When President Donald Trump said "people can decide for themselves" whether Navy SEALs really killed Osama Bin Laden during his town hall Thursday, moderator Savannah Guthrie was right to suggest that such a statement would be alarming even if it came from a crazy uncle — let alone the commander-in-chief.
Keep that in mind as Trump floats the possibility of a "sweeping" foreign policy speech before the election about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year. Conflicting comments from Trump and his advisers over recent days once again reveal the total chaos inside our national security system. And this is no time for major foreign policy decisions.
On Oct. 7 Trump tweeted: "We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas."
This sudden promise came as U.S. diplomats and military commanders were about to meet with Taliban leaders to press for follow-through on commitments to reduce violence and break with Al Qaeda. The reported response of one U.S. official when informed of the tweet was "Oh my God!"
In what's become a pattern, Trump sabotaged his own policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Doha, Qatar, in September to open talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The stance he was there to promote was clear when he said, referring to the Taliban, "Our commitment to reduce forces to zero is conditioned on them executing their obligations under the agreement."
Under Trump's leadership, the currency of an American handshake is in free fall.
Hours before Trump's tweet, White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien confirmed in a public forum that U.S. force levels would be maintained at around "2,500 by early next year." The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, later contradicted both O'Brien and Trump, saying any discussion of further reduction in forces was pure speculation. Never before has a president so wantonly and consistently undermined his diplomats and military commanders engaged in difficult assignments on behalf of our country.
Bringing the Taliban and the Afghan government to the table in the first place had required a delicate balance. The Taliban had to be assured that U.S. force levels would be reduced, while the government had to be assured that U.S. force levels wouldn't go to zero without an intra-Afghan peace deal. No matter what one thinks of this process, and I have been highly skeptical, diplomacy can work here only if both parties recognize that the United States isn't heading for the exits regardless of what happens.
I experienced this policymaking chaos firsthand over two years working in the Trump administration, helping lead the global campaign against the Islamic State terrorist group. The veneer of a process below the president allowed for some success in coordinating with allies and prosecuting a military campaign across Iraq and Syria. In December 2018, together with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, I met with the military contributors to our coalition to secure their commitments to stay the course, particularly in Syria.
Our allies signed up because they trusted the U.S. and valued American leadership. Across two administrations, we had built a global coalition to coordinate and protect our citizens from a common threat with small deployments of U.S. forces. Less than two weeks after that meeting, however, Trump tweeted that he was withdrawing from Syria entirely.
Our allies were baffled. Our adversaries were gleeful. Today in Syria, Russian flags fly over what had been U.S. positions. Russian forces regularly harass U.S. troops — while Trump says nothing in their defense.
Diplomacy and national security decision-making demand thought, prudence and rigorous process, a formula that no administration gets entirely right. The world is too complex, our adversaries are too adaptive and information is too limited to make the right decisions in every instance. That's why most presidents take the national security aspect of their job with the utmost seriousness, consulting regularly with advisers and intelligence professionals.
Donald Trump does none of this. He reportedly doesn't read — let alone absorb — intelligence reporting. He's consistently blown astray by something seen on television or said by a foreign leader on the phone, reversing policy wholesale with no thought as to consequences.
Syria and Afghanistan are high-profile cases, but this chaos and incoherence have corroded American authority and influence across the globe. Our diplomats in foreign capitals can't articulate American policy to foreign counterparts because there is no policy. On any given issue, our allies, adversaries and competitors know everything can change with a spasmodic tweet. Under Trump's leadership, the currency of an American handshake is in free fall.
Consider the American military facilities in Germany that have served as a cornerstone to peace for over 70 years. They remain vital to readiness across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Trump, with no process or planning, ordered one-third of our forces there, about 12,000 troops, to pack up and leave. When his defense secretary, Mark Esper, held a news conference to suggest that the move had some strategic rationale, Trump undercut him moments later, saying he had ordered the move solely because "Germany is delinquent" and not paying its bills — a charge he's levied at NATO allies for years, never pausing to understand how NATO's defense spending pledge actually works. Nobody consulted Berlin, where senior officials expressed astonishment, saying Trump's behavior was "completely unacceptable."
The process of foreign policymaking and diplomacy isn't glamorous. It requires constant and ongoing consultation and a president who is informed, knowledgeable and interested. Those doing the work must have some confidence that they won't be undercut on a whim. Counterparts across the table — whether friendly or adversarial — must know the same. I've sat across from Russian officials across two administrations. In one, I knew the president had my back. In another, I knew a call from Putin might undermine everything we were working to achieve.
The reckless and chaotic nature of foreign policy in the Trump administration cedes advantage entirely to more disciplined and patient adversaries. Returning to first principles — discipline, prudence and process — will be essential as we work as a country to restore our respect in the world and rebuild the confidence of our friends.