"As an advisor to three presidents, you see dozens and dozens of times where it makes a huge difference who the president is. What questions does he ask? What decisions does he bring on to the agenda? How does he interact with a particular world leader? Again, dozens of examples where yes, you have these big institutional checks, but at the end of the day, in terms of the hundreds of decisions that he makes, makes a big difference."
Susan Glasser: Hi I’m Susan Glasser and that was Tom Donilon, our guest this week on The Global Politico. Donilon was President Obama’s national security adviser and he co-chaired Hillary Clinton’s national security transition team — the team for a transition that didn’t happen. In our interview this week, he makes a strong case for why who sits in the Situation Room really matters, why Donald Trump’s explosive new ways and foreign policy about-face from the Obama era may well have long-term consequences. But I hoped our conversation would also shed light on the decisions of Obama’s that mattered — what he got right and what didn’t work out the way Donilon and others hoped. At a time when it’s hard to get Democrats willing to focus on critiquing their own guy’s record and there’s much understandable outrage about Trump’s Twitter wars, alienation of allies and flouting of the truth… it was a refreshing exercise to try to look back at what happened before Trump with a critical but not partisan eye. We talked Russia and North Korea, Afghanistan and the election hacking.
Glasser: I’m Susan Glasser and welcome back to The Global POLITICO. I’m delighted to have as our guest this week Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national security advisor in his first term in office and a general wise man about all things foreign policy going back all the way back to his service in the Carter-era State Department and President Clinton’s State Department. He’s back at his law firm here in Washington, where we’re talking from, O’Melveny & Myers, just a few blocks from your old haunts in the West Wing.
And a lot has changed in the short time that you have been out of the White House. Tom, there’s almost too much to discuss here but I think we should just jump right in with the crisis of the day. Presidents face crises inevitably in their first year in office and that often proves to be the biggest and even a defining test for them. Is North Korea the crisis of Donald Trump’s first year in office?
Tom Donilon: Well, it’s clearly one of the most important security issues he’s going to face as president. And the threat has been building across a number of dimensions. Indeed, I think that all the dimensions of the North Korea situation have gotten worse if you look at the types of weapons that they might have; the technology; the means to deliver them; and we just saw in this last week, they’re launching a missile, evidently, that could be classified as an intercontinental ballistic missile, and that is one that might reach a portion of the United States, including Alaska.
We see that the situation with respect to our goals, which is denuclearization, has not been going in the right direction. And the threat is multidimensional: There’s obviously a threat to our allies in the region. There’s a direct threat potentially to the United States, which is why the milestone that they reached of an intercontinental ballistic missile is so important. There’s the threat of proliferation. As a nation like North Korea, which has in the past demonstrated its willingness to proliferate, reaches certain quantities of these materials and potentially weapons, they become a proliferation threat.
And there’s also, I think, a threat to us—as they increase their numbers, there’s a threat to our missile defense systems too as the numbers increase. So, it’s a multidimensional threat. It’s very serious and it is one that President Trump is going to have to address.
Glasser: But I’m struck by this problem that we have, right? Which is that we all know it’s not been going in the right direction, as you put it. And so we’re immediately there at the issue of, well, President Obama was the president for eight years. Why was it not going in the right direction and how much, looking back as we are now, did we miss an opportunity to confront him? Was it because we misread Kim Jong-un, for example?
You were there in this period of the succession. Why was President Obama not able to head this off?
Donilon: It’s a hard problem. I think you need to look back even further. We had put in place during the 1990s and during President Clinton’s administration a so-called “agreed framework.” And that, in fact, froze significant portions of the North Korea nuclear program, particularly the plutonium aspect of the program, and it froze it essentially from 1994 until around 2003, when it was discovered that the North Koreans were cheating and had additional types of programs with respect to the development of fissile materials. And I think we made a terrible mistake then, frankly, in that we didn’t keep in place the arrangement that we had.
We rather walked away from the whole thing and that essentially freed the North Koreans, I think, to pursue without constraint, its program. Coming in through the Bush years, right? Coming into the Obama years in terms of priorities, this was a priority but we also had a lot of other things going on in the world, to be frank, including significant military actions underway in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and very serious counterterrorism and we were also engaged in a very deliberate effort to keep Iran from getting anywhere near where the North Koreans were with respect to the nuclear developments. So I think it’s fair to say that in terms of policy outcome, that we haven’t been successful over the course of multiple administrations with respect to North Korea.
I think now it is front and center and there a number of things I think that we can do. And I think the Iran case provides some examples of tools that we should be using. There’s a lot of space here for pressure on North Korea that we haven’t filled in yet. We have experience with sanctions regimes that actually can put tremendous pressure on a country, trying to force a policy outcome or force into a negotiation.
Glasser: So there were sanctions that we could have imposed earlier but we didn’t do so, because, as I understand it, that would have ratcheted up our confrontation with China. It seems like Trump is now signaling he’s willing to do that. Is that what you’re referring to?
Donilon: No. Well, there are a number of sanctions that we can put in place. There is substance space for additional sanctions and during the course of the Obama administration, they were ratcheted up in coordination, by the way, with the Chinese and others at the United Nations and elsewhere and the Chinese had worked with the United States in terms of pressure and the enforcement of some important sanctions that were passed by the United Nations. But it hasn’t been enough, frankly, to deter the North Koreans from pursuing their program and it hasn’t been enough to drive them to the table.
Glasser: But do you believe that there are ways short of military action, which is terrifying everybody who looks at that as a real option? Are there ways short of military action that are significant enough to change the outcome?
Donilon: Susan, I don’t know that we know the answer to that question but we should certainly undertake to see if it is the case. Given the substantial downsides of a military action against the North Koreans — and the administration I think correctly has not taken military action off the table. But given the substantial downsides, which have been widely discussed, the United States and the international community should pursue aggressively a set of measures short of military action that include pressure.
