Trump shakes hands with Reagan
Credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library/Wikimedia Commons

While serving as the State Department’s desk officer for Afghanistan in the ‘80s, I was tasked with drafting a memo updating the President on how the U.S.-backed insurgency against Soviet occupation forces was going.

Under a tight deadline set by the National Security Council (NSC) staff, I drafted a succinct two-page memorandum from then-Secretary of State George Shultz to President Ronald Reagan, duly cleared by a myriad of offices. The Secretary signed it, and it went to the White House. The NSC staff bounced it back: “Make it shorter,” they commanded. So I cut the memo in half – to one page describing a complex guerrilla war involving seven disparate mujahideen groups combating 125,000 Soviet troops with lethal aid provided by Washington, Pakistan and Arab states; a vigorous global diplomatic offensive against Moscow; and the humanitarian catastrophe of over 5 million Afghans forced to flee their country as refugees.

Off this abbreviated memo went back to the White House. The NSC bounced it again: make it shorter. This had us scratching our collective heads, utterly puzzled. A senior department official called the National Security Advisor to get to the bottom of the repeated rejections. Word came back verbally: the President likes things short and simple. Write the memo “as if you were writing it for your mother,” we were told. So, in under 300 words, we endeavored to explain to President Reagan one of our most important and most complex foreign policy issues.

Was the President indeed struggling with senility as the rumors had it? Or was he such an intellectual lightweight that he was incapable of reading a two-page memo on a raging U.S.-fed proxy war against the other superpower? I think we underestimated Reagan. In retrospect, we see that he was a big picture man who let his subordinates sweat the details. He kept his eye on the ball, avoiding distractions.

Can we say the same for President Donald Trump? Are we underestimating him? Will we find that he is a leader in the Reagan mold? The unerring captain of the ship of state who sets the course and leaves the rest to his crew? I fear not. And here’s why.

During the Republican national convention in July 1980, the Republican Party issued a campaign platform outlining a detailed and comprehensive set of policies covering domestic and national security issues. Foreign policy objectives were neatly broken down into nine categories ranging from geographical regions to foreign aid and trade policy. Defense policy, centered on “peace through strength,” likewise succinctly addressed elements encompassing issues spanning nuclear force posture to the defense budget. The Soviet Union, of course, was viewed as the principal threat. Worthy of note was the Republicans’ goal to “make our intelligence community a reliable and productive instrument of national policy.” President Reagan, who ran under the slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again,” named a national security team that was aligned with his muscular vision of the United States in the world. Over the next eight years, they loyally carried out his policies, the Iran-Contra scandal at the time still a question mark. Reagan’s national security policies were concrete and disciplined.

Donald Trump’s national security vision, by contrast, has been an incoherent hodge-podge of largely ill-thought-out and scattered nostrums, stream-of-consciousness musings and itinerant tirades. Last April, I took a romp into Trumpland to try to ascertain the then-candidate’s worldview.

Former 9/11 Commission executive director and State Department counselor Philip Zelikow told me I was wasting my time, noting, “Trump’s appeal is social and cultural. It is not ideological. So positions on ‘issues’ are just vehicles for communicating an attitude.” Zelikow asserted that “there is actually no way of knowing what Trump would really do about any particular issue as president. He doesn’t know himself.” Tea Party pundit Glenn Beck echoed this conviction, telling CNN, “He is winging this entire election…he’s just making it up as he goes along.”

At that time, the only foreign policy issue laid out by the Trump team on their website was “U.S.-China Trade Reform.” This has since been expanded, but is spare in comparison with Reagan’s 1980 platform. Eight of the eleven foreign policy points deal with ISIS and terrorism, the rest paying lip service to rebuilding the military and restricting immigration. Interestingly, mention is made of the need to “enhance and improve intelligence and cyber capabilities.” The official White House site’s offerings on the issues are even more skeletal. Trump’s “America First Foreign Policy,” guided by Reagan’s “peace through strength,” encompasses building up the military, defeating ISIS and hunkering down on foreign trade.

Trump’s inaugural address paints a zero-sum world in which the U.S. defends allies at a cost to its own security, gives foreign aid at the expense of its own infrastructure development, and allows other countries to steal our companies and jobs as a result of bad trade deals. At the same time that he sounds a neo-isolationist note with “the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” Trump then pledges to “reinforce old alliances and form new ones.” And, again, he vows to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism “completely from the face of the Earth.”

Contrast Trump’s dystopian view of the country and the world with Reagan’s first inaugural, with its declaration that “We have every right to dream heroic dreams.” And contrast Trump’s chaotic start as president with Reagan’s methodical setting forth of his domestic agenda. While Reagan reinforced alliances, Trump has dissed NATO as “obsolete” and insulted Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in his first days in office. Reagan engaged with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, yet ramped up pressures that hastened the Soviet Union’s collapse. Trump, on the other hand, has inexplicably embraced authoritarian Russian president Vladimir Putin even after it was discovered the latter meddled in the U.S. elections.

But lack of a well-defined national security doctrine may not trip him up as much as the starkly divergent worldviews between him and his national security team and possibly among the latter members as well. Take, for example, the wildly discordant views of Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the top officials of Trump’s intended Cabinet on the subject of Russia.

Ousted as Defense Intelligence Agency Director by President Obama, Flynn, like his new boss Trump, has shown a curious affinity for Russia. His communications with Russian officials reportedly are the subject of an FBI-led six-agency investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

On the other hand, in contrast to President Trump’s consistent and puzzling admiration for Vladimir Putin, Defense Secretary James Mattis has named Russia a “strategic competitor” whose behavior “we must confront.” And in contradiction to Trump’s scorn of NATO, Mattis told the Senate, “NATO is central to our defense.” Likewise, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson told the Senate that the U.S. is “not likely to ever be friends” with Moscow and that “Russia must be held accountable for its actions” in Ukraine and elsewhere. CIA Director Mike Pompeo made similar statements defying Trump’s views. It will interesting to see how pro-Russia Flynn and Trump’s DoD, State and CIA chiefs deal with each other on thorny foreign policy issues involving Moscow.

When a new administration assumes office, the White House issues presidential policy directives to the foreign affairs agencies. These constitute their marching orders. An example is a now declassified top secret National Security Decision Directive signed by President Reagan in March 1985 laying out a policy to further tighten the screws on the Soviets in Afghanistan. On a more macro level, each agency produces a comprehensive strategy document. And the White House wraps it all up with its National Security Strategy paper.

What happens, however, when a president talks loosely about abandoning the four decades-old One China Policy? Or, ditching NATO? Or, going on a nuclear weapons building binge? Or, denying Russia is a strategic or cyber threat? Or, repeatedly lambastes his intelligence community, insinuating it can’t be trusted? In other words, how is policy made when the commander in chief takes positions diametrically opposite from those enunciated by his national security team?

There are two scenarios. One is that Trump evolves into a more or less flamboyant figurehead president who leaves the actual running of the government to Vice President Mike Pence and others. The other is chaos and confusion. Borrowing a couple of catchy slogans (“Make America Great Again” and “Peace Through Strength”) from Ronald Reagan is no substitute for a carefully conceived policy framework. The coming policy distillation process will reveal how things will shake out in the Trump administration. Fasten your seat belts.

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Follow James on Twitter @JamesLBruno. James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.