It’s an old Washington saw that personnel is policy, but it’s true. If you want evidence, just look at the evolution of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
The Trump approach on national security is starting to look—dare we say it?—almost conventional. America-first, neo-isolationist tendencies have faded. Last week’s missile strike at Syria, in punishment for the regime’s chemical attacks on its own civilians, was a mainstream move that won bipartisan praise.
There remain plenty of mixed signals, of course. But campaign-season chumminess with Russia increasingly is a thing of the past. There has been no instant trade war with China, the Iran nuclear deal hasn’t been abrogated, the U.S. embassy in Israel hasn’t been moved to Jerusalem. An aircraft carrier group is moving closer to North Korea as a warning about that regime’s nuclear hijinks, another sign of embracing rather than retreating from a global role.
Each of these moves might have been made by a more conventional Republican president, or even by Democrat Hillary Clinton. What’s striking isn’t that they are unusual, but that they aren’t.
What accounts for this slide away from campaign-season rhetoric? Part of the explanation undoubtedly lies in the simple realities of the office bearing down on President Trump.
But it’s also easy to see the fingerprints of a Big Five set of players in shaping the administration’s approach: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.
Together, they have stabilized the administration’s strategy and pushed it onto a more conventional track. Meanwhile, the administration’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is gone; presidential strategist Steve Bannon is off the National Security Council principals committee; and the profile of trade adviser Peter Navarro has receded. All have different, nonconformist views, less in keeping with the establishment consensus.
Messrs. Tillerson and Mattis are the key players. They are hardly cut from the same cloth: Mr. Mattis is a retired Marine general who has been steeped in national-security debates and decisions for years, while Mr. Tillerson is a former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive whose world views were developed in a corporate suite rather than at the Pentagon or on the ground in Iraq.
But they have resolved to be the joined at the hip in approaching administration debates on important national-security matters. They worked together to get Iraq, a country with which the U.S. is allied in a war, removed from the president’s initial ban on travelers from a set of Muslim-majority countries.
Both are tough-minded about Iran, but didn’t think ditching the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Tehran would be a wise move; it remains intact.
Together, they have engineered an administration-wide effort to reiterate the importance of traditional alliances, and especially the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, despite Trump campaign comments disparaging allies.
Perhaps most striking, they have led the way in setting a tougher tone against Russia, most notably by Mr. Tillerson. This is something of a surprise from a man who had developed a kind of friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his business career. (They might get a chance to reacquaint when the secretary visits Moscow this week.)
Mr. Tillerson has been bluntly critical of Russia in recent days. That was especially so over the weekend, in the wake of the U.S. missile strike against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, who is being propped up by the Kremlin. In an appearance Sunday onCBS , Mr. Tillerson said recent Syrian chemical weapons attacks show the Russians were “complicit” or “simply incompetent” or “outwitted by the Bashar al-Assad regime.” In any case, he added, “Russia has failed” in its commitment to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
Lt. Gen. McMaster, meanwhile, is reshaping the National Security Council and its staff to his own liking. Mr. Bannon is out as an official member of the council, and the deputy national-security adviser, K.T. McFarland, is leaving to become ambassador to Singapore.
For his part, Mr. Ross has steered trade rhetoric away from threats of precipitous unilateral action and into more traditional channels. Last week’s summit meeting with China produced an agreement for some tough bilateral talks but no rupture of the relationship. A new approach to trade is still coming, but the administration seems likely to use traditional channels to respond to perceived Chinese misbehavior.
Mr. Ross also has de-escalated trade tension with Mexico; the North American Free Trade Agreement still will be revised, but apparently in a methodical manner.
Mr. Kushner’s role is harder to discern, but he has struck alliances with these other key players. They, in turn, have courted him and his influence with his father-in-law.
It’s still early, but the effects are showing. Some Trump fans are unhappy with this drift toward the conventional. Meanwhile, the oft-derided establishment is breathing a bit easier.
Write to Gerald F. Seib at email@example.com
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