Now, in the Iranian example—and these are never perfect parallels because it’s a much bigger economy. It was an economy in a country that wanted to integrate with the world. The essences were different, but we were able to develop a set of sanctions on Iran that were regime threatening and essentially brought them to the table for a successful negotiation in terms of their program. So, can you guarantee success? No. Do I think that there is the substantial space for additional pressure? Yes. Should we undertake those steps? Absolutely, and it may cause us to demonstrate to the Chinese that there are going to be costs for them to pay and we will put them in strategically uncomfortable situations. As we go forward in terms of a pressure campaign, I think the time is now, though, for substantially ramping up the pressure on the North Koreans.
Because again, we have things like interdiction programs that we can put in place. We have things like secondary sanctions on financial institutions and banks around the world who have any dealings with North Koreans that we could put in place, which were very successful with respect to Iran. We have the ability, I think, to thicken our missile defense systems in the region and we have the ability to work more closely with our allies there and we should do all of those things, I think moving forward here to try to bring the North Koreans to the table on a reasonable basis.
Glasser: So, I’m struck by a couple of things in this opening conversation about North Korea. Number one, we haven’t really used the words “Donald Trump” very much, which is interesting. It feels like an oddly normal crisis conversation to be having and yet we’re living in a very abnormal foreign policy moment with a very unusual president. So that’s one thing and then the other thing is it naturally raises the question, of course, in a bigger picture sense, stepping back: eight years of President Obama’s foreign policy record. One of the signature things he wanted to do in his first term in office that you were very intimately involved. It was pivot American foreign policy to be much more focused on Asia and we can talk about that and whether it worked out as you hoped when it started.
But Donald Trump for a second. We have to address sort of that elephant in the room. You’re talking about North Korea and Iran in ways that strike me as very much the way any Republican or Democrat would talk about a national security threat like this and yet how much does the x-factor of a very different kind of president, a very unpredictable president, one who is a newcomer to international politics matter? How much does the Trump factor matter in a crisis like this?
Donilon: Well, it will matter a lot, right? But I will say a number of things. With respect to North Korea and things and issues in Asia, he is advised by an experienced group of people, at least at the senior level. We have a serious problem in the government in that we have not staffed the government through the mid levels. The part of the government where a lot of work gets done. For example, if you’re going to undertake a serious international, indeed a global effort to sanction the North Koreans, that takes a tremendous amount of effort by the United States government. Again, we oversaw a program like this with respect to Iran. It took tremendous amounts of diplomatic effort and that requires you to have a team in place.
But at the end of the day, the president makes these decisions and the president establishes these relationships. So I think a couple of things. Number one is that I do think that we have had unnecessarily a high degree of uncertainty generated among allies. And that is something that the Trump administration and President Trump needs to address indeed. If you look at a recent Pew poll—
Glasser: Yes, I was going to bring that up.
Donilon: Yes, in a recent Pew poll, it shows a significant reduction in the confidence that allies, in particular, have in the United States and in President Trump.
Glasser: I looked up the numbers before I came here: 64 percent of people around the world in the countries surveyed by Pew had confidence in President Obama to do the right thing at the end of his eight years in office. That number has plummeted to 22 percent confidence in Donald Trump. There’s only two countries in the world on that survey where views of the U.S. president have gone up. You won’t be surprised to know that those are Russia and Israel.
Donilon: Yes, and indeed in some places, particularly in this hemisphere and Canada and in Mexico, the numbers are even lower than 22 percent; 5 percent in Mexico, for example. Now, being president is not a popularity contest around the world, right?
Glasser: If it was, Obama would have been like the greatest president ever, at least in Europe.
Donilon: Yes, but it’s not a popularity contest around the world. A U.S. president undertakes to pursue United States’ interests, but it does reflect a high level of uncertainty, if you will, about where the United States is going forward in terms of its tone and its direction on leadership. So essentially, this has become a significant source of uncertainty in the world and it comes out of a number of things that I think are quite unique to President Trump.
It comes out of a campaign where President Trump, then-candidate Trump, really questioned the fundamental pillars of the international order that the United States had put together and led since World War II, including trade relations and alliances and the value of international institutions. And this was disturbing and can generate a lot of uncertainty around the world, particularly with allies. Secondly, you had during the course of the campaign and really in kind of an odd and almost inexplicable way, the president refusing to criticize Vladimir Putin, for example, and yet engage in direct and aggressive criticism of allies. And I think this again raised uncertainty about how the United States valued alliances going forward.
What the United States’ posture was going to be in terms of leadership. So this uncertainty around the world has been generated by President Trump and I think it is an important thing for him to address going forward here. I think this reassurance point is important and this engagement with allies is a very important point and it’s been a weakness of the administration to date. And it does seem to be quite personal to him. With respect to the president, obviously, at the end of the day—these core decisions, particularly with respect to military action really do rest with the president so it matters a lot who the president is.
Susan, it’s often said, “Well, there are checks and balances.” So the president is always going to be constrained in terms of his or her range of action. That’s true to some extent. We have successful institutions in the United States. It’s one of the great strengths of the United States. And you do have some constraints. But as an advisor to three presidents, you see dozens and dozens of times where it makes a huge difference who the president is. What questions does he ask? What decisions does he bring on to the agenda? How does he interact with a particular world leader?
Again, dozens of examples where yes, you have these big institutional checks, but at the end of the day, in terms of the hundreds of decisions that he makes, makes a big difference.
Glasser: That’s interesting so let’s talk about Obama then in that context. That means that to the extent that people have said, “Obama’s foreign policy was kind of a very White House-centric, even micromanaging at times” one… Really, “that’s not Tom Donilon’s fault” is what you’re saying. It’s Barack Obama and it reflects his personality and temperament. We all know he is a very deliberative former constitutional law professor, and would you say that he got the process and the foreign policy that reflects that background?
