Critics have complained about President Trump's bombast on foreign policy, but some GOP insiders worry about a less visible problem — a hollowed-out bureaucracy that has been slow to develop and implement strategy.
Skeptics say that on major issues — Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Russia — the Trump administration hasn't explained clear, systematic plans for achieving results. Even where there seems to be a coherent diplomatic strategy, as on North Korea, the president often undercuts it with Twitter storms or personal tirades.
Because so many key political positions haven't been filled at the State Department, the interagency process that's supposed to decide and implement policy is something of an "empty suit," veteran officials say. European diplomats say they have been frustrated by the difficulty in finding Trump officials with whom they can frame policies on shared concerns, such as cracking down on Iranian behavior.
Trump seems weirdly pleased at the many vacant policy positions — evidently not understanding that the vacancies prevent effective action. "I'm generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be — because you don't need them," Trump boasted in an interview with Forbes published Tuesday.
The most outspoken GOP criticism has come from Sens. John McCain and Bob Corker, the chairmen of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, respectively. McCain said this month that the administration's lack of public explanation of how it intends to implement its Afghanistan strategy was "totally unacceptable." Corker drew headlines with his warning Sunday that Trump was "on the path to World War III," but his deeper criticism was of a White House that resembled "a reality show" rather than a policy-making nexus.
"They've set the table, but they haven't yet followed up with fully developed strategies and policies," says Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser for President George W. Bush. He argues: "This is a different kind of administration, and the normal six- to eight-month transition process will in this case probably take 12 to 14 months. It will take that much time to get the key political-appointee jobs filled and to get the interagency process working the way it needs to work."
The administration conducted a detailed review of Afghanistan policy, and Trump announced the conclusions in an Aug. 21 speech that recommended familiar themes of pressuring Pakistan, improving Afghan governance, modestly increasing troops and seeking a political settlement. But how will these goals be achieved? McCain complained Oct. 3: "In the six weeks since the president made his announcement, this committee and the Congress, more broadly, still does not know many of the crucial details of this strategy."
A similar lack of clarity afflicts Iran strategy. The administration has been talking since Inauguration Day about countering Iranian influence in the Middle East. But much of the policy bandwidth has been consumed by the one issue that isn't currently a problem — the nuclear deal that Iran is complying with, but that Trump wants to decertify anyway.
"On Iran, the irony of this administration is that they're doing the same thing as the previous one, but in reverse," says a senior Senate Republican staffer. "They're putting the Iran nuclear deal at the center, now as a negative instead of a positive, rather than focusing on combating Iranian influence in the region."
A White House briefing to reporters last week promoting a new effort to get tough on Hezbollah provided little detail. It included a two-page factsheet that could have been compiled from Wikipedia, a map listing known Hezbollah operations, and two recent indictments of U.S.-based Hezbollah operatives who traveled abroad but posed "no immediate threat" to America. The anti-Hezbollah effort was broadened slightly Tuesday with an offer of rewards of $7 million and $5 million for information on two Hezbollah operatives.
The policy paralysis has been clearest with Syria, where a brutal civil war occasioned so much criticism of a "feckless" Obama administration. After nine months, Trump still hasn't settled on a plan for Syria or Iraq — especially on the crucial question of whether to leave a small residual U.S. force there. "On Syria and Iraq, strategy is in a holding pattern," says the senior Republican Senate staffer.
A senior administration official rebutted many of the criticisms, arguing that the classified version of the Afghanistan strategy had all the details that critics were seeking, and that a broad Iran strategy might be announced soon. But this official conceded that consensus on Syria "hasn't been achieved."
Trump's slurs and insults may be distracting us from a more basic foreign policy problem: On some key issues, when it comes to actual policy plans, the cupboard is bare.
David Ignatius writes a foreign affairs column. He has also written eight spy novels. "Body of Lies" was made into a 2008 film starring Leonard DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. He began writing his column in 1998. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.