What did Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama think of each other?
0:53 Douglas Blackmon: Welcome back to American Forum. I’m Doug Blackmon. A few weeks before the 2016 presidential election when polls suggested that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was headed toward a big victory, one of the prevailing debates in foreign policy circles was whether and how a Clinton administration would depart from the policies of President Barack Obama. That’s not so relevant anymore of course. Instead one of the biggest questions facing the U.S. right now is what President-electt Donald Trump’s overarching strategy will be for the U.S. role in the world exactly what legacy he inherits from the Obama-Clinton era and what parts he will seek to reverse or expand.
FACTOID: The Question: How radically is U.S. foreign policy changing?
Our guest today is Mark Landler who has covered foreign policy for the New York Times since the first inauguration of Barack Obama. He has reported for the times from around the world and is the author of the recent book Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power. Thanks for joining us.
Mark Landler: It’s great to be here Doug.
1:52 Blackmon: So there’s been a lot of news over the last few weeks. But at this stage of observing the transition into the new Trump administration, how radical a departure do you anticipate from the Obama years? How obvious will that be? And is that happening in a coherent way?
Landler: Well, you know, one of the points that I made very early on right after the election was because that President Trump, President Elect Trump is such a tabula rasa because we know so little about him and his positions that a lot of the direction that the administration would take would depend on who he would pick for these top positions. So I think even more than a regular transition the cabinet appointments are very very important, potentially revealing. The record so far is sort of a mixed one honestly. He named as his national security advisor Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, a former head of the defense intelligence agency and a man with extremely strong views that are overriding national security problem in Islamic terrorism, and specifically ISIS.
And he would certainly reorient what had been a much more horizontal foreign policy under President Obama and really make one that’s very much directed at combating the radical Islamic terrorist threat to use the phrase that Trump and General Flynn used. So I think in that regard there could be a very stark difference. On the other hand, if you go further down the cabinet and look at some of the other choices you have General Jim Mattis who has just been named as defense secretary.
FACTOID: Mattis will be highest ranking officer ever to lead Pentagon
General Mattis worked in the Obama administration as did General Flynn but General Mattis, I think, would probably be much more of a mainstream figure. He was very hawkish on Iran and that was one area where he and the Obama White House somehow got into conflict. But in general he would be much more of a mainstream figure.
3:50 Blackmon: There have been 3,000 killed as a result of terrorism since 2001 I think. And so that we end up with so much of our foreign policy is driven by, and now in particular, by one group of people either by ISIS or the Islamic state, this one in the grand scheme of things that argue a relatively a small group of people but who do particularly horrible things seems to have such a, such an extraordinarily large influence over the international conduct of the United States and every way and in this change it sounds like you see that potentially being exaggerated even further.
Landler: I would. And I think you raised an important point just now because when you talked about the difference between the number of deaths from gun violence versus terrorism, President Obama makes that point over and over again and the reason he does that is because I think he’s trying to introduce a sense of proportion to the issue. Terrorism is a scourge, it’s an evil, terrorists need to be hunted down and he would argue he has done that strenuously. But he also wants the country and society as a whole not to so magnify the problem that it becomes a distorting problem. And this goes, by the way, you may recall there was a debate throughout the campaign about the use of the phrase radical “Islamic terrorism.” President Obama does not use that phrase. Hillary Clinton generally did not use it either. Donald Trump and the people around Donald Trump us it and feel it needs to be hammered home repeatedly and this goes to a more fundamental difference. General Flynn and some of the other people around Donald Trump believe that Islam itself, Islam the religion is to blame for militancy and violence. That our conflict is not just with a small number of militants it is actually with Islam itself [Blackmon: A clash of civilizations.] A clash of civilizations. Umm, President Obama thinks that’s a deeply dangerous point of view and deeply counterproductive in the sense that if you’re at war with Islam, it almost guarantees that you can’t work constructively with other Muslim countries to combat the Islamic state. Whether it’s the Saudis, whether it’s umm, ah, you know, the Jordanians any others. So the Obama administration has stayed away from this language and has always made a distinction between Islam and militancy. That distinction will be blurred in a Trump presidency. And I think that’s a vital difference in approach to counterterrorism and foreign policy more broadly.
6:27 Blackmon: It’s also interesting that ah, that General Mattis who you refer to as being a more moderate figure ah has been a who now will be the defense secretary, but and who counter, who co-authored the counterinsurgency manual with General David Petraeus in Iraq and very much so adopted the position there that their duty of American forces was to protect civilians as much as it was to hunt down and kill the enemies and there was a quote from him I happen to have here. This is General Mattis saying, “be polite,” speaking to other soldiers, “be polite, be professional but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” That’s the extreme version or the harsher. But then on this question of who do you work with he said, “a country that arms Stalin to defeat Hitler can certainly work alongside enemies of al-Qaeda to defeat al-Qaeda.” So maybe Mattis would maybe someone who would say we have to have some friends in the Muslim world if we’re going to defeat the bad guys in the world. That sounds like a baked in potential clash right there between those two top advisors.
