American Defense and Security
Traditional conservatives and Donald Trump
0:51 Douglas Blackmon: Welcome back to American Forum. I’m Doug Blackmon. A year ago, dozens of highly regarded Republican foreign policy experts and other leading American conservatives were publicly stating that they could never support the presidential bid of Donald J. Trump, calling him unfit to hold the office and a danger to the world. But now, Mr. Trump is the president-elect. He is assembling the team of national security leaders and diplomats who will play crucial roles in shaping how the United States will operate in the larger world and defend itself against our enemies, and he is already challenging some of the pillars of both recent Democratic and Republican foreign policy agendas. To help us sort through where all of this is going, and especially what it means for conservative thought leaders, our guest today is Eric Edelman, a top foreign policy advisor first to President Clinton, and then, more prominently, in the George W. Bush administration.
FACTOID: The Question: Can Trump win back GOP foreign policy experts?
He is a former Ambassador to Finland and Turkey, was a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney at the time of the Iraq Invasion. He’s now a senior fellow here at the Miller Center, and has been an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s diplomatic agenda. He was a key adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012. Ambassador Edelman, thank you for being here.
Eric Edelman: Doug, great to be with you again.
2:02 Blackmon: So, a year ago you were Never Trump. Where are you now?
Edelman: Six months ago I was Never Trump. Um, look, uh, you know, uh, I don’t, um, I don’t regret having been a signatory to any of the letters, um, uh, but the circumstances have changed. He’s now the president-elect of the United States. Uh, I think those of us who, uh, were opposed to him, uh, I think are still gonna hold our views, but I think all of us, uh, you know, feel strongly that it’s important to try and do everything we can to make the Trump, uh, administration successful for the nation in, in, in foreign policy, as President Obama has said, as others have said. So that’s, I think, the task for the moment
2:50 Blackmon: I went back to someth—some things that you have said here at this table, um, uh, seven or eight months ago. I think— [Edelman: I was afraid you’d do that.] (laughter) Um, and you said he’s temperamentally unsuited to be president, represents a threat to the constitutional order. You were concerned about the violent atmosphere he’s encouraged at his rallies, and said, “I think he is dangerous to the fabric of our republic.” Are those things that at this point now that you be—we begin to see him trying to as—actually assemble a government, do things seem not quite as, as harshly problematic as they did then? Or is it more that you’re just saying, “I’m going to stomach this”?
Edelman: Uh, well, look, I think—I, I still, uh, have many of those concerns. Uh, on the other hand, uh, you know, Mr. Trump has selected Mike Pence to be his vice president.
FACTOID: Vice President Pence was in Congress from 2001 to 2013, then governor of Indiana
Um, I, I got to know, uh, Congressman Pence a little bit, and, and, uh, you know, was in a number of meetings with him in the Bush administration when I was in government. I have high regard for him. I think he acquitted himself extremely well, particularly during the vice presidential debate, which I thought he was, uh, dominant in.
FACTOID: Pence debated Senator tim Kaine at Longwood University in October
Uh, he’s clearly playing now a very large role in the transition, and that seems to me to be a good thing. Uh, the, um, president-elect on election night I think made an extremely good statement about being president of all Americans. I think that’s, uh, a good thing, too. And some of his, uh, choices for senior positions in the government, uh, and some of the names of people who are being considered are also, uh, reassuring. So, I think, you know, there’s some grounds for, uh, optimism that some of the things that, um, I expressed concern about in the past may, uh, may be, uh, less, uh, emphasized by, uh, President-elect Trump, and then President Trump when he’s sworn in. Uh, and I, I hope that that is the case, and that, you know, he, uh, acquits himself well, and does well for the country.
4:43 Blackmon: So let’s talk about some of the people who, uh, appear to be voices that, uh, that the new president is open to hearing from, some of whom have been appointed, some of whom are—whether they become part of the administration are likely to be, uh, nonetheless, uh, potentially influential players, um, but, uh, but there has been this tendency, th-this trend thus far, um, of, uh, bringing in a lot of military figures, uh, some concern expressed about, uh, a-about whether it’s a mistake to h—uh, have less civilian control over the military than has traditionally been the case. But, but what’s your general view, just as a diplomat, um, and, uh, and with experience in the—in, in this arena with just that basic idea that, that, that this may be a cabinet that, that ends up tilting too far in the direction of, uh—cabinet and, and other top aides—uh, o-of having too many military figures in the equation? Is that a reasonable concern?