Donilon: Well, I think every president gets the structure and process that he wants and that he thinks makes the most sense for him and allows him to operate in the most effective way. A couple of things on that. Number one is that that’s kind of an old chestnut, right? That the White House is too dominating in process, the president is too dominating in the process..
Glasser: Well, that one goes across presidencies. That’s not specific to Obama.
Donilon: That’s not specific to Obama, right? You would hear that for the last 40 years, frankly, about presidencies from people who work in the agencies for the president. Second is that I think the Obama administration—he had strong views, obviously, on foreign policy but he also put in place an effective process and it was a process that did, I think effectively, seek out the views of his cabinet and his advisers and they consolidated and brought it to him for a decision. The process that we had put in place in the White House was essentially built on the process designed in the Bush 41 administration by General Scowcroft and Bob Gates, which was a series of committees that would bring things up in a pretty systematic fashion to the president for a decision.
And if a recommendation couldn’t be gotten on a unanimous basis by the principals, the options were presented to him. And so that process worked fairly effectively for President Obama. It does ensure that if you have an effective process in place, that a president does see all the angles and the problems are anticipated and you can decide to go ahead into the face of an unidentified problem, but at least you do it knowing where you’re going.
The third thing I would say about this is that President Trump has selected some quite good people in these positions but it has to operate as a team, and this is something I think we’ll have to see going forward here.
Glasser: You’re being, by the way, very diplomatic. By all accounts, the level of infighting in this White House is epic even by the standards of that being normal to a certain extent.
Donilon: I’m biased, though, from my perspective of knowing it’s a lot easier to make these observations from the outside than it is to run their process on the inside. So there’s some sympathy for this, but I will say that I don’t know that President Trump when he selected his foreign policy team thought about it as a team. And it’s because you had an unusual transition. There wasn’t the same level of consideration of policy. I’ve been involved in several transitions.
Glasser: And you were chairing Hillary Clinton’s transition.
Donilon: We were co-chairing it on the national security issues and we did the State Department transition for President Obama in 2008. You really want to have this team going through as many exercises as possible as a team during the transition so that you kind of get kind of the habits of cooperation; the systems in place get rehearsed before you come into office. I don’t think the Trump administration had a chance to do that, which means that they’re behind with respect to that kind of stuff. Now, the last thing I’ll say on the Obama team. I’ve had it said to me as the national security advisor that the White House was seen as maybe too aggressive, domineering in their policy process. And then you reflect on the fact that, for example, when I would chair Principals Committee meetings, the people at the table were Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Dave Petraeus, Richard Holbrooke, Leon Panetta. Not exactly a shy group of people and I don’t think if you talk to any of them that they would say that their views were not effectively recognized by the White House system if you will, and by Obama.
Glasser: Well, a couple of things on that. First of all, I don’t know if you saw these recent, very interesting comments by General Petraeus that suggested that there really were areas of critique that have opened up that the Trump team is correcting or is potentially over-correcting for, right? You had General Petraeus really talking about the Afghanistan decision, which you were painfully aware of. That was a very process-intensive decision in Obama’s first couple of years in office in effect to re-engage in Afghanistan, to bring more troops in, to surge troops. It also, however, significantly placed an end date for when the U.S. would pull back in Afghanistan. That’s what Petraeus is still critiquing today, amazingly enough, right?
And I was struck that he’s still talking about that. But also, right, there’s a sense that there was all of this process, but in the end, Obama refused to take many of the steps that certainly, the Pentagon often recommended that he take. He was very cautious about things like that. What is the balance? Do you see Trump as having a sort of Not-Obama foreign policy?
Donilon: No, well, a couple of things. We’ll have to see how his foreign policy evolves. I saw General Petraeus’s interview out at Aspen with Dave Rothkopf and others. I’ll say a couple of things about that. It was very focused on the military decisions in the Middle East and South Asia and those are important parts of what President Obama was doing but not the only thing that he was doing. Number two, with respect to Afghanistan, President Obama came in and increased the number of troops in Afghanistan by three times the level that were present when he became president because the situation had deteriorated.
In large part because I think the United States really had taken its eye off the ball, if you will, in Afghanistan, so we had a substantial increase in troops and there was not a precipitous withdrawal of troops. Indeed, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan today is between 9,000 and 10,000 troops, which is a number that President Obama established, right? So we still have a significant troop presence.
Glasser: But how cyclical that now we’re talking about Trump apparently is considering sending several thousand more troops to Afghanistan. Was all of it in vain then?
Donilon: I think that goes to the difficulty of the problem, right? I think that goes to the difficulty of the problem and at the same time, by the way—and I think General Petraeus would agree with this—we also undertook in conjunction with that, a surge of troops in Afghanistan—we also undertook as tough as counterterrorism effort as the United States has ever undertaken through our efforts in South Asia and in the Middle East. And we ran a very tough counterterrorism effort against al-Qaeda and other groups. I don’t see the lack of decisiveness there that some people talk about. I think that the president came in and did an assessment, determined that, in fact, that we were under-resourced and didn’t have a clear strategy in Afghanistan.
He undertook, resourced the effort, and identified the strategy, which was to attempt to ensure that you couldn’t have a safe haven again for al-Qaeda or other groups that might threaten the United States and to do our best to try to build up and support the Afghan forces in support of an overall goal. And I think that’s what’s happened. It is a hard problem over time and I think the fact that we’ve now been there since the early 2000s is a testament to that problem. But I don’t think it was a lack of decisiveness.
Glasser: But it’s hard to see it as a success. It is hard to see Afghanistan today as a success. Despite all of that effort to have a very, by all accounts, good and certainly thorough process, the result is still the same level of troops and a sense that once again the situation has deteriorated. The problem today is not al-Qaeda but the presence of the Islamic State, which I noticed the other day, it seemed like one of those bitter little footnotes to history, that ISIS had actually just taken over the Tora Bora complex that used to be al-Qaeda’s home.