Landler: Indeed, and this goes to a broader theme of this new administration which is the President-elect has shown a real preference for and comfort with generals, retired generals. But these are retired generals who are also known for being, for speaking truth to power, for being very opinionated. General Mattis was eased into retirement four months early from his last command, central command. Because he was viewed as very hawkish on Iran and very willing to be open and vocal about how hawkish he was. Ah, General Kelly who’s going to be the nominee for secretary of, of Homeland Security is a general who’s taken very strong positions on the detainees in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba umm, at times putting himself at odds with the White House.
FACTOID: Kelly’s 29 year-old marine son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010
And again has spoken out very forcefully about it. And likewise General Flynn has made the argument that it was his belief that the administration was not doing enough to degrade the Islamic state that led to him being fired at the Defense Intelligence Agency. So the President-elect has brought all these strong minded fairly vocal generals into his cabinet. The question is, how well will they do within the context of jobs where they’re meant to implement someone else’s policy or are we in for a rocky period which may include a couple of these guys taking an early exit. And there’s a risk of that.
8:54 Blackmon: The team of rivals or a team of all stars who all want the ball all the time. Yeah, exactly. And Mattis also if I recall right ah another notable thing about his appointment was that during the campaign last year when President, now President-elect Trump first made the comments about maybe that NATO was outdated or should be pulled away from and General Mattis came up publicly and said that was “kooky.” That was the term. Ah, and so I think it’s going to be very interesting to see.
Landler: The interesting thing about General Mattis too ah is that he is a strong opponent to the use of torture or what they euphemistically enhanced interrogation techniques. And he in his first meeting with the President-Elect was clear about that and apparently made enough of an impact that Donald Trump came out later in an interview with the editorial board of my newspaper and said that General Mattis had told him that in his experience when you go into ah see a guy with a couple of packs of cigarettes and a six pack you get better results than torturing him. And that that had made an impact on the President-elect. So it’s also true to say that these generals may be influential. They may also find themselves occasionally at odds with the President-elect but they may also have an impact on some fairly important policies.
10:10 Blackmon: One of the criticisms that I find reasonable of American foreign policy writ large over the last 25 or 30 years across Democrats and Republicans has been a kind of increasing incoherence overall. We support folks in Afghanistan in their struggle against the Russians you know 35 years ago, you know 30, 35 years ago and then walk away as soon as the outcome we were hoping for is achieved. But this sort of in and out, in and out we have been accused of similar sorts of things in Iraq and Afghanistan and in much more recent years lots of planning for the interventions not much planning for the post interventions but sort of general impatience and coherence to American foreign policy. Now we look at a transition where some of the signature promises of the incoming administration are to immediately tear up some of the signature accomplishments of the previous one. The Iran nuclear deal being maybe one of the most prominent, climate change agreement was arrived at. These were historic events for the people who supported them. But a) is, is it a problem for a new president to come in and say no, I’m going to, we’re going to unwind these as fast as we can. And b) can the new president really do that?
Landler: Well, let me answer b) first because it’s actually not at all clear. In the case of the Iran nuclear deal ah, that was a deal involving it was a multiparty deal.
FACTOID: Iran Nuclear Agreement called on Iran to reduce nuclear arsenal
It involved our European allies, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Iranians. The danger with “ripping up” that deal is that we would be the only ones ripping it up. We would in effect be stepping out of that deal. The other parties would likely abide by it. So you would have this situation where you would incentive the Iranians to start, to restart their nuclear program in a very aggressive way. Umm, you would also have the other parties to the deal continuing to derive commercial advantages from their business ties with the Iranians and the United States would be isolated. Neither reaping the benefit of the nuclear program being put into mothballs nor reaping the benefit of any commercial or investment ties with Iran. So I think that when Donald Trump sits down and begins to look through the dynamics of that deal he may have second thoughts. And he’s already begun to strike a slightly more modulated message. You know he’s not necessarily saying rip it up he’s saying renegotiate. And the truth is Iranians aren’t that happy with some of the aspects of this deal. It is conceivable you could revisit some of this and try to extract something more on your side in return for giving them something more on their side. The Paris Climate Change Agreement is, is another one where it is not as a legal matter difficult for him to withdraw the United States from that arrangement. Umm, but it might be difficult for him to make the case umm, for why he’s doing it.