Edelman: You know, uh, I mean, yes, yes and no. I mean, so first let me start with sort of the individuals. I mean, uh, I think in general Mattis and General Kelly, uh, you have two, uh, extremely fine officers. Uh, they, uh, you know, I think, exemplify the, the best, uh, of what we have in our—in our military. Uh, General Mattis is, I think, for all of us who know him and have worked with him, uh, universally regarded, uh, both with admiration and no small amount of affection by people, uh, who is a, a, a great combat leader.
FACTOID: Mattis entered Marine Corps in 1969 and retired in 2013
He also is extremely, uh, well versed—uh, steeped, I would say—in military history and, and strategy, extraordinarily well read, very broad in his, uh, view of things. Um, and, like John Kelly, he’s been a combatant commander, and so he’s had no shortage of diplomatic experience, uh, managing a coalition war, um, in, uh, in the Middle East; uh, in John Kelly’s case, an enormous amount of diplomatic skill in, uh, in the hemisphere as the commander of SOUTHCOM. So as individuals, I think they’re both, uh, terrific people. Um, I find it reassuring that they’ll be a part of the national security, uh, apparatus. With regard to General Mattis, there is going to be a, uh, uh, an issue which the Congress will have to deal with, uh, which is sometimes in-incorrectly referred to as a waiver. It’s not a waiver. It’s actually gonna require, um, an amendment to the law, uh, and so it’s gonna require legislative action, um, to waive the requirement that the secretary of defense not, uh, be a, uh, person who has been, uh, in service within the last seven years. And, uh, there—you know, I think there are legitimate, uh, concerns about the issue of democratic, you know, uh, civilian control of the military, uh, that the nomination raises. Uh, because it’s General Mattis I’m a little bit less concerned about it than, than I might be, but there’s no question that, uh, he will have his work cut out for him, uh, when he takes over in the Pentagon, because, I’ve been fond of saying, you know, uh, that, you know, Edward Corwin, the great, uh, legal historian, used to say that the Constitution was the invitation to struggle between the legislative and executive branches over the control of foreign policy.
FACTOID: Edward Corwin (1878-1963) wrote many books on constitutional law
The National Security Act of 1947, in my view, is an invitation to struggle between civilians and the military over the control of national defense policy. And, uh, General Mattis, by virtue of being a secretary of defense, will find himself, in some ways, in, uh, you know, a ticklish position. He’ll have to, uh, take some, you know, I think special steps and measures to make sure people understand that he is the secretary of defense and not, you know, Marine Corps General Four-Star Jim Mattis, uh, you know, sitting on top of the Pentagon. But he’s a very smart guy, and I have no doubt that he will handle that very well.
8:46 Blackmon: But you raise a, I think, a ver—a really interesting point, the, the waiver, or the amendment to the law that, that, uh, that stipulates, uh—that, that essentially is there to ensure that before a military figure were to become secretary of defense they would become a real civilian, uh, somehow in that seven-year period, which, for whatever reason in our—in our society there’s some magic about seven years, that that’s a, a ma—a magical distance of, of time. [Edelman: It used to be ten, and then they amended it to seven.] (laughs) I think that we’ve become so impatient, uh, as a people right now that it’s hard for us to see why there sometimes are these, these niggling little details that—but that actually matter.
Edelman: Well, you raise a very interesting question, Doug, and because the American Forum is meant to be about history as, you know, uh, as well as policy, uh, it’s probably useful to go back to the history of this. So when the, um, unified Department of Defense was created by the National Security Act in 1947, uh, they put this provision into the law. They then had to, uh, in 1950, when, uh, President Truman decided to replace Louis Johnson as secretary of defense with George Marshall, who had been secretary of state for three years, they, um, uh, they amended the law, but they amended the law with the very explicit exception saying, essentially, this does not apply to George C. Marshall, but don’t ever do this again. (laughter)
FACTOID: During World War II, Marshall oversaw largest military expansion in history
And, you know, there were some reasons for that. I mean, General Marshall really was in some ways really sui generis. I mean, first he had been virtually living in the White House for five years with President Roosevelt, running the largest global war in history.