Donilon: A couple of things. The Afghan effort, right, has been long and it’s been costly but what we have not had, the reestablishment of a safe haven there from which there’s been attacks launched in the United States. I think it’s been a long, tough effort there.
Glasser: Going back to the White House, then, right? Because that really is our subject. Again, I want to give people a little bit more context and frame for understanding. We’re talking about process. We’re talking a little abstract here. President Obama obviously, had many powers that all of the previous presidents have had and almost anybody, as you said, would get criticized for the sort of micromanaging impulse. We had a very interesting interview with Justin Trudeau the other day that Peter did up in Canada.
And even Trudeau said, “There really is a big difference.” And obviously, he has become personal friends even with Obama, but he said, what I will say about Trump, it was a huge pain in the butt to even have a phone call with Barack Obama. That was weeks in advance. It was planned down to the last detail. It was absolutely different now. This guy, he picks up the phone and he calls me and he’s said that it’s kind of, “Hey, it’s refreshing.” Or look at the numbers. Trump has clearly been conducting a lot more personal diplomacy with many world leaders. Why was it so hard to get Barack Obama on the phone?
Donilon: I don’t know. I think having arranged as many phone calls for presidents as most people—I don’t know if it was hard to get President Obama on the telephone. Let me say a couple of things about this one. President Obama was well prepared for anything that he undertook as president.
Glasser: A man who knew his brief.
Donilon: He knew his brief well, right, and he made decisions deliberately and it was decisive and I’ll talk about that in a second. With respect to decisions and interactions though, people have raised this issue of whether or not the United States was in a retrenchment during the course of the Obama administration. There was the necessary correction, which it was going to be after substantial military efforts in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and again, the very tough war on terrorism that we ran. But U.S. leadership was quite present, of course, and I think in ways that it is not right now and people are very concerned about it. Whether it be the Paris climate accords, which would not have happened without the U.S. leadership, or the Iran nuclear accords or the Trans Pacific Partnership, which has been dropped by President Trump, or the kind of joint counterterrorism efforts around the world.
Glasser: The multilateralism seems to be gone.
Donilon: But led by the United States. None of these things would have happened absent the United States and I think that this is what allies around the world are concerned about. There hadn’t been any absence of U.S. leadership during the course of the Obama years. You may disagree with some of the decisions that the president made and you may disagree with some of his—particularly, his decisions around engagement of troops in the world, right? Although he was not shy about engaging troops where he thought it was in the U.S. interests. But I think that there really isn’t a case to be made that somehow the United States pulled back from this leadership role across the whole range of dimensions, and that’s something that people are very worried about right now in the world.
Glasser: So you were there for this sort of key moment in the formation of whatever became the Obama doctrine on foreign policy. Where did the “Don’t Do Stupid Shit” thing come from and why did Obama, do you think, grab onto it?
Donilon: Well, I don’t know that I would describe it as an Obama doctrine.
Glasser: But he personally did use that phrase.
Donilon: Well, I never heard him use that phrase.
Glasser: You never heard him? That’s interesting.
Donilon: But those were not the instructions that were given to me as national security advisor. They were a little more substantive than that. It all really was rooted in the recognition that our interests couldn’t be protected and we weren’t going to solve global problems absent engaged U.S. leadership, and Obama was an engaged international leader.
Around the world, he was a force in the world. Obama was a big presence in the world and was able to move forward to solve a number of problems that people thought were not—might not have been solvable in climate and nonproliferation. Now, lots of challenges left, but I think that was really at the core of what the president was about. The diplomatic engagement was another principle that he deeply believed in and executed on with results, whether it be the Iran deal, the opening to Cuba, or the Trans Pacific Partnership, which was the largest trade deal in the world with 12 countries and some 70 percent of GDP in the world, trade in the world.
Glasser: Did you come away from the national security advisor position being more or less of the view that one can have a strategic frame and actually get something done? I’m thinking about this idea of a pivot to Asia or that the U.S. could somehow find a way to put these entanglements in the Middle East behind it. Right now, it’s hard to see that but we all understand what motivated it. Is it the inbox that in the end always rules foreign policy?
Well, I hope not and I don’t think so. But it’s really an important management point. So, you work in the White House, you work for the president. You could have a very hardworking, 18-hour day and just get through your inbox every day. And just deal with the things that are coming at you in that position, that’s coming at the president, that’s coming at the United States. And you could do that successfully, but you would fail, frankly, as national security advisor or as president of the United States.
It’s important to keep in mind what your affirmative goals are, what your strategic initiatives are and to make time and kind of in a structured way to ensure that you pursue those goals. If you don’t do it in a conscious way. And it can’t be done — frankly, and I’m trying not to be political here — it can’t be done in comments or 140 characters, right? These are efforts that have to be carefully considered, announced, articulated, explained, and executed on. And I think that that’s the real challenge for any high-ranking policy official in the United States is to not just be on the defense all the time, but rather, to keep in mind what your strategic goals are.
A strategic initiative is one of the most important concepts I think in American foreign policy. And I think it’s up to President Trump to articulate what his strategic initiatives are going to be. It’s an interesting thing in the administration thus far. There’s been kind of an odd view that policies don’t have to be explained and there’s been a very small number of policy speeches given by the president and by his team and I would encourage them to correct that, frankly, and to think hard about where we want to go as a country and articulate that.
That’s important for allies and adversaries to understand. It’s also, frankly, important for the American government and the bureaucracy to understand, to have the clarity and do you agree with me?
Glasser: This goes with the uncertainty factor. You mentioned in the context of the public opinion polls, but the uncertainty is not just about President Trump’s temperament. It’s actually about uncertainty about what is the policy and that brings us, of course, to something we haven’t talked about yet, which is Russia, where they may be no more not only uncertain policy, but of course, there are so many questions swirling around the nature of President Trump’s praise for Vladimir Putin, his intent, to the extent it was, to really significantly change American policy and leaving us with this confusion about where we are today.