FACTOID: Paris Climate Change Agreement went into effect November 2016
In some peculiar ways there’s a slight echo of Barack Obama in what Donald Trump says. Donald Trump says, for example, we should be out of the nation building business. We have no business being in Iraq. Of course his personal record on Iraq is much more questionable then he may now maintain. He argues he was always opposed to it. Umm, he argues that we should stop deal- tolerating free riders in places like the Middle East. Countries that rely on us to provide protection and defense but don’t offer us much in return. Well guess what? President Obama has made a similar case in a very famous interview in the Atlantic magazine with Jeffrey Goldberg. He talked about free riders. Umm, so on that level he and Trump have some of the same themes. There is some of the same suspicion about the U.S. bearing the burden that’s born historically in the post-World War II era. There’s some of the suspicions that countries are playing us. That they’re not paying our fair share.
And so I think that as Donald Trump begins to formulate a foreign policy, it will be fascinating to see whether he really stays on the almost a maximal Obama like view of the world. Much more exaggerated. Obama does believe in alliances. He does believe in an American role. But if Trump takes some of Obama’s suspicion and really maximizes it or whether he becomes president and realizes the realities of the world, he heads more in a traditional direction. You know, reaffirming NATO. Yes, we do care about the NATO alliance. Reaffirming our alliances in East Asia. Working with the Sunni-Muslim countries in the Middle East. I have a hunch that as time goes on he may fall back into that model but I can’t say that I know for sure.
14:48 Blackmon: The conventional narrative of the Obama foreign policy has been that he arrived in the office somewhat inexperienced, surrounded himself with people who were had expertise but were not the kind of seasoned hands of Washington that some prior administrations brought in from either side. And as a result of that there was something of a chaotic approach through a lot of the part of the administration. Secretary Clinton maybe was the force of the center of gravity that, you know, where there was gravity missing in other ways. But is it possible that actually what we saw was the gradual evolution of a relatively coherent multidimensional approach that said let’s not put troops in harm’s way unless there’s absolutely going to be a good result but in the meantime yeah, let’s blow up everybody we need to blow up if we can identify where they are using drones.
Landler: I think you’re absolutely right. And I do think that if the president were sitting in this chair would argue that it’s entirely coherent. That what drones and other covert methods allow you to do is to avoid any risk of escalation because it a covert clandestine operation you have control over it and it is extremely pinpointed targeted.
FACTOID: Number of Pentagon drones grew 40x between 2002 and 2010
If you go in with a more conventional approach, deploy troops in whatever country, it’s much harder to control the slippery slope question looms much larger. The end game is much harder to figure out. You suddenly find yourself not just hunting down terrorists but working to set up a new government then pretty soon you’re setting up schools and courts and helping farmers plant crops as we did in Afghanistan. And so I think the president would argue that in fact what he discovered, and I think he would acknowledge this after he took office, is that the drones and the covert programs gave him this ability to wage a war against terrorists without it being a war he couldn’t control. So I would argue that he would say it’s less a contradiction then a very wise use of the tools he had available to him to try to make that, you know, to try to keep us out of open ended conventional military commitments. And that, by the way, is where I think Hillary Clinton would be more willing to have gone the conventional route though she also believed in the use of covert ah, methods. She was not opposed to them. She approved the bin Laden raid for example. She approved drone strikes. Her issue was that she thought in some countries drone strikes did a lot of diplomatic damage and made her life more complicated.
17:20 Blackmon: What’s the reason that Donald Trump would not pick up on that? What would be the argument from some of these advisors to say no sir, that’s inadequate, you’re going to have to gear up for much more muscular approach to some of these issues. Or would a Flynn would someone accept that that’s a reasonable degree of action?
Landler: I think Flynn would argue that the threat from the Islamic state is so great, ah, that we have not done enough to degrade or demolish or destroy them.
And he would call for more radical measures, heavier bombing raids I don’t know what Flynn would say specifically on the question of deploying ground troops. President-elect Trump has been a little bit all over the map on this issue. You’ll recall that he said during the campaign, he does not want to start a new Iraq war. He does not want to send troops into a new Middle East conflict. On the other hand, in one of the Republican debates he quoted a general as having told him that 20 to 30 thousand ground troops in Syria and Iraq would really do the job against ISIS. So he himself, there’s not a lot of internal coherence in his position. And a lot of people have said of Donald Trump that he often repeats what the last person told him. Umm, I do think that as a practical matter he’ll probably discover also, like President Obama did and President Bush before him, that he likes drones. He finds them useful. I’m sure he’ll use them probably as avidly as President Obama did. The question just is given this existential threat that his advisors have built around the Islamic state, will he have to go a step further. And if he does, what would that step look like and would it, in fact, lead him into making the kinds of military commitments that he ran against as a candidate.
