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Trump's new strategy: Russia is an actual threat

On Monday President Donald Trump rolled out his ...

Posted: Dec. 18, 2017 11:24 AM
Updated: Dec. 19, 2017 11:14 AM

On Monday President Donald Trump rolled out his national security strategy, a key planning document that every president since Ronald Reagan has published to warn about threats to American national security and how best to respond to them.

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Trump's plan is, unsurprisingly, an unabashedly "America First" strategy that, at just under 70 dense pages, is full of insights into how Trump's national security advisers see the world.

While usual suspects such as Iran and North Korea are described as threats, and campaign promises about the need for a border wall with Mexico are acknowledged, what is most newsworthy about the document is the extent to which it portrays Russia and China, America's traditional major state antagonists, as threatening. The document asserts that Russia and China "want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests," which seems quite at odds with the President's own enthusiastic embrace of Russia.

Overall, the new Trump strategy calls for a policy of "peace through strength" that emphasizes deterring these enemies by preparing US conventional forces for "major war" while also modernizing the country's aging nuclear forces. This new approach is necessary because the strategy document states that, "after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally."

Russia is "using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies...The American public and private sectors must recognize the threat and work together to defend our way of life," according to the strategy document. The document also describes Russian aggression against its neighbors: "With its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, Russia demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereignty of states in the region."

The document goes on to link Russia's "information operations" to a broader campaign to influence public opinion across the globe. Its influence campaigns blend covert intelligence operations and false online personas with state-funded media, third-party intermediaries and paid social media users, or "trolls." This, of course, is similar to the US intelligence community's conclusions that Russia meddled in the 2016 American presidential election.

The emphasis on Russian perfidy may, in part, be a reflection of the "lead pen" of the document, Nadia Schadlow, the senior director for strategy at the National Security Council who in the mid-1990s was the desk officer for Ukraine at the Pentagon.

The strategy also calls out China in a number of areas. It accuses the Chinese of stealing US intellectual property every year valued at "hundreds of billions of dollars" and calls for tightening of visa procedures to "reduce economic theft by non-traditional intelligence collectors," which presumably could include the more than 300,000 Chinese students who attend US universities every year.

China "is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after our own," including a "diversifying" nuclear arsenal, according to the document, which goes on to warn that Chinese "land reclamation projects and militarization of the South China Seas flouts international law, threatens the free flow of trade, and undermines stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region."

What's missing: Climate change and 'Islamic terrorism'

Where President Barack Obama's 2015 national security strategy document had a significant emphasis on the problematic effects of climate change, the Trump strategy doesn't have much to say about the topic other than to note that bringing down pollution should be a goal of the United States thorough "innovation" rather than "onerous regulation."

Also missing from the new Trump strategy document is any discussion of "radical Islamic terrorism," which is a great preoccupation of the Breitbartian wing of the Republican Party. The document eschews this description of the threat, which critics say conflates Islam and terrorism, settling instead for the uncontroversial and accurate phase "jihadist terrorists" to describe groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda.

This omission will likely provoke fulminations on Fox News by analysts such as Sebastian Gorka, who was forced out of his advisory role at the White House in August and who has made use of the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" a touchstone for the only proper way to describe the threat.

When President Trump delivered a speech about the strategy at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington DC he did invoke the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" despite the fact that the phrase doesn't appear anywhere in the lengthy strategy document.

Regarding terrorism, the strategy has some quite harsh words for Pakistan, "since no partnership can survive a country's support for militants and terrorists that targets a partner's own service members and officials," a reference to Pakistan's support for elements of the Taliban that attack American targets in Afghanistan.

NATO continues to play an important role in Afghanistan and, despite Trump's sometimes inflammatory rhetoric about the alliance, the strategy document describes NATO as "one of our great advantages over our competitors." It also calls for European allies in NATO "to increase defense spending to two percent of gross domestic product by 2024," which was also a goal of the Obama administration.

(Disclosure: I was one of the outside experts consulted by the Trump National Security Council as they formulated the strategy.)

What's promising (sort of): Technology and policy

The Trump strategy document includes considerable and welcome discussion of the intertwined roles of technology and policy. The strategy is clear about the threat to the United States posed by cyber intrusions - many of which emanate from the Russians and Chinese. The strategy calls for a defensible, modernized, federal information structure and also a "secure 5G Internet capability nationwide."

The 2016 hack of the obscure US Office of Personnel Management underlined the necessity of radical change in the way that the federal government does business. In that hack, personal information such as the Social Security numbers of more than 20 million current and former US government employees and their families were stolen.

The document calls for further American investments in "data science, encryption, autonomous technologies, gene editing, new materials, nanotechnology, advanced computing technologies, and artificial intelligence" in order to grow the economy of tomorrow. At the same time, it advocates for increased US government understanding of worldwide science and technology trends and their impact on American strategies.

This, of course, is an excellent idea, but as CBS News reported last month, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is barely staffed and "has disintegrated into a shell of what it once was under President Obama."

Bolstering the State Department, but how?

The strategy document calls for an enhanced State Department in no uncertain terms: "We must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities to compete in the current environment and to embrace a competitive mindset. Effective diplomacy requires the efficient use of limited resources, a professional diplomatic corps, modern and safe facilities, and secure methods to communicate and engage with local populations."

And yet, this strategy comes at a time when the State Department is largely rudderless under the leadership of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has failed to fill many of the key positions in his department and who has embraced a proposed cut of a third of State's budget at the same time that the Pentagon is getting a 10% budget boost.

Ultimately, the strategy document is the responsibility of the National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster, who early in his Army career published "Dereliction of Duty," a blistering account of how the Pentagon brass during the Vietnam War only told President Lyndon Johnson: "What he wanted to hear...Bearers of bad news or those that expressed views counter to his priorities would hold little sway."

It would be surprising if McMaster were to make the same mistake with this key document that lays out the national security strategy of the United States. That is why the strategy document is unequivocal about the threat to democracies posed by Russian influence operations, even if that is not a message that President Trump always wants to hear.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include further content from Trump's Monday speech.

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