FACTOID Sui Generis: constituting a class alone; entirely unique
Um, and he had then been secretary of state for three years. He had an unusually broad ambit, uh, and, and, in that sense, uh, really was un—a unique, uh, figure, which is why the Congress, in its wisdom, in 1950, um, amended the law the way they did. It’ll be interesting to see whether the current Congress decides to amend the law by essentially carving out yet another exception for, for General Mattis, uh, or whether they decide to, you know, revise the, the law more broadly to, uh, allow, uh, further exceptions in the future, as you were succe—uh, su-suggesting a second ago. And I think that that is a discussion that’s going on in the Congress now about whether that ought to happen or not, whether this is an outmoded, you know, idea. I would say, as someone who’s done two tours in the Pentagon, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, uh, my view is that I think it—the civil–military relationship has already got sufficient tensions built into it, um, and that’s not a suggestion that military or civilian people are good or bad; it’s just a natural tension that exists, uh, in that environment, that complicating it by putting, uh, people with recent military experience, uh, in place, uh, is, I think, an unnecessary, uh—adding an unnecessary problem, uh, to what is already a, you know, a, a difficult, uh, situation that requires careful management in the best of times.
11:58 Blackmon: I think that there is a prevailing assumption among voters and such out there that, that, oh, whatever this guy’s name, whoever he is, that the sorts of military figures that President Trump would turn to would be the, uh—would be the hot dogs, would be the guys who are ready to, to blow up anything that needs to be blown up, sort of the—whoever that, that would do the sorts of things that President Trump talked about, of the—if a Iranian vessel, uh, did a crude symbol at American soldiers, then just blow ’em up. I think that people’s assumption is that that’s who he would turn to. But that’s not who Mattis is, actually. [Edelman: No, right, absolutely not.] You know, coauthor of the counterinsurgency manual, uh, in Iraq that actually said, uh, we, we’re here to protect people, not just hunt down bad guys. Uh, uh, he’s said things like, “If in order to kill the enemy you have to kill an innocent, don’t take the shot. Don’t create more enemies than you take out by some immoral act.” I mean, that’s not the kind of brash thinking—that, that’s not the brash thinking that people might assume would be more aligned with President Trump, in a sense. So, so what do you make of that, that, that President-elect Trump turns to someone who, you know, sort of runs against type?
Edelman: Uh, my, my view is, I mean, both General Mattis and General Kelly, um, you know, uh, have seen up close, uh, and personally the horror of war. I mean, General Kelly’s a Gold Star Father.
FACTOID: Kelly’s 29 year-old Marine son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010
Um, General Mattis carries around with him the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. These are very thoughtful men who, uh, who know—who know the art of war extremely well, uh, and, if anything, uh, are likely to err on the side of wanting to avoid, uh, the use of military force, when it’s—whenever it is possible, and I think both of them are committed to the notion that if the United States maintains, uh, the, uh, strongest military in the world, uh, there is less likelihood that we will have to use it, uh, and have to use force.
FACTOID: “Mediations” include topics of duty and service by following nature
I think that’s basically the proposition that both of them are committed to. I don’t want to speak to them, but that’s certainly my view.
13:53 Blackmon: Yeah, that’s a reassuring thing, uh, in terms—somebody who’s had concerns about, about President Trump. Mattis also said during the campaign that the point—this could’ve been you—uh, this was after candidate Trump first said, um, uh, something to the degree that NATO might be an obsolete sort of organization, and the U.S. might need to pull out of it. And Mattis was quoted saying, “It’s kooky.” Uh, “It’s about as kooky as if a president were to call our allies freeloaders”. Um, “Some of those allies lost more troops in Afghanistan per capita than we have. Some of them are spending 20 percent of the national budget on defense.” So, uh, so that, that, that would—it would seem to be that, uh, nicknames aside, that Mattis, uh, uh, is someone who might be that calming influence that you were—might, might have hoped for.
Edelman: I think that comment by General Mattis is actually very interesting. I think it was aimed in two directions, not, not just at, um, candidate Trump, but also at President Obama, because of what he had said about allies in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. [Blackmon: Mm-hmm.] So I think that was—uh, he was aiming his fire in two directions.
14:53 Blackmon: Interesting. Uh, let’s talk about the—uh, about some of the foreign policy positions that, that President-elect Trump has, uh, has articulated. Uh, now, it is still—I don’t think it’s unfair to say that we still really don’t know, uh, what his views are gonna be on a lot of things, and, and what we do know comes from tweets in the middle of the night sometimes. Um, but, but let’s talk about some of those, and the notion that, that there has already been some tendency contrary to—with Mattis, um, toward a more autocratic, is the word that’s been used, uh, um, dimension to, to the way that he sees the world, this notion of, uh, being open to kind of tearing up agreements, uh, overnight. Does it make sense for a new president to say, “I’m not beholden to any of that”?
