Former senior Obama administration officials assess Trump’s national security agenda at 100 days

Roughly 100 days after Donald Trump took office as president, top national security experts gathered at NYU Law in an event hosted by the Center on Law and Security (CLS) to address the geopolitical challenges facing the United States. The list was long—North Korea, China, Russia, Syria, ISIS, and terrorism and cybersecurity threats, among others. The speakers, all former senior officials in the Obama administration, included CLS board adviser David Cohen, former CIA deputy director, and distinguished senior fellow Lisa Monaco, former assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. The group expressed alarm over what they deemed the lack of strategy on numerous fronts from the Trump administration.

Center on Law and Security event
Moderator Samuel Rascoff and speakers Lisa Monaco, Colin Kahl, David Cohen, and Adewale Adeyemo

According to Cohen, the Trump administration operates under a “policy of maximum pressure” with North Korea, which is believed to have accelerated its nuclear missile program, in order to enter into negotiations with Kim Jong Un. Cohen argued that this engagement is dangerous: “I’m concerned that we are manufacturing a crisis with North Korea in a situation where we don’t know what our endgame is,” he said. “We haven’t done the work with China, with South Korea and Japan, with our European allies, with Russia, to be prepared for what may come next in this crisis that we are creating.”

Colin Kahl, associate professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and former deputy assistant to the president and national security advisor to the vice president, noted what he considered the same shortcoming in President Trump’s foreign policy. “The administration has had an ‘Escalate first, ask strategic questions later or never’ approach,” he said. “They’re generating leverage in places, but that is only useful if there’s a diplomatic strategy.” 

Lisa Monaco

Discussing the president’s strikes on a Syrian military airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack against Syrians, Kahl suggested that a better strategy would have been to spend a couple of weeks building diplomatic support before authorizing the strikes. “There was an almost purposeful refusal to actually capitalize on the leverage that the president had in his hands by executing the strikes,” added Monaco. “He could have armed [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson with a stern message and a case to be made to Russia and to the public about the Syrian chemical weapons attacks, laying out the case that Russia was, if not complicit, turning a purposeful blind eye.”

The Trump administration’s lack of strategy extends to counterterrorism, Monaco continued. She observed that the ongoing strikes in Iraq are a continuation of the strategy that President Obama had pursued, but added that it is unclear how the current administration will address ISIS’s ability to deploy foreign fighters and exploit social media. “The immigration and travel ban feeds into ISIS’s recruiting narrative—that the West is in a war against Islam,” said Monaco. “Far from having a strategy to counter ISIS, we’ve seen one step that feeds it.”

Adewale Adeyemo, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former deputy national security advisor for international economics, warned that by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and not serving as a leading voice in institutions such as the United Nations, NATO, and the World Trade Organization, the US will be ceding ground to actors like China. “If we want to maintain the quality of life we’ve become accustomed to and the security posture that we’ve had since World War II, we’ll need to address these issues—or they’ll be addressed for us by countries like China,” he said.

Posted May 8, 2017