I want to go back in time. You came into office saying you were going to reset relations with Vladimir Putin and that it was smart to get along better with Russia and found the full arc of emotions in that experience. Why is it wrong for Donald Trump to think that it’s time for a resetting of relations?
Donilon: Well, because Russia today is in a very different place. The United States undertook in 2009 to engage with Russia on a variety of issues that were important to us, right? Including, for example, getting support for supplies to come through our northern route into Afghanistan where we had a war underway. To pursue arms control and successfully put into place a New Start Treaty and to pursue a range of things with Russia and we were successful, frankly, during the Medvedev era in terms of pursuing a number of things in conjunction with Russia that were important to the United States.
Vladimir Putin came back into office in the spring of 2012 and essentially, determined to take Russia in a very different direction. Over the course of the 25 years or so from the fall of the Berlin Wall until his return to the presidency, the Western policy, U.S. policy, had been to integrate Russia into the security, political, and economic institutions, globally and of the West. And Putin declared no interest in that in terms of integration moving forward, declared that Russia would go its own way, that it would carve out a distinctive foreign policy in contradiction to the West and really define itself by opposition to the West and essentially brought Russia into an actively hostile posture with the United States. There’s a lot of reasons for this, including his own domestic politics, including his own vision of Russia.
Glasser: But do you think we misread Putin? Arguably, the seeds of that were there from the very beginning of his tenure. He didn’t always have the potentiality, the power to do the things that he later acquired the power to do.
Donilon: Well, no, but he wasn’t president during the Medvedev years.
Glasser: But wasn’t he still in charge?
Donilon: No, but essentially, what you do is you pursue your interests as best you can and I think we did successfully pursue our interests with respect to Russia during those years. But there was a substantial change when he came back. He became very critical of his successor, particularly on things like Libya, and decided to take Russia in a different direction. And indeed, in a direction where not only were they going to have it to carve out a distinct foreign policy, but it was going to actively confront the West and the United States across a range of dimensions.
So it’s in Europe, in Crimea and in Ukraine, in challenging NATO on a regular basis. It’s in Afghanistan in terms of supporting the Taliban. It’s in Libya. It’s in Syria, right? And most directed to the United States. It’s in our elections here. So these were a number of things that Putin undertook to put Russia in an actively hostile posture and it’s very important for the United States to understand this change in posture and to act appropriately.
Glasser: That’s right. So: “actively hostile” posture; do you believe that it is possible for Vladimir Putin to take military action against someone else of his neighbors? He’s already moved against Georgia. He’s moved against Ukraine at various points in the last few years. Could he get the wrong message from Donald Trump and end up marching into the Baltics or is that unthinkable to you?
Donilon: Well, a couple of things. We know that he’s willing to use, if you will, hybrid war; covert war, which has been articulated as a doctrine by the senior military officials in Russia. Absolutely is willing and has done that, right?
Secondly, with respect to the Baltics and others, I do think the one really important bulwark, if you will, for Europe and pushing back against an aggressive Russia is NATO, which is why it is really important for the U.S. president and for the United States to continue with support of NATO. There’s been some criticism for NATO expansion, for example, that you’re very familiar with. But you have to do the thought experiment and think about what would Europe look like today absent NATO expansion? Where has Putin been willing to push aggressively and where hasn’t he been willing to push aggressively and what’s been the difference? My own judgment is the difference has been NATO and the integration of these countries into the alliance with all that implies. So we’re in a confrontational posture with Russia right now.
Which means that the president and the candidate Trump’s almost inexplicable reluctance to recognize this is disturbing, right? And that can, I think, send the wrong signals to a leader like Putin. That in fact, that we’re not dealing from a position of strength and that we are essentially not really pushing back against what is the Russian goal, which is to undermine confidence in the Wes and divide us.
Glasser: So Dick Cheney called the hacking of last year’s election akin to an “act of war” by Putin. Do you agree with that and what should Obama have done? Recognizing that we have the benefit of a little bit of hindsight.
Donilon: Yes, right. It was certainly an attack on one of the most important processes that a democracy has is election process, right? And the integrity of that election process.
Glasser: And do you have any doubts that it was Russia?
Donilon: No, I don’t have any doubts it was Russia.
Glasser: Donald Trump continues to say, “Oh, maybe it was other countries too.”
Donilon: I can say two things about that. Number one, the United States intelligence services on January 6th of this year put out an extraordinary public statement by the director of national intelligence, indicating that there was a high-confidence judgment by all of our intelligence agencies that Vladimir Putin directed the Russian Federation to engage in an effort to affect the U.S. elections in favor of Donald Trump. That is laid out in black and white for the American people to see its high confidence judgment. So that’s laid out for us to see.
We’ve also had testimony since then and even in that document, that the Russian Federation can be expected to continue these efforts elsewhere in the world, including in the United States. So there’s no doubt about this. And I think it’s important for the president to embrace it.
Glasser: Is it war?
Donilon: If the president had a doubt about it, the intelligence community works for him, right? Any doubts that he has can be expressed to the intelligence community and they can respond, right? So if he believes that there are others involved—others might have been involved, right? There might be other countries? Who knows? I think it’s kind of the phraseology the president uses. He can ask the intelligence community that question, right? And they will bring him an answer.
Glasser: Are you familiar with any example of a president going publicly to war against his intelligence agencies like this?
Donilon: No, I’m not. I don’t think it’s a good idea for a number of reasons. Number one is because of these communities, these institutions are really the frontline of defense of the United States, particularly in pushing back against terrorism and we rely on these communities to protect the country. Number two, you never, if you’re president or the national security advisor—you never want to have a situation where you think that the intelligence community, for whatever reason, is reluctant to bring you hard news or bad news or difficult judgments that they’re trying to make, right?
