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The National Security Counselor

“Entrenched constraints would have been damn useful in preventing Trump from heedlessly tearing down the US-led postwar liberal order.”

On January 11, 2021, we published “Trump’s Lingering Menace,” Jonathan Stevenson’s observations about how dangerous it was to have a disgraced and enraged commander-in-chief still in nominal charge of the US military (not to mention the nuclear codes). Even before the shocking insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Stevenson had been alarmed by a Washington Post op-ed signed by ten former secretaries of defense that advised the armed forces to stay out of civilian politics and avoid interfering in a peaceful democratic transition.

That such an admonition was deemed necessary by the likes of Dick Cheney was distinctly unsettling to Stevenson, himself a former senior National Security Council adviser in the Obama administration. When I caught up with him this week, as thousands of National Guard troops deployed (with Pentagon approval) to the capital, I asked him via email how assured he now felt about the defense establishment’s adherence to constitutional norms.

“I’m fairly confident that the military will resolutely resist involvement in domestic political affairs,” he said. “While there may have been rumblings in the junior and enlisted ranks about obeying the president, I think the threat was not that the uniformed military would somehow facilitate the January 6 insurrection at his direct behest, but rather that the compliant civilian loyalists Trump installed at the Pentagon would be complicit.”

Possible complicity in the sedition among various officials will no doubt be a focus of investigations getting under way, but Stevenson sees much other damage to repair from the Trump administration’s chaotic tenure. Robust interagency cooperation at the National Security Council and Obama’s “no drama” ethos were completely disrupted and abandoned under Trump. The result has been, Stevenson said, “a shambolic foreign policy.”

Today, Stevenson observes this arena from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank with a branch in Washington, where he is a senior fellow and the managing editor of its journal Survival. Before that, he was a professor of strategic studies at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island, a position he arrived at via a couple of other career paths—first as a lawyer “distracted from work by world affairs,” then as a freelance journalist in East Africa and Northern Ireland.

Since Stevenson’s time at the National Security Council, on which he served as the director of political-military affairs, Middle East and North Africa, coincided with the start of the Syrian Civil War, I wanted to ask him about the Obama administration’s often-criticized response to it. “We initially thought the opposition would succeed, in line with the Arab Spring trend,” he told me, going on:

When Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia intensified their support for the Syrian regime, and it proved surprisingly resilient, we had to adjust US policy accordingly. […] The chemical weapons “red line” issue was a good example. Because the president had explicitly framed the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons use as calling for US punishment, the immediate impulse was to retaliate with limited airstrikes to deter further chemical weapons attacks. But Russia’s offer to facilitate the confiscation of Syria’s chemical weapons was an unexpected boon. Obama’s calculation was that in terms of protecting the Syrian population and weakening the Syrian regime, the US could achieve more with diplomacy through Russia than with the use of military force against Syria.

Since this was in line with his philosophical preference for diplomacy over force—proximately informed by the Iraq debacle—it was to me unsurprising, and quite defensible, that Obama chose not to strike, even though the optics for him as a leader weren’t great, and even though a punitive strike wouldn’t necessarily have doomed arms control prospects. In the event, Syria did give up most of its high-end chemical weapons while continuing occasional attacks with cruder chemical weapons, but the punitive military action that Trump ordered in 2017 did not appear to deter them.

The fact remains that Obama was always the enlightened realist. As it became clear that our diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syria crisis would be tragically frustrated, and the Islamic State gained traction in Syria and Iraq, Obama pivoted from diplomacy to counterterrorism, ramping up the use of military force and establishing an effective program for rolling back the group.

Given his own seat at the table in the White House, I was curious to learn how he’d viewed the implicit critique of the D.C. foreign policy community that his former colleague Ben Rhodes, Obama’s leading foreign policy speech-writer and adviser, articulated with his coinage “the Blob.” Stevenson responded:

I think he intended, pejoratively, to convey the putative policy elite’s compulsion to defend even the dubious moves that they had supported—in particular, the Iraq War—and to discourage new ideas by freezing potential innovators in their tracks. Certainly, he was onto something in the context of groupthink resistance to some of Obama’s policy initiatives, such as the Iran nuclear deal.

In the face of Trump’s nihilism, however, I suspect even Ben might cast the Blob in a more favorable, or at least ambiguous, light: some entrenched constraints would have been damn useful in preventing Trump from heedlessly tearing down the US-led postwar liberal order.

US participation in a revamped Iran nuclear agreement, along with the Paris Climate Accord, are two big-ticket items that Stevenson hopes to see the incoming Biden administration act quickly upon. I had to ask: If invited, would he himself consider a return to a government position?

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“I certainly would,” he replied, unhesitatingly. “I’d like to help clean up the mess that Trump has made.”

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