“Iron Rules” for Trump in Choosing his Foreign Policy Team

by Robert E. Hunter

The appointments that President-elect Donald Trump is making in foreign policy and national security will be among the most important decisions of his entire presidency. “Personnel is policy” is not just a slogan; it’s a fact.

The following recommendations for the president-elect are based on my decades of experience at senior levels, in and out of government. They are virtually iron laws for any president. Like all his predecessors, President Trump will come to value outside policy advice, but what follows is most important right now.

First, Mr. President-elect, take your time in making appointments in foreign policy and defense. For the top jobs, you have until Inauguration Day. If you choose people whom you later find out were mistakes, it will not be easy to make changes. That holds true in particular for jobs like secretary of state and head of the Pentagon that require Senate confirmation and that outsiders here and abroad, often see as denoting a president’s overall judgment.

Second, throw the net widely. Seeing a lot of potential candidates is a good thing: ignore criticism that this is unseemly. When you were elected, you couldn’t possibly know the range of viable candidates for jobs in foreign policy and national security, even for the most senior posts. Get advice from people who have been successful at dealing with the US role in the world and who can separate the wheat from the chaff.

Third, beware of hiring people who have fixed opinions about the world or any part of it, however sincere they are. You must deal with the world as it is, and you need people around you who do likewise. Those with hobby-horses will be of no use to you and you will spend precious time cleaning up after they have gotten the country into trouble—perhaps even into an unwanted conflict. Tell your team to “park your preconceptions at the door: you now work for the president of the United States and the nation’s interests as a whole.” Ask Brent Scowcroft how he did the job of national security advisor under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. None since has been as good.

Fourth, this rule applies especially to the so-called intelligence community and its two most consequential jobs, director of national intelligence and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The intelligence community must retain its integrity for “calling it like it is,” without any political pressure from any quarter. Otherwise, you as president will inevitably fail. Think of CIA Director George Tenet’s “slam dunk” assessment of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. The Middle East will not for years, if ever, recover from the subsequent US-led invasion of Iraq. There is no room for ideologues anywhere in the process.

Fifth, hire at least one person who has shown a genuine capacity to think and plan strategically. You may have good instincts about the world and the role the US plays in it—or which, in your judgment, it should play—but dozens of moving parts have to be made to work together. You will have to make tough choices, often among difficult alternatives and ranging across the globe. You need someone with the requisite skills to help you do this or you will have little time to do much else as president. That person (or people) must have the depth of understanding, talent, and experience at working across regions and functions to enable you to be successful. Think Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the last people with these skills at the top level of government. Such people exist, but recent presidents haven’t sought them out, and US foreign policy has inevitably suffered. To identify these people, designate someone you trust, who doesn’t have a personal agenda or want a job.

Sixth, understand that people good at getting you elected are not necessarily the same people to enable you to govern. The skills are different, and few people have them both. Too many new presidents ignore this rule until they have had a major failure.

Seventh, don’t just consider party affiliation in hiring your team. Franklin Roosevelt appointed Republicans Henry Simson as secretary of war and Frank Knox as secretary of the Navy. The political sense in this was obvious. Don’t worry about grumbling from your party in Congress. Your team is there to help you be successful for the nation and that includes building broad political support.

Eighth, in choosing your team, understand that there is often a difference between what is best for US interests, to the extent that they can be discerned, and what domestic constituencies will want you to do. Resisting these pressures will be among your most difficult tasks—just ask President Barack Obama. “Politics should stop at the water’s edge,” according to an adage that has not been honored for years. But every time the president and the country violate this principle, they get into trouble. This is particularly true of the Middle East, which has bedeviled every US president, without exception, since Harry Truman. Make sure you hire people who understand that their commitment must be to US interests, period.

Ninth, don’t hire people who have lobbied for foreign governments, have otherwise served foreign interests, or who suffer from “localitis.” You should apply the same invaluable ethics rules you have proposed for people leaving government to people coming into government.

Tenth, recognize that the top people are only the tip of the policy and management iceberg. With your business background, you already know that. For years, several layers of the foreign policy and national security bureaucracy have been filled with political appointees rather than career people with tons of experience who often know what can work and what can’t. If you put politics ahead of capacity to do the job, the ranks of the appointees, where most of the real work gets done, will get filled with “wannabees,” campaign workers, cronies of Senators and Congressmen, or just members of the so-called “establishment.” Too many of the last-named spend their time figuring out how to get a government job rather than what the best policies are for the country. These are radically different skills. If you read anything, look at President Obama’s interview with Jeff Goldberg in the Atlantic. Obama said: “There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment.” The same people are waiting to tell you that only they know what is good for the country—but not many of them have had an original thought for years, if ever.

Eleventh, don’t let the White House Personnel Office dominate the selection of these lower-level appointments. That way you risk getting people with political connections but little foreign policy background, skill, or experience. You should also not demand reflexive “loyalty upwards.” Loyalty is necessary after you make a decision; but before you do, you need the best advice possible. You won’t get it from people who are trying to figure out which way you will jump and thus tailor their advice accordingly.

Twelfth, as you consider whom to hire, you also need to decide how you, as president, want to run foreign policy. “Process is (also) policy.” The last two administrations had a top-heavy National Security Council staff in the White House, many times larger than before. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama thought that this gave them more control. But it also led to the marginalization of the State and Defense Departments, which in fact have to carry out what you decide and have invaluable perspectives that can be crucial for you as president. An overbearing NSC staff will also lead to the stove-piping of issues and deny you a critical tool: comprehensive, coordinated, strategic analysis and planning. You wouldn’t run a business that way; you can’t run US foreign policy that way either. With the NSC staff, which sits on top of the National Security Council system, smaller is better.

Thirteenth and finally, after trial and error about people on your team, don’t be afraid to say “You’re fired.” Ronald Reagan had four duds as national security advisor before he hired someone who knew how to do the job.

Photo of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


One Comment

  1. Very interesting suggestions, and Mr Trump would be reeling even reading such a list!

    However, “Think Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the last people with these skills at the top level of government. ” makes me very wary.

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