National Security

Trump’s Picks Are Avoiding Obama Administration Groupthink, But May Risk Gridlock

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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Groupthink within the Obama administration’s national security ranks led to disastrous foreign policy decisions, and while it appears the incoming Trump administration may avoid the same problem, it is causing dissension within the ranks.

Obama’s first term featured the so-called “team of rivals” cabinet, predominantly made up of long-time politicos with their own ambitions. In some cases, cabinet members on the National Security Council were even Obama’s political rivals, such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who was held over from the previous Bush administration. That all changed in Obama’s second term when he purged these figures for a team of loyalists, including Secretary of State John Kerry, and lesser known figures, like former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

As David Ignatius of the Washington Post warned in 2013, the second administration was “perilously close to groupthink.” His prediction was remarkably accurate.

Trump’s picks thus far appear to more closely mirror the “team of rivals,” as opposed to Obama’s loyalists. In fact, several of his future national security picks have already expressed differing points of view on several of the president-elect’s top issues.

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for director of the CIA, said outright during his confirmation hearing Thursday he would not engage in so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” if ordered to do so by the president-elect. Trump suggested reinstating waterboarding to combat terrorism during campaign, despite the fact such tactics are now illegal. Pompeo also noted he did not believe Trump would ever order him to engage in waterboarding.

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson demurred from Trump’s claim that he would no longer defend North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in Europe if they did not fulfill their defense spending obligations. Tillerson told Sen. Bob Portman Thursday that he “would not recommend” threatening to remove defensive support to allies in order to get them to pay their dues. The U.S. commitment to defend NATO was “inviolable,” he added, promising that the U.S. would stand by the alliance, should he be confirmed.

The most notable dissenting voice in the upcoming Trump administration has been James Mattis. The former Marine Corps general differed from Trump’s positions on Iran and Russia while testifying before Senate Committee on Armed Services Thursday. Mattis strongly defended NATO, and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “trying to break” the organization.

“NATO is central to our defense,” said Mattis. “I believe the alliance must harness renewed political will to confront and walk back aggressive Russian actions and other threats to the security of its members.”

Mattis also criticized the the Iran nuclear deal, but noted that it is important the U.S continues to support it nonetheless.

“I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement — it’s not a friendship treaty,” said Mattis. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”

Mattis reportedly clashed with loyal Trump transition team officials over several Pentagon appointments, rejecting several suggested candidates. He took significant issue with Trump’s appointment of Vincent Viola, a billionaire Army veteran, to secretary of the Army, according to the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin.

“Mattis was furious. It made him suspicious of the transition team, and things devolved from there,” a source close to the transition team told Rogin.

While Mattis’ dissenting viewpoint may help prevent the groupthink seen in the Obama administration, it risks creating chaos within the National Security Council. He and former Gen. Mike Flynn, Trump’s future national security advisor, share a less than friendly history, as Mattis once removed Flynn from his position at U.S. Central Command. Flynn and Mattis are most at risk of clashing over Russia, as Flynn has taken a noticeably more friendly stance toward the Kremlin.

While the Trump cabinet’s divergent viewpoints may help prevent the unabashed group think that led to Obama’s disastrous policies in the Middle East, Russia and elsewhere, it will be up to the president-elect to avoid ideological gridlock within his cabinet.

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