The fight against the Islamic State
I’ve always admired the way the Bush administration approached the financial crisis in 2008, when it cast aside a lot of conservative orthodoxy to bail out banks and spend what was necessary to stabilize the markets. The Obama administration, for its part, largely carried on the good work that had been done.
The same can be said for the Trump administration and the fight against the Islamic State. I wrote a year ago that the Trump administration would preside over the defeat of the Islamic State, because anyone with even a passing understanding of the conflict knew the momentum was on the side of the coalition by the end of 2016. That said, give Donald Trump some credit for keeping the Obama administration’s campaign plan and field commanders in place. Are you angry he’s now claiming credit for what the previous administration accomplished? Well … who cares? The Islamic State has been largely defeated, and that’s what is most important.
(Also, as an important aside, don’t be so quick to blame him for the spike in civilian casualties we saw in 2017: My gut always told me the civilian casualties would get worse as the campaign moved to Mosul and Raqqa—the last two urban strongholds of the Islamic State. It’s also entirely possible civilian casualties during the Obama administration were worse than previously thought.)
Critical national-security appointments
Okay, the less that is said about the state of the State Department, the better. Aside from that, the personnel situation in the critical national security departments and agencies looks a lot better.
At the Department of Defense, the balance of power between the uniformed and civilian leaders is still heavily weighted toward those in uniform. That’s somewhat natural at the start of any administration, but it’s more pronounced in this one, where the secretary has run the Department more like a combatant command and less like a government department. (No surprise, since his last major command was U.S. Central Command or CENTCOM—civilians at the Pentagon jokingly refer to it as “Pentacom” now.) It’s also worth noting that it’s taken a lot of time—too much time—for key civilian billets to be filled. But a lot of the civilians that have been hired have been great selections, with several particularly talented individuals coming into the building in the latter half of the year, and I believe that in 2018 they will begin to prove their worth to a secretary who isn’t used to having so many civilians working for him. As for the secretary himself, by all accounts, he has forged a tight relationship with the president and continues to provide wise counsel. The Pentagon thought it hit the cabinet secretary jackpot in January of 2017, and it still feels that way a year later.
Mike Pompeo has also grown close to the president, and that’s especially important given his role as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA is in the customer service business, and it serves one customer over everyone else. If Mike Pompeo has to spend half his day at the White House explaining the world to the president, well, that’s not ideal, but it’s fine.