. elections and grave human rights violations at home. While Trump may continue to seek rapprochement with the Kremlin, he should endorse the recent statement of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley: “Greater cooperation with Russia cannot come at the expense of the security of our European friends and allies….Our separate Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.” Trump should also express his agreement with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the U.S. ought to provide our partners in Ukraine with the weapons they need to defend themselves from the combined Russian-separatist forces that control much of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Congress has expressed overwhelming bipartisan support for lethal aid and has already given the president the authority to deliver it.

Defense and State Department Funding: With good reason, President Trump has made a commitment to rebuild the U.S. military, whose size, readiness, and technological advantages all diminishing. Trump correctly identified sharp budget cuts and the process of sequestration as the primary cause of this decline. Tonight, he should make an ironclad commitment to support legislation this year that will rescind the arbitrary spending caps associated with the Budget Control Act.

Administration officials have already told journalists that the White House will request a 10 percent increase to the defense budget for 2018, which would require an adjustment or repeal of the current spending limits.  Although this $54 billion addition is commendable, Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry, the respective chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, have already indicated that additional funding will be required to carry out the rebuilding that Trump wants. However, McCain and Thornberry would welcome a commitment to rescind sequestration this year, since the elimination of arbitrary spending limits would allow Congress and the president to seek agreement on how much spending our national security requires, instead of letting budget constraints dictate our strategy.

This logic should also apply to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, both of which are integral to our foreign policy.  Reports indicate that Trump is planning to cut as much as 37 percent of the State and USAID budget to defray the costs of the defense build-up. In response to these reported cuts, more than 120 retired generals and admirals, wrote to President Trump and other leaders to share their conviction that diplomacy and foreign aid are essential to our nation’s security. Congressional leaders understand this point as well and are likely to oppose such drastic cuts. What Mr. Trump should recognize is that the real driver of America’s debt and deficits is not discretionary spending, but the mandatory entitlements that consume the majority of the federal budget.


President Trump’s statements during the campaign have raised significant uncertainty about the conduct of his administration’s foreign policy.  Recent events have only underscored the vital importance of American leadership and close partnership with our allies.  The president can do much to allay such concerns by lending his support to such practical measures as outlined above. This will not resolve the persistent controversy about Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, which stems from fundamental disagreements about America’s role in the world. Yet by offering sound recommendations tonight, he could show that the presence of deeper disagreements does not mean that foreign policy will be paralyzed under his administration.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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