You’d never want to be surprised if you’re a president or a national security advisor. You want to have an open back-and-forth conversation with the intelligence community. It’s one of the most important things that a national security advisor does, which is to have this kind of open dialogue back and forth on behalf of the president, with the intelligence community, to ensure there are no surprises—for the president, right? To ensure that the president is getting the kind of and quality of information that he wants and believes he needs for decision-making. So it’s highly ill-advised and the last thing I’ll say on this, Susan, is these are the most patriotic organizations that we have. These are organizations where people engaged in extraordinary and dangerous efforts around the world, right? And they get no public credit. In this society where celebrity and immodesty, by taking credit for things, right, is just prevalent in this society.
So yes, it’s not a good idea for a president. If I were his national security advisor, I would be telling him that on a regular basis.
Glasser: So let’s go back to Russia and the hacking of last year. President Obama, now a new line of President Trump is to cite this Washington Post story. So Trump says, on the one hand, he’s not sure that Russia did it. On the other hand, Obama should have done more to retaliate against Russia. So there’s a contradiction there, but obviously, there is a very real question, putting aside Trump’s rhetoric about that response, and it’s clear by the summer of 2016, not only did President Obama know that there was a significant intervention in the election, but there was a robust debate inside the administration, inside the White House about what to do about it. Did he “choke”?
Donilon: Well, I wasn’t there, obviously, for these decisions, but I’ll say a couple of things about this. The first thing, as you’ve pointed out, is that there’s a deep contradiction in President Trump’s statements, right? I don’t know how you can say it didn’t happen or maybe it didn’t happen or others might have done it and then criticize President Obama for not responding to something that might not have happened. That’s a political point.
Glasser: There’s an old word, “chutzpah,” that covers a lot of this.
Donilon: But that’s something I don’t deal with. That’s a political point. Those are political back-and-forth. That’s not really of any interest to me. What is of interest is the facts here and how to affect and defend U.S. interests. I gave a talk at the Democratic National Convention, at the University of Pennsylvania during the course of the convention, where I said—and at that point, we had Crowdstrike, a highly regarded cybersecurity firm, saying that the Russians had engaged in the hacking of the DNC and other associated entities. And I called for much more public attribution and I think that probably would have been the right thing to do.
Glasser: And it took him until October 7.
Donilon: Yes, I think more aggressive public attribution would have been a more appropriate thing to do at this point, looking back on it. No doubt about it. It’s easy from the outside to say that. I do think that calling this out in a much more aggressive way would have been a better course of action.
Glasser: How much did the Clinton campaign try to get that outcome from the Obama administration?
Donilon: I don’t know. I didn’t have those conversations with the Obama administration. I was working on the transition at that point.
Glasser: But it’s fair to say that people at the Clinton campaign were very concerned about this, even then? Or they didn’t really get—
Donilon: They were very concerned about it, absolutely. And again, there were public pieces of this that were out there that the Russians had engaged or entities acting on behalf of the Russians. The federation had engaged in this hacking as early as the summer of 2016.
Glasser: What about the confidence issue? In general, there was a sense in the White House and in the land that Hillary Clinton was going to win and so you didn’t want to bring it up too much.
Donilon: I can understand how you would have considered that or how that might have affected the decision. But the decision is a national security decision and I do think that given the seriousness of this; given the fact that they were attacking a fundamental element of our democracy. That pushing back harder and publicly I think probably would have been a better course of action, frankly.
Glasser: Tell me a little bit about what you think are the consequences. Are we in a new stage of cyber war? You were the head at one point of the president’s commission on cyber warfare.
Donilon: A couple of things. One, we’ve seen now a significant increase in the volume, the sophistication, and the sources of cyber attacks on our government entities, on our business entities, and on us as individuals, right? And as we continue to increase the amount of our lives led in a digital world, that’s going to continue to increase in terms of vulnerability. And we are really uneven, Susan, in terms of our defenses.
We know a lot about how to defend ourselves and we know a lot of the basics really matter and we still don’t have the kind of implementation across the board. We don’t have the kind of recognition that every one of us has an obligation to not be the weak link in the system. So we are in the new world. As I’ve said, we have increasing amounts of our government business, our commercial activities, and our personal lives are online and they are vulnerable to attack from a whole range of actors, ranging from nation-states—
Glasser: And Putin really has probably encouraged other nation-states to look at this as a template for intervention.
Donilon: That’s right. What’s been interesting about the Russian attacks is they weren’t very well disguised, frankly, and the Russians haven’t really made very much of an effort to hide their participation. The denials are kind of on their face half-hearted, right? So I do think that’s been kind of the boldness to which they’ve undertaking these efforts is really something. These statements that the Russians make, “We don’t get involved in elections and we don’t get involved in cyber attacks.” They’re demonstrably lies, right? And we’ve seen this for many years. But it’s a bigger problem, it’s a bigger thing.
It’s really a tool, if you will. The cyber efforts, right, are really a tool that are part of an overall information warfare. And the information warfare effort is longstanding and you can look at activities of the Soviet Union, right? For many years, right?
Glasser: Absolutely, right after World War II, they ran some of this as a playbook.
Donilon: That’s exactly right. If you read Anne Applebaum’s great book, Behind the Iron Curtain.
Glasser: The Iron Curtain. I always tell people to look at that.
Donilon: Anne Applebaum’s book, she’s one of the great historians of Europe and that book will give you a sense of the kinds of programs that the Soviet Union then and the Russians now are running. So the cyber piece is an element; a tool, if you will, of an overall information warfare effort, whose goal is to undermine confidence in the West and to divide the West. It’s interesting, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year, which is a big conference of defense officials, basically, and it takes place yearly. And he said that one of the discussions he wanted to have was what “the post-Western world” looks like. And that essentially is the Putin goal. To get us to undermine confidence, divide the West.
