Someday this White House will face a sudden, immediate and severe foreign-policy crisis. It’s almost a miracle it hasn’t happened already. George W. Bush had 9/11 less than eight months into his tenure; John F. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs three months into his presidency and the Cuban missile crisis the following year. In two years Donald Trump has faced some turbulence, but not a full-fledged crisis.
Such good fortune won’t continue forever. I sometimes ask past and present officials of this administration their thoughts on a crisis, and how the White House would handle one. They are concerned.
What might such a crisis look like? History resides in both the unexpected and the long-predicted. Russia moves against a U.S. ally, testing Washington’s commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty; a coordinated cyber action by our adversaries takes down the American grid; China, experiencing political unrest within a background of a slowing economy, decides this is a good time to move on Taiwan; someone bombs Iran’s missile sites; Venezuela explodes in violence during a military crackdown; there’s an accidental launch somewhere.
Maybe it will be a wild and deliberate act that brings trouble, maybe not. The historian Margaret MacMillan said a few years ago in a radio interview: “I think we should never underestimate the sheer role of accident.”
What does it take to handle a grave crisis successfully, beyond luck?
Everything depends on personnel, process and planning. The president and his top advisers have to work closely, with trust and confidence, quickly apprehending the shape of the challenge and its implications. There must be people around him with wisdom, judgment, experience. They must know their jobs and be able to execute them under pressure. Clear lines of communication are key between both individuals and agencies. The president and his advisers have to maintain high focus yet pace themselves—you never know how long a crisis will last. They would have to keep their eyes on the million moving pieces, military and diplomatic, that comprise a strategy. As Navy veteran JFK said during the missile crisis, “There’s always some poor son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word.”
How would this White House handle a grave crisis? It is right to feel particular concern. We know from every first-person account, from the histories, memoirs and journalism, that it’s a White House frequently at war. They don’t get along, they leak, they don’t trust each other. There is unusually high turnover, a constantly changing cast of characters, a lack of deep experience. During the Berlin airlift, thought at the time to be the height of the Cold War, Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who’d been Army chief of staff during World War II, was asked how worried he was. “I’ve seen worse,” he replied. He had. No one around this president has seen worse. When Jim Mattis, John Kelly and H.R. McMaster left the administration, a cumulative 123 years of military and diplomatic experience left with them.
The president is famously impulsive, uninterested in deep study, not systematic in his thinking. His recently leaked schedules give no sign he spends a lot of time forging deeper relationships with advisers and agency heads on whom one day a great deal may depend. There is a marked lack of trust between the intelligence community and the White House—and intelligence is front and center during a crisis. The National Security Council is not fully staffed.
What would happen if they suddenly faced heavy history? “No administration is ready for its first crisis,” says Richard Haass, who was a member of George H.W. Bush’s NSC and is author of “A World in Disarray.” “What you learn is that the machinery isn’t adequate, or people aren’t ready.” First crises trigger reforms of procedures so that second ones are better handled. “This administration is not populated by people who’ve been through a crisis of the first order.” Mr. Haass notes that the national security adviser must see himself not only as counselor to the president but a coordinator of the interagency process. He’s got to make sure it works.
There is no way, really, to simulate a crisis, because you don’t know what’s coming, and key people are busy doing their regular jobs. And all administrations, up until the point they’re tested, tend to be overconfident.
What can they do to be readier? Think, study, talk and plan.
For a modern example of good process, personnel and management, there is the Cuban missile crisis. Because of its nature—two nuclear powers poised eye to eye—the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The threat of miscalculation was ever present in JFK’s mind. He feared a so-called spasm response—a knee-jerk reaction from Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev if he felt cornered or provoked. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss says “a big part of Kennedy’s job was to keep an eye on every aspect, big and small—where planes are flying, where troops are moving”—so that Krushchev “could get no false impression.” Kennedy had learned during the Bay of Pigs disaster that a president can’t do it alone. He created an executive committee of a dozen trusted advisers to help him achieve consensus and devise strategy. “He needed expert help to ride herd on the bureaucracy, including the military bureaucracy.” He often absented himself so members weren’t tempted to tailor their advice to his perceived preferences. In time he brought in Congress. House Majority Whip Hale Boggs was famously summoned by a note in a bottle dropped from an military helicopter as he fished on the Gulf of Mexico. Personal emissaries were sent to Paris, Bonn and London. When former Secretary of State Dean Acheson met with Charles de Gaulle, the latter famously waved away photographic proof of the Soviet missile sites. A great nation like America would not act without proof, he said.
“It was,” says Mr. Beschloss, “a triumph of management.”
He notes that President Trump doesn’t seem to think homing in on details is a big part of his job: “For one who touts himself as a spectacular manager, he hasn’t gotten beyond the idea ‘I alone can fix it.’”
It would be good to know people in the administration are regularly thinking about all this.
They need to repair the breach with the intelligence community. They need to see to it that a serious NSC process is produced, and all positions filled, preferably with experienced professionals for whom the next crisis is not their first one.
It might be good to have regular situation-room meetings on what-ifs, and how to handle what-ifs, and to have deep contingency planning with intelligence, military and civilian leaders discussing scenarios. “Put yourself in a position,” says Mr. Haass, “where you’re less unread when a crisis does occur.”
All the senior people in an administration always know whether and how they’ll get to the bunker. But by the time we’re talking bunkers, the story is almost over. It’s not a plan. Think about the plan.
Margaret MacMillan again: People not only get used to peace and think it’s “the normal state of affairs,” they get used to the idea that any crisis can be weathered, because they have been in the past. But that’s no guarantee of anything, is it?