For Clues To Trump's National Security Policy, Look To His Advisers

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Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn appeared with Donald Trump during a town hall on Sept. 6 in Virginia Beach, Va. The former Defense Intelligence Agency boss is a Trump national security insider.
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What is Donald Trump's national security plan?

Some things are clear: Trump supports billions of dollars in new Pentagon spending for military hardware. He'd permit more veterans to seek care outside the federal system of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He'd keep open the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Much else, however, is not.

During Trump's campaign against Hillary Clinton, the candidates rarely talked about terrorism, Iraq, Syria or other issues, aside from using it as a way to condemn one another.

Trump blasted Clinton for what he called the failure of President Obama's administration to safeguard the stability of Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. He complained the U.S. hadn't gotten anything for its efforts and should have "taken the oil."

Does that mean President-elect Trump supports preserving an American military force in Iraq? Would he order American troops to seize Iraqi or Syrian oil infrastructure and bring the subsequent revenues into the U.S. Treasury?

Potential advisers

No one is sure. Trump, who has no military experience and has never held elective office, may rely heavily on his advisers and Cabinet officials to set the direction.

Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Senate Armed Services Committee member and early endorser of Trump, has been discussed as a potential secretary of defense.

Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could be a potential secretary of state. Other Republican names in early discussion for national security appointments include Reps. Randy Forbes of Virginia and Duncan Hunter of California.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, a former Defense Intelligence Agency boss, is another Trump insider on national security, as is former CIA director James Woolsey, who worked for the administration of President Bill Clinton. They could return to government to lead in Trump's intelligence community.

Sessions and Forbes gave an interview to Defense News before Election Day to describe Trump's support for increased Pentagon spending, including on more troops for the Army and Marine Corps, more warships for the Navy and more combat aircraft for the Air Force.

Forbes told the newspaper that Trump's intention was for the Pentagon to be in the driver's seat in terms of its own management, following what he and other critics have called "micromanagement" by the Obama White House.

"I think that with a President Trump, you'll see him coming out literally within the first few days saying that we are going to have an international defense strategy that is driven by the Pentagon and not by the political National Security Council," Forbes said.

"That's a clear game changer, because if you look around the globe, over the last eight years, the National Security Council has been writing that. And find one country anywhere that we are better off than we were eight years [ago] — you cannot find it," he added.

All of the potential advisers discussed so far are longtime Washington hands who embody Republican orthodoxy on national security thinking. The more Trump delegates to them or officials like them, the more familiar his administration could look. What no one knows today is the degree to which Trump himself will be involved.

Controversial statements

Nations around the world are watching that involvement closely based on Trump's past statements, which raised doubts about his commitment to NATO and other longstanding U.S. allies, including Japan and South Korea.

Those two Asian nations host tens of thousands of American troops and take shelter underneath an American nuclear umbrella designed to deter an attack by North Korea or China. Both South Korea and Japan host sites for American missile defense equipment. A reduction in U.S. commitments could have huge ripple effects for the region.

Then there is Afghanistan.

"Interestingly, the United States' longest-running war, to which massive resources continue to be funneled, was almost completely ignored during the election by both candidates," said Dan Wasserbly, Americas editor for IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, in an analysis posted this week.

More than 8,000 American troops remain posted in Afghanistan, as its security situation deteriorates. Obama said those troops, like those deployed to Iraq and Syria, aren't in a "combat role," but Americans serve very close to danger and continue to be wounded and killed as violence endures.

Obama decided years ago to settle on "Afghan good enough" and slowly reduce troop levels there as American forces trained Afghanistan's own military and police. But even he had to pause that draw-down in the face of gains by a still-dangerous Taliban insurgency. What to do next will be one of the top issues for the new president.

Tensions with Russia

One area in which Trump has suggested he'd increase American commitments is with Russia. During the campaign, he suggested he wanted the two powers to work together to fight the Islamic State in Syria, something they'd failed to agree on after months of negotiation under Obama. This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a telegram to Trump congratulating him on his victory.

Trump and Putin's relationship was the subject of intense discussion during the campaign. The U.S. intelligence community said top Russian leaders had directed the campaign of cyber-mischief that embarrassed Clinton, Democratic leaders and others, mostly through the release of hacked emails. Trump rejected that story out of hand.

Now, as president, he'll be able to see the forensic evidence the intelligence community assembled that connects the Kremlin with the Clinton hacks. He and his advisers will have to decide how to respond to what amounted to the helping hand from Putin that put them in office.

At the same time, the new administration will be deciding whether to follow through with planned troop deployments to Eastern Europe that Obama hoped would deter Russia, and whether to try again to join forces with Russia in Syria.

Syria's president, Bashar Assad, was pleased that Clinton lost and the anti-government forces that had been supported by the U.S. are now worried Trump could cut them off. Syrian refugees driven away by the war are also wondering whether they'll be able to resettle in the United States following Trump's onetime proposal to ban all Muslims from entering, one he later changed to a call for "extreme vetting."

That policy provides an example of the transition involved from Campaign Trail Trump to President Trump. The page on his official website with the transcript of his call for the Muslim ban disappeared from the web for a few days. Then, per reports this week, it was back online.

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