Reading the tea leaves of US President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team, experts see a common thread in national security and foreign policy appointments pivoting in the direction of escalation in the war against Daesh and a harder line on Iran.
As Trump zeroes in on key foreign policy posts at the State Department and the Pentagon, the front-runners for the first being former Gov. Mitt Romney and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and for Secretary of Defense retired Gen. James Mattis — a shift to the right is expected in the Middle East.
Loyalists vs. rivals
The Trump appointments so far are retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser, Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff, Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General with Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist. These are “rewards for the loyalists,” says Josh Kraushaar, Politics Editor at the National Journal.
Kraushaar explains that Trump so far is “rewarding the small group of supporters who stood by him through the campaign. The Secretary of State choice will be a key test of whether he is willing to bring in a prominent critic and establishment-minded Republican like Romney or whether he will continue to rely on loyalists if he chooses Giuliani.”
Romney, who flew from Hawaii to meet with Trump for almost 90 minutes on Saturday, was one of the president-elect’s fiercest critics during the campaign, calling him a “fraud” and a “phony.” Naming him as Secretary of State would unify Republican ranks and foster a more balanced foreign policy approach than the one heard from Trump during the campaign. In 2012, Romney called Russia the “number one geopolitical foe” and is a proponent of free trade — two positions that would calm NATO allies and the government in China.
Nicholas Heras, the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), suspects that Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, might resemble in style current Secretary of State John Kerry. “He wouldn’t be that dissimilar as Secretary Kerry has been — both men have competent staff, like to be front and center, and to drive policy.”
Another name leading the pool for Department of Defense is retired Gen. Mattis who earned praise from Trump himself on Sunday. Heras, who briefed Mattis in the past, describes him as “an avid reader, he asks lot of questions, and is very thoughtful.”
Mattis’ 44-year record of service in the US military earned him the name “Mad Dog,” for “trying to avoid getting entangled in war but when you are engaged, you fight to win,” says Heras.
Daesh and Iran
On foreign policy, and specifically the Middle East, both Kraushaar and Heras agree that the Trump transition is an omen of more hawkish policies in the fight against Daesh and in addressing Iran’s regional role.
Kraushaar sees the biggest shift from US President Barack Obama to his successor “will be an increased urgency in defeating ISIS, both rhetorically and in its overseas engagement.” The appointment of Flynn, Pompeo and possibly Mattis “also means that the new administration will be taking a much harder line with Iran, viewing very skeptically the nuclear deal President Obama struck.”
Hours before his nomination as the new head of the CIA, Pompeo tweeted: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
While the current team holds different views on Russia, “one common theme between Bannon, Flynn and Mattis is their concern about the threat Islamist terrorism poses to Western civilization,” explains Kraushaar.
Heras sees in the anticipated uptick in the counterterrorism fight a “return to the Bush era and the global war on terrorism.” He explains the Trump team mindset as follows: “If the US should be engaged in the Middle East, it should be so to counter the threat to the homeland by extremist organizations, specifically ISIS and Al-Qaeda ... without necessarily deploying ground troops.”
Confronting Iran has also emerged as a consensus among the Trump appointments. Heras notes that “both Flynn and Mattis have harsh experience in the Iraq war, seeing US service members getting killed by Iranian-backed militias, and express strong concerns and desires to confront Iran where necessary.”
A major dilemma here would be addressing Syria and how to “square the circle of competing against Iran regionally but potentially working with Russia and the Assad regime of whom Iran is a major partner in confronting Al-Qaeda and ISIS.”
A distinctive mark of the new US administration will also be the role of Congress where a Republican majority has control of both chambers.
“The Senate could play a stronger role in actual foreign policy in decisions of war and peace,” expects Heras. Already Republican Sen. Rand Paul has sent the Trump team a warning about nominating John Bolton for Secretary of State while Sen. John McCain has signaled readiness for legal confrontation if the Trump team restores harsh interrogation techniques and methods of torture.
For now, Trump’s approach to the new Cabinet is to reach outside the campaign box and show openness to pragmatic nominees in steering the US diplomatically and militarily while prioritizing the fight against Daesh and curbing Iran in the region.