Mark Hertling says US faces crises daily, and Trump should expect more of the same
Hertling: National Security Strategy being readied to show how Trump will meet a crisis
Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of US Army Europe and the 7th Army. He is the author of “Growing Physician Leaders.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
Those are the words of President Donald Trump, reacting to photos of the victims of this week’s chemical attack in Syria. But in truth, what Trump “inherited” is that thing that comes with the territory associated with being the leader of the free world: crisis.
The national security team that serves the President faces crises on a daily basis. When I was the chief war planner on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon earlier in my career, I was constantly amazed at the number, type and complexities of conflict events that went out from our five-sided building to the National Security Council for presidential information and consideration for action.
The national security team must address each of those and recommend a reaction or action, and they do that based on based on the president’s view of the world, which is written in the National Security Strategy. That document currently does not exist, but Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is feverishly attempting to write it.
During the presidential campaign, few international relations issues were discussed. Trump did repeatedly speak about the threat of ISIS and its sister terror organization al Qaeda. There are US military forces in Iraq, Syria and Yemen (and many other places on the globe some Americans couldn’t find on a map) actively conducting operations against these groups according to a plan that has not changed under Trump.
We also still have almost 10,000 soldiers conducting operations to support the Afghan government, which is a fight against the Taliban, al Qaeda and several other organizations. That plan has also not seen any adjustments. These would not be considered crisis situations as the NSC should be conducting updates to the President regarding the progress of these operations.
A true crisis usually comes from somewhere else, and there are lots of possibilities. We have diplomats and embassies in more than 200 nations, and we currently have uniformed service members in more than 100 countries. (Most Americans are surprised when told we have soldiers still in the Balkans 20 years after President Bill Clinton said they would be gone, and a unit keeping the peace in the Sinai, near where terrorist organizations roam.)
US Navy and Air Force elements still roam the sea and air to maintain freedom of navigation rights. (The topic of those forces in the South/East China Sea is a topic likely to be raised by Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago this week). There are also forces deployed to Europe countering Russia’s Minsk accord violations in Ukraine, and Russia’s malign actions in other allied and partner nations.
Add to these topics the possibility of the rogue North Korea continuing to fire missiles and threatening nuclear tests, or a cyber threat from one of several nations that could quickly jump from the category of Limited Stealth Operations to a more robust Cyber War Only category, and that could affect our military, government, banks, hospitals and other institutions.
Also consider the possibility of an Iranian fast-boat attacking a US Navy Cruiser in the Persian Gulf, or a commercial aircraft accidentally being shot down, or a threatening wingtip-to-wingtip adventure between military jets from different nations in the Baltics.
This is the world Trump “inherited.” Those familiar with the ebb and flow of national security issues predicted something would happen within 30 to 60 days of Trump’s inauguration in any or several of these categories because that is what happens to every president.
Many predicted big things that might test the mettle of a businessman unfamiliar with international threats; others thought something might occur that would allow the new administration to “shake out” their processes and decision-making with less significant implications.
But it was the Syrian chemical attack that caused the emotional and visceral response from the President, and that caused him to say he was drawing a new line and reversing his position on Bashar al-Assad. The world is now confounded by these mixed messages broadcast from various members of the national security team and the President himself.
Which brings us back to a National Security Strategy. McMaster is formulating that document now, and it will provide a doctrine for the President. If written correctly, it will allow for the President’s desired “flexibility,” but it should also signal to the world how this administration stands and how we will react when the inevitable crisis occurs.
What businessman-turned-President Trump is learning might be compared to a lyric I’ll paraphrase from the Broadway show “Hamilton” that he panned just a few months ago: Campaigning is easy, Mr. President. Governing and international relations is harder!