Edelman: So, le—uh, let’s—uh, there, there’s a lot in that question, so let me try and unpack it a little bit. Um, first, uh, with regard to, uh, alliances. Um, you know, President-elect Trump has made a, uh, you know, a couple of, uh, statements reaffirming his commitment to U.S. alliances. He’s had some contact with foreign leaders, including, uh, people like Prime Minister Abe of Japan, in which he has reasserted, uh, the, you know, support for America’s traditional, uh, alliances, and I think, you know, that is, uh, that is all to the good. Uh, I, I will tell you that I think there is, you know, some—I mean, I wouldn’t have put it the way he has, or the way President Obama has, but I think there is some good that’s come out of—out of this, which is to say that, um, I think, uh, our allies realize that they do need to step up their game and contribute more to the common defense. That’s a good thing. Um, I was at, uh, over last weekend, um, the Reagan National Defense Forum, uh, which is—uh, was the fourth annual forum. It was the first time, uh, we had, uh, Secretary Carter there, we had, um, uh, Vice President Cheney was, uh, an awardee, and we had a number of Members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee there, uh, as well as former officials, uh, defense industry folks, journalists, etc. We also, for the first time, had, uh, some foreign, uh, defense ministers, and the message that they delivered—uh, uh, Michael Fallon, the secretary of state defense for the United Kingdom, uh, Ine Søreide, the Norwegian defense minister, the Singaporean defense minister—the message they all delivered was, “We’ve heard from the Americans, both President Obama and President-elect Trump, loud and clear. We recognize that, you know, we need to up our contribution. Allies need to do more. But we want—we’re here to basically to say these alliances are still important, and we need U.S. leadership. Those alliances will not work, uh, unless the United States is, is prepared to lead.” So I think there’s some good that’s, you know, maybe come of this, and I think there’s maybe an opportunity to, uh, renovate the alliances a little bit, and maybe move towards greater specialization and, and, uh, uh, differentiation among allies about what their contributions are gonna be. And so there’s, I think, some opportunities here that are positive. On the Iran nuclear deal, I think there are two different questions. One question is: is the president-elect, or President Trump, when he’s sworn in—will he be bound by the terms of the agreement that, um, President Obama reached?
The answer to that question, I believe, is no, and I’ve argued that in, um, a number of op-eds with some coauthors in the past, and that’s because President Obama chose, uh, as a, a matter of convenience, uh, not to, uh, submit this, uh, agreement to the Congress for approval in any way. He chose to make it an executive agreement, uh, and therefore it is not in any way binding on, uh, you know, President Trump, uh, when he’s sworn in to continue it.
Now, the, the question is: what’s the most effective way to, um, manage that? And I think General Mattis has, uh, commented on this, as well. Given the fact that it is enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution, given the fact that, uh, it’s, uh, uh, got the interest of a number of other allies, in-including the P5, uh, three allies who are members of the P5—the UK, um, France, and the United States—uh, their interests all tied up in this, uh, it, it’s gonna require, I think, a little bit more effort and more consultation to figure out h-how to un-unwind this.
But I think that, um, it, it opens the door to a very aggressive, um, monitoring of the agreement. Uh, there have been plenty of reports about, um, the Iranians producing too much heavy water, too much, uh, LEU. I think, uh, there’s an opportunity to have much more scrutiny of this agreement. Um, and I think there’s also a, a chance that, in consultations with allies, we can start to talk about the deficiencies, the time limits that—it expires in 10 and 15 years in, in the agreement—and the things that were left out: ballistic missiles; Iran’s regional behavior. Uh, and I think the challenge for President Trump is not gonna be whether he rips up the agreement on the first day or not; it’s will he be able to, uh, come, uh, up with and put together a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Iran and the challenge it represents as it tries to exert its mastery over the entire Middle East.
20:34 Blackmon: China: there’s been a, a lot of concern about—expressed by some, uh, certainly foreign policy traditionalists across the, the spectrum, uh, that, uh, that the contact by the president-elect and the leadership of Taiwan, uh, that sort of contradicts 40 years of behavior by both Republicans and Democrats, and, uh, a larger question of, uh, uh, of what the U.S. relationship with China is going to be. What, what, what’s, what’s your read on, on all of that?