19:06 Blackmon: I think that it’s also interesting to contemplate the possibility, the very real possibility, that by the time of the inauguration, certainly a few months after the inauguration, it could well be the case that there is a running story about the continuing general success of Iraqi forces supported by American and coalition forces attacking Islamic states. Mosel may well have been declared to be liberated by sometime in the next few months. The attack on RAQQA become a much more significant thing. So you could have a sort of success scenario even bigger from the current approach to things. But then if things were to go in the opposite direction, I think that’s the really interesting moment that if suddenly President Trump is faced with what appear to be setbacks on his watch, how would he then react to a recommendation that, that, ok we need to put three divisions in, or we need to go back in big to back up these folks because we can’t lose this ground again.
Landler: It depends largely on the people around him and the kind of advice he’s going to get. But in that regard, umm, I’d mention not just the Syria/Iraq theater but also Afghanistan where remember we have roughly 10,000 troops there. Things are not going particularly well. The central government is under quite a bit of pressure from the Taliban who’ve made these gains, reconquered a lot of territory and there’s also some of intelligence that suggests that the Islamic state has a foothold there as well.
Umm, and so I would be very interested to see what General Mattis, General Flynn, and others advise him to do in Afghanistan. The typical military recommendation in Afghanistan has been more troops. Ah, so I wonder whether that’s an area where President Trump may feel obliged to make more of an impact. I do think it’s also worth noting though that not all of the generals have always pushed for more troops. In fact, in the Obama administration the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff for much of the administration was General Martin Dempsey who actually advised strongly against the no fly zone in Syria.
Also was not enthusiastic about intervening in Libya as part of a NATO operation. So it’s not just the generals are habitually a pro military force, they’re not. It’s more complicated than that. Umm, but the reason I think it’s so hard to predict is it will depend on which of these advisors emerges as the most influential. It will depend on where their view is of where the real threat is. Whether it’s in Iraq, in Syria, whether it’s in Afghanistan. So again as with many things with President Trump it’s really anybody’s guess.
22:03 Blackmon: Yeah, I’ve had this vision of over the last few weeks of that there’s something very similar between not a tweet and a drone strike. Those don’t seem parallel to me. But a tweet and a cruise missile strike actually seem very similar. Ah, and seem like the sort of thing that a frustrated president that feels insulted or thinks that the United States has been insulted by some terrible thing that it’s a very easy thing to do. President Clinton got a lot of heat for his predilection for let’s just drop a cruise missile in on those bad guys and make a symbolic gesture whether we take anything out strategically or not. Umm, I won’t be surprised if we begin to see some of that kind of late night urgent calls for a big explosion in a particular place.
Landler: I was going to say the tweets often come in the small hours of the morning and they make journalist lives very complicated and that will be the case with cruise missile strike the difference being the stakes are so much greater.
22:55 Blackmon: But so, what’s been your reaction to the, to Trump’s ah criticism of the media and whatever it might suggest for what’s coming and the back and forth on it? Ah, is it as big a deal as people have acted like it is?
Landler: I think it is. Ah, I think some of the things he said during the campaign were really quite problematic and I mean discussing whether it’s time to revisit libel law, umm talking about investigating the tax payments of Jeff Bezos the owner of The Washington Post. I mean this sort of brings in a sort of level of kind of government intimidation of the press that we haven’t seen in this country for a long time. It’s sort of Nixonian. We hope that President Trump will continue to talk to us and the people around him will. But it is also possible he will make use of some other ways to get the message out. And lastly I’ll point out, he’s got a pretty powerful way with his Twitter account. He can use his Twitter account to bypass all of us right, center, or left and go straight to the American public.
23:57 Blackmon: But if the president of the United States the next president asks you give me one piece of advice that is really important for me to hear, what would that be?
Landler: Continue giving me interviews? [laughter] I actually probably would would resist giving him too much advice because I think when you have the the brief exposure you have to the U.S. president you ought to be the one asking the questions. But look, I do believe all kidding aside that he ought to continue speaking to the mainstream media, he ought to give us access. I generally believe that administrations who try to hide everything and cut the media out usually it’s really not that successful. And they often, I think, find success when they give us a little more access. Now that isn’t to say that every official in the administration should leak like crazy. That happens in some administrations and it causes a lot of trouble. But I think having a relatively open door I think generally is to the benefit of the administration and that would be my advice to the extent that I would be in the advice giving business. Which I’m definitely not.
Blackmon: Mark Landler, New York Times. Thanks for being here.
Landler: Thanks so much for having me Doug.
Blackmon: The book is Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power. 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. Our guest today is @marklandler. Or keep watching us on one of 250 PBS affiliates across the country. I’m Doug Blackmon. See you next week.