Glasser: This just goes back to your point actually about the Trump White House and the question of what is their policy right now and that we’re actually left in the dark. We know an awful lot about the infighting that’s reported but we know very little actually about what your successor, H.R. McMaster, is doing as national security advisor. Forget about the process. We actually don’t even know substantively what is their approach to hacking? It’s been reported that they haven’t had any senior level principals meeting around hacking, even in the wake of this attack on the U.S. elections.
What have you heard about how the NSC is working today on—
Donilon: I think that General McMaster was a good addition to the White House. He’s a first-class military officer with a first-class mind and I think he’s making a determined effort to get a process in place. I do think the Trump administration suffered by not having a transition and—
Glasser: Did you ever meet with McMaster and talk to him about the National Security Council?
Donilon: Well, he wasn’t there. Yes, I have since.
Glasser: You have since?
Donilon: Yes, but he wasn’t…. Mike Flynn was the first national security advisor for just a few weeks.
Glasser: I think we will not forget that 24-day tenure anytime soon.
Donilon: But staffing these things is really important, Susan, and it takes time and the way we staffed the National Security Council—and again, this was in line with the way Condi Rice and Steve Hadley, our predecessors, staffed the National Security Council, leading to the Bush 43 administration. And before that with Tony Lake and Sandy Berger. If you look at the directors of the National Security Council, they were really some of the finest minds in the country. So if you went through the initial Obama National Security Council—whether from Mike McFaul in Russia, Liz Sherwood on Europe or Gary Samore on proliferation, or Dennis Ross on the Middle East, these were all people who at the top of their professions and it took time during the transition to recruit these people.
You have to have the time and they didn’t have it in the transition.
Glasser: But you still have this belief in process and staff and I’m going to keep nudging you on this. The “adults in the room” theory basically is what this has boiled down to. Right? The idea, “Okay, well, there’s Trump, but he’s got McMaster, he’s got an experienced hand in Mattis. Okay, Tillerson is new to diplomacy but he was the CEO of a gigantic company.” Have we enough evidence to say that the adults in the room theory doesn’t work?
Donilon: Well, we don’t know at this point. I would say this: it’s the old phrase. You would expect it to come from someone like me, right? It’s necessary but not sufficient, right? And what’s missing, of course, is the determination as to how the president uses this process, how it operates as a team, which is really, really important and only a president can really make that happen, by the way, at the end of the day in terms of picking the people, right? Whether he takes their advice or not, whether or not they have deliberative processes that could get upended by a presidential statement or a tweet, right?
All of those things are on the table, Susan. Absolutely, this is not an optimal way to determine and articulate policies. And again, he has very good people, they’re senior people.
Glasser: Many of these people interestingly are military officers, so there’s a question of whether they’ve overcorrected from the Obama years by sort of militarizing foreign policy, number one. Number two, some of these are people that you clashed with — I mean the Obama administration and even in the case of General Mattis, you personally. He was the head of CENTCOM under President Obama and there was a substantive disagreement with him that you were in the middle of. Do you think that they did this to spite you?
Donilon: Oh, no. I think a couple of things. First of all, if you are the national security advisor and you don’t have any disagreements with the kind of people you hope are in the cabinet and the most senior military officers, which are strong-willed people, really informed, right? Have views, come to the table with views, are not shrinking. As I described to you earlier, think about if you were chairing the meeting, Susan, and you looked down and you saw Vice President Biden, Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Dave Petraeus, Richard Holbrooke, right?
Glasser: That’s an intimidating group.
Donilon: So if you don’t have any disagreements, right, it would be odd and it probably wouldn’t be healthy. At the end of the day though, the acid test, of course, is a team that comes together, supports the ultimate decision, and works with the president. So, no, having disagreements I don’t think is a—I would hope you’d have some disagreements within the process. But the president has to buy into the process. That, at the end of the day, he has to have a process in place that works for him and that he’s going to support and let bring to him decisions and recommendations that are well thought through and make sense, right?
In a situation where you have an important operation you’re trying to work on for example, like the bin Laden operation. We ran that process from the summer of 2010 through the spring of 2011 and we did everything else we were doing, including multiple wars, right? So it’s important that you have a process that’s robust enough that you can bolt on top of that the kinds of decision-making activities that you need to do.
And in that case, of course, we also had something which is very important, which is from August of 2010 to May 2011, there wasn’t a leak.
Glasser: You’ve made a great case that process matters, but in the end, of course, it is the outcome.
Glasser: So President Obama is sitting down, he’s working on his memoirs now. You’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this as well. What are several of the things that he will come back to as tough foreign policy things that maybe you didn’t get right or maybe you just wish you would have a do-over. Obviously, Syria with the horror of hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, is going to rank high, I would imagine. What else is going to be on that list for him and for you?
Donilon: Well, I think what will be at the center of that narrative of his presidency as a national security issue will be the economic recovery, which doesn’t get talked a lot about in national security discussions. Well, by this point, of course, President Obama had gotten the Recovery Act done that saved the auto industry, had done a lot of things on the domestic side. At the end of the day, there’s not a lot of iron laws in history, but one of them is that your international posture; your international strength, right, is directly relying on your economic strength. And the United States in 2008, 2009 had really a serious body blow with respect to the economy. It was a real blow to U.S. prestige around the world.
We talk about the damage that was done to the U.S. prestige in the world and our strategic posture out of the Iraq War, but the financial crisis had a similar strategic effect I think in terms of the U.S. So recovering from that was one of the most important national security things that President Obama did.
Glasser: Any regrets? Any things that you think are issues on the world agenda right now that you wish you could get another chance at?
