Editor's Note: Below is an institutional research note written by Hedgeye National Security analyst General Dan Christman. To read more institutional research email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite historically unequalled turmoil in West Wing staffing over the last month, there has been one little-noticed but reassuring interpersonal relationship in the midst of this cauldron: the bond between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
The very tight alignment between these two, as well as with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), General Joe Dunford, is a welcomed "guard rail" for U.S. foreign and security policy; their statements in the wake of Trump's "fire and fury" rhetoric last week on North Korea gave both markets and key allies welcomed reassurance that the U.S. is not careening towards nuclear Armageddon.
Further, while random presidential tweets and statements continue to roil our security relationships, General John Kelly appears to be stabilizing the White House staff. Together with the Tillerson/Mattis/Dunford bonding, this has been one of the most encouraging developments during weeks of staffing and tweeting turmoil.
In the recent past, examples of this tight bureaucratic alignment have been few and far between; and when agency principles differ (Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, for example, during Bush43’s first term), the down-sides are acute.
But when the players are aligned, it’s powerful: JCS Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, SECDEF Bob Gates, and SECSTATE Condi Rice were "seamless" in their articulation of U.S. policy during the second half of Bush43’s Presidency; and from the 90’s, JCS Chairman General John Shalikashvili, SECDEF Bill Perry, and SECSTATES Warren Christopher/Madeline Albright moved U.S. security policy forward, especially in the Balkans, despite intense White House distractions during the Clinton years.
However, bureaucratic alignment can carry the country just so far if the Commander-in-Chief is distracted, impulsive, or uninterested in pressing global developments.
The Middle East is a perfect example, where, despite SECSTATE/SECDEF/CJCS agreeing on the overarching strategy, Sunni "family quarrels" have been aggravated by the president; Qatar boycotts, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are the unfortunate Trump legacy.
Or consider Latin America, where regional action on Venezuela (e.g., through OAS condemnation – an important marker for the Venezuelan military) has been stymied by a half-dozen tiny Caribbean nations like St. Vincent and Grenadines; an involved U.S. president would have made a difference – and still can, beyond just sanctioning Venezuelan President Maduro and his inner circle of cronies.
Perhaps most importantly, on North Korea, if the goal is to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table (the current objective, judging from SECSTATE Tillerson's comments while touring the Pacific region), more than just UN resolutions will be needed; for a starter, North Korean workers employed in states friendly to the U.S. – in Africa and Middle East – must be sent home; the president personally has to step up and, if necessary, strong-arm reluctant friends who countenance funding North Korea through guest worker remittances.
One hopes the close Tillerson/Mattis/Dunford alignment continues, and that HR McMaster remains as national security advisor. But these key personalities and working relationships by themselves won’t achieve our security objectives; General Kelly has to squash West Wing squabbles, and the president – with some Kelly encouragement – has to learn to suppress emotions and begin to engage substantively in foreign policy development and execution. With Pyongyang so far, it's been all about emotion.
In the end, U.S. credibility is the only deterrent measure that counts. As former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross wrote recently in the WSJ, “Good statecraft requires making it unacceptable to say no to the U.S.” “John Kelly,” to paraphrase from the Simon and Garfunkel song, Mrs. Robinson, “our Nation turns its lonely eyes to you!”