Edelman: Well, I think there’s been a certain amount of hyperventilation about all this myself. Um, uh, now, of course, I’m not a, a China hand, so I, I don’t have the, uh, sort of the, um, high degree of sensitivity that some of my, my, uh, colleagues who specialize in China have to the delicate sensitivities of the leadership in Beijing, but, uh, my view is that taking the phone call from President Tsai was not a, a particularly big deal. I, I—one would hope—uh, the part about it that is, you know, maybe a little concerning is one would hope that it was actually part of a very careful, deliberative process. I don’t mind at all that President Trump has unsettled the leadership in Beijing a little bit. That might be a good thing. But one would hope that it was the result of a careful, deliberative process, and it is part of an overall strategy and plan, uh, for, for dealing with the People’s Republic of China, not just a, you know, a one-off, um, and— [Blackmon: Or something engineered by—] Yeah. [Blackmon: —consultants or lobbyists for Taiwan.] And I think that the thing that happened, uh, afterwards that was more worrisome was the, uh, in the face of what I thought was really a relatively mild reaction from Beijing, um, the tweetstorm that it elicited, um, about currency manipulation and, and other things. I mean, it—I, I don’t think it’s a good thing for the president to be tweeting in response to every statement made by every government, and if he does he’s not gonna have any time left in his day to do anything else.
22:37 Blackmon: Aside from time management, though, what—you know, tell—maybe th-that seems obvious. Yeah, the president shouldn’t be just firing off, uh, tweets to a union leader who crit—who said that he doesn’t save all those jobs at Carrier, or, or that, um... But, but substantively, beyond the fact that it would consume all of his time, um, why does it matter? W-w-why can’t a president just say what he wants to say, whenever he wants to say it?
Edelman: Look, uh, uh, I mean, I think it’s perfectly fine for presidents to, you know, bristle at, you know, criticism from foreign leaders. I’ve been around a few (laughs) who’ve done that. But, you know, uh, some of it ought to be in the, you know, confines of the Oval, to his, uh, you know, key advisors, uh, not broadcast to the world. Uh, not—you know, not all of your first reactions or thoughts ought to be vocalized, much less, you know, uh, put out to, you know, however million followers you have on Twitter.
Blackmon: The stakes can be very significant.
Edelman: No, absolutely. And I think that’s, um—you know, that’s the problem. I—you know, I think, uh, probably the most pithy observation I’ve seen about this past election was from, uh, Salena Zito of, uh, one of the Pittsburgh newspapers, who wrote a, uh, essay in The Atlantic, in which she said, and it’s been much quoted, um, “The problem with the political class in the United States is that they took Donald Trump literally but not seriously, and the voters took him seriously but not literally.”
23:58 Blackmon: In one line, uh, here at the very end, um, you get a minute with President Trump sometime in the next couple of months, and it’s a bygones-be-bygones sort of moment, if there’s sort of any—and he says, “Ambassador, just tell me the one thing, highest priority thing, what’s the one single thing that you want—you would ask me to do today, or right this minute? What, what would that one thing be?”
Edelman: Uh, w-w-well, first, let me say I think it’s to his credit that President Trump seems to be much less, uh, animated by a spirit of vengeance towards the Never Trump folks than some of, uh, the folks around him. But, um, I, I think the most important thing is to get rid of the Budget Control Act and, um, and sequestration so that General Mattis and whoever becomes secretary of state, uh, and the national security team have, uh, a, a military second to none that can, uh, actually provide peace through strength.
Blackmon: Ambassador Eric Edelman, thanks for joining us.
Edelman: Great to be here.
Blackmon: If you’d like to join our conversations about national security, politics, the presidency—any of the central issues in American life today—go to the Miller Center Facebook page, visit MillerCenter.org, follow us on Twitter—my handle is @douglasblackmon—or keep watching us on your local PBS affiliate. Speaking of PBS affiliates. We have about 250 of them now broadcasting American Forum every week, and would like to welcome our newest partners, my old friends in the Twin Cities, at KTCI, St. Paul, Minnesota, which recently began airing American Forum every Sunday afternoon. Welcome aboard. I’m Doug Blackmon, see you next week.