Donilon: A number of them, of course. One is I do think we have a lot of work to do on the cyber side. One of the reasons the president appointed this commission in his last few months in office was to do that kind of review, to say, “All right, this was a new set of issues that came up his watch and what have we gotten done and what do we need to do going forward?” And indeed, the report that we did was essentially a transition report for the next president and I would hope that President Trump’s team takes a close look at it because it was a totally nonpartisan effort, as cyber security is. With exception to the Russia thing, cyber security is one of the few thoroughly nonpartisan efforts that we—
Glasser: You would have said that a year ago. I’m not sure we can say that now.
Donilon: I hope so but again, put the Russian thing aside but the core issues of what the government needs to do to protect itself, what the society needs to do to educate itself. What the internet of things revolution means in terms of cyber security, the kinds of things, the norms we want to have in place around the world. I do think those things should be nonpartisan. Indeed, here’s the thing. This entire Russia thing should be nonpartisan, right? It doesn’t have to have anything to do with the ultimate outcome of President Trump’s election. It has to do with the security of our democracy.
So it shouldn’t a partisan issue. So cyber security I think is number one and indeed, one of the recommendations I would have made coming into a Clinton administration would be to establish an assistant to the president for cyber security and technology policy because it’s so much of technology that’s affecting national security. Now, we could do an entire day’s worth of podcast on the impact of technology on national security. And we have bandwidth problems and we really do have expertise problems. We have expertise problems at the highest levels of the government. So that needs to be corrected and I wish I had done more on that, frankly, before I left.
Second is I think not getting the TPP done is really a significant blow to the United States, frankly, and a lot of work went into this. It was economic, for sure, but it was a strategic initiative as well and I think not getting that done has provided openings for China, in Asia for sure. But also, it was a disappointment among these countries who had really engaged in a substantial reassessment of their own economies, like Japan and Vietnam and others, right? Third, of course, is Syria and there’ll be lots of questions and reviews over different forks in the road that could have been taken differently in Syria.
My own is to look carefully back in the summer of 2015; August, September 2015, when there were more options for the U.S. to influence the circumstances because the Assad regime was on its back and not acting during that period and the Russians came in in that period in August, September of 2015 and really complicated the situation. I think it narrowed U.S. options and of course, there will be revisits around process on the August, September 2014 decisions on Syria. So there is a long list of things that you can look at and you wish you had gotten done.
Glasser: The rearview mirror always has a certain clarity to it.
Donilon: And we could do a whole hour on the 10 or 15 more things that we should have gotten done, but of course, you wish you could go back and get more done. But that’s the nature of these jobs.
Glasser: We started on this, and which I think is a good note to close on, which is that it’s actually been hard to have a really even-handed evaluation or after-action report, if you will, of the Obama presidency when it comes to foreign policy and national security. I’ve tried many times and Democrats right now are just in this sort of state of tizzy really over President Trump and what seems to them very exceptional and even many Republican members of the establishment of foreign policy, as you know.
They must be saying this to you behind closed doors. These are your friends too. It didn’t use to be like this in foreign policy.
Donilon: No, it’s interesting. I first started in the White House in June of 1977, and since then, there’s been a complete breakdown in terms of political people talking to each other, and then there was a complete breakdown of domestic policy people talking to each other. And we have been able to maintain really through the Obama administration, kind of a place where, although there would be strong disagreements, there were individuals in the Republican and Democratic Party who would talk to each other on a regular basis at conferences, task forces, right? And to try to work through things with the national interests in mind.
And that has broken a bit, I think, with the Trump administration, which has really, I think, unfortunately, played to polarization and polarization across the board, including the concept that you can’t possibly give an opponent any credit for anything. Everything is viewed through partisan eyes. For example, there’s polling stuff on this, right? That 32 percent of Republicans currently polled give Vladimir Putin a positive approval rating, which is about double what they would give President Obama, right? And that’s all partisanship and we’ve also entered into the stage of negative partisanship.
That is, not only do I disagree with you; I’m a Democrat, you’re a Republican so I disagree with you, but I think you’re actually going to destroy the country. You’re bad for the country. We have negative consequences from you. And I would have hoped and I think that President Trump actually had an opportunity to do this, to kind of come in and try to be more expansive in his support and to try to push back against some of the polarization but in fact, what’s happened—and again, I’m not running a campaign, right? I haven’t done campaigns in a long time, but you would think in a period after an election, you would seek to try to expand the discussion, right?
But unfortunately, I think he’s moved to a place where it’s a very narrow band on which to operate to, very narrow support and there’s not a lot of margin for error. The last thing I’ll say about this is things are going to happen, right? There are going to be crises. There are going to be things that challenge the interests of the United States and what I worry about is you want to have as broad support as you can and most importantly, you need credibility. There will be during the course of this presidency, as there have been during the course of every presidency that I’m familiar with, moments where something is going to happen.
Something’s going to happen in the country or to the country and they’re going to look to the president to explain to the country what happened, right? Where are we going here on this? Who was responsible for this? And he needs credibility to do that and I worry that into the future that he won’t have that because of this deep polarization and because of this sometimes kind of loose affiliation with facts, not making a better effort to present things in a more even-handed way. So that’s the concern that I have and you know, Susan, at some point there will be a moment where a president has to come and be trusted by the whole of the American people as to what’s happened and where we’re going as a country and that’s a conversation that if I were advising the president today, I would have with him.
Glasser: I think that’s a really important note to end on. Tom Donilon, this has been a fantastic conversation. I’m going to take you up on your offer and come back and we’ll have a whole other conversation. Because I know that the listeners of The Global POLITICO will enjoy this very much and I certainly thank you for sharing your time with us today.
Donilon: Thank you, Susan.
Glasser: And thank you again, too, the listeners of Global POLITICO. You can listen to us on iTunes, subscribe on that or whatever is your favorite podcast platform and you can always email me directly at SGlasser@POLITICO.com and give us ideas, feedback, and your thoughts. Thanks again and thanks to Tom Donilon.