President Trump, what's your endgame?

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Story highlights

  • The US needs but doesn't have a strategy to guide it internationally, Andelman writes
  • Trump has been at the mercy of events with no real idea where we are heading, he says

David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Donald Trump's biggest problem isn't health care or the Freedom Caucus, not Russia or even his flailing White House bureaucracy. It's something far more fundamental -- and more dangerous.

The President, quite simply, has no concept of an endgame, or even a long game.
Certainly, it's an idea he didn't grasp with his health care plan. It failed? Trump didn't seem to think it was possible. Well it did -- leaving him armed with little but a succession of increasingly erratic tweetstorms.
Abroad, such shortsightedness holds far more sweeping, even lethal prospects -- most immediately, in the Middle East. With two of the region's pivotal leaders due to stop by the White House this week, Trump is overdue in getting his ducks in a row and looking beyond tomorrow.
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Less than three months into his presidency, Trump is still ill-prepared to face his most critical crises of securing peace in the Middle East, or even move the United States and the world, which has for decades looked to America for leadership, toward a future free of conflict. Ideally this should include both an endgame and a long game that the nation and his administration must begin playing now.
A real endgame involves some sense of where a particular issue is headed. Tactics, or short-term turns in the road, are often incompatible with a long-term strategic direction toward an end that is safe and rewarding. Effectively, Trump has been at the mercy of events and has no real idea where we are heading.
Monday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrives at the White House, followed Thursday by Jordan's brilliant King Abdullah II, who has managed, as did his father, to steer a peaceful and prosperous road for his nation in a region filled with chaos and violence.
It should be the perfect moment for Trump to unveil his vision of the region. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be one. His plan for "eradicating ISIS quickly," as he pledged repeatedly throughout his campaign, appears to be a series of direct frontal assaults -- first on Mosul, the terrorist group's stronghold in Iraq, then on Raqqa, the group's "capital" in Syria.
This plan apparently consists of upping the number of American "advisers" while seducing Sunni countries with ever more advanced armaments -- like Bahrain, now approved to purchase 19 F-16 jet fighters, worth $2.8 billion, with none of the Obama-era human rights conditions attached.
All this in an effort to neutralize and isolate Shiite Iran, which should be embraced, at least for the moment, as a critical partner in any assault on Sunni-led ISIS.
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So, what happens when the good guys, with American forces advising them, succeed in overrunning and occupying ISIS headquarters? What's the endgame? And what role does he envision Egypt and especially a front-line Jordan playing?
All are questions that al-Sisi and Abdullah might well pose to the President, and that any number of other world leaders are already asking. But they are not, apparently, questions that an all-but-totally-unaware Trump has either asked or answered. For there is no endgame. Not even a long game.
Neither is there a coherent game of any length or vision for Afghanistan, or Boko Haram's persistent violence across Africa, or the two-year-old civil war in Yemen that's sucking in any number of America's friends and neighbors and where American soldiers are starting to die. And what about such failed or failing states as South Sudan or Somalia or Libya, which itself could provide the bolt-hole for an ISIS -- forced out of Syria and Iraq -- to set up shop, all too quickly?
There's little real sense of just how the United States might help respond to Russia's continued probing into eastern Ukraine. Just last week, Congress voted 97-2 to admit the former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro into NATO -- now entitled to the same protection against attack as the United Kingdom, France or Germany, not to mention Russian neighbors and NATO members like Poland and the Baltic republics.
Each is being held hostage to the same short game Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was playing last Friday when he asked NATO allies to increase their defense spending.
Trump has demanded that every NATO member boost their defense spending to at least 2% of their GDP, though only five of the 28 have hit that level, while others like Germany have pledged their best to make good, resenting the short shrift Trump has given to what is for many a colossal burden.
And, as their efforts seem repeatedly to be ignored, this is becoming yet another game that NATO members, who have contributed in untold non-monetized fashions for decades to our mutual security, find insulting and shortsighted.
It's an ever more critical issue since Trump is casually hiving off the United States' willing or unwilling role in the world's crises to the generals. Remember them? The ones Trump said he was smarter than during his campaign.
But the generals are now taking the lead in many of these parts of the world -- their pockets bulging with the amped-up $54 billion in new appropriations the President wants to ladle onto them. The generals are deciding when to launch drone attacks in Yemen or how many advisers to pour into western Mosul.
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Under the President's 2018 budget proposal, a chunk of the new Pentagon funds would be coming, at least indirectly, out of the coffers of the State Department, as the whole idea of "soft power" seems to be going out the same window that Secretary Tillerson himself has been holding open -- his eyes wide shut.
Back to the days of Henry Kissinger and before, it was the State Department that could be counted on to provide a long-range strategic vision. But now generals are in charge at both the Pentagon and the White House. And soft power is held in contempt.
Soft power, however, is how we have historically managed our endgames most effectively. Our long games, too. It was the Marshall Plan that really held Soviet forces at bay for decades after World War II in Western Europe, not NATO, which focused the bulk of its energies on staring down Warsaw Pact tanks that never wound up pouring through Germany's Fulda Gap.
Development money made sure that communists didn't sneak into power through the back door of ballot boxes in France, Italy and beyond. That was a long game that worked.
Never before have we needed a good long game and a succession of viable exit strategies as desperately as we do now. And never before has their absence been more frightening.