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Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's national security advisor. (Photo: Getty)

"Never Seen Anything Like This": Gaping Holes in Trump's Foreign Policy Team

Critical national security and diplomacy positions are still unfilled, leaving the Trump administration ill-prepared for crisis

Deirdre Fulton

Many aspects of President-elect Donald Trump's transition have been described as disorganized (at best), but his administration's approach to foreign policy appears particularly rudderless, raising concerns among domestic experts and international allies alike.

Foreign Policy reported Wednesday:

Instead of hitting the ground running, the Trump team emerged from the election ill-prepared for the daunting task of assembling a new administration and has yet to fill an array of crucial top jobs overseeing the country's national security and diplomacy, fueling uncertainty across the federal government.

"I've never seen anything like this," one career government official told Foreign Policy.

The delays and dysfunction threaten to cripple the incoming administration from the outset and raise the risk the White House will present confused or contradictory policies to the outside world. Without his team in place, the new president will likely be unprepared should an early-term crisis erupt abroad, or an adversary test the new administration's mettle, said former officials who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Indeed, also at Foreign Policy, Council of Foreign Relations national security studies fellow Max Boot noted: "Not even deputy secretaries have yet been appointed at the State or Defense departments, much less the crucial undersecretaries and assistant secretaries who are responsible for fleshing out the broad parameters of the administration's foreign policy. These are the obscure but important officials who do the real work of governing, teeing up the decisions that will be decided by the 'principals' at [National Security Council or NSC] meetings and then translating policy guidance (which in this president's case is likely to be quite broad) into specific actions."

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported Wednesday that while "the Obama administration has written 275 briefing papers for the incoming Trump administration"—many of them touching on key foreign policy issues and challenges—it is unclear if anyone on the Trump team has read them. 

According to the Times:

Less than three days before President [Barack] Obama turns the keys to the White House, and the nuclear codes, over to President-elect Donald J. Trump, Mr. Trump's transition staff has barely engaged with the National Security Council below the most senior levels. His designated national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, has met four times with his Obama counterpart, Susan E. Rice, most recently on Tuesday afternoon.

But the chronic upheaval in Mr. Trump's transition, a delay in appointing senior National Security Council staff members, and a dearth of people with security clearances have deprived the Trump team of weeks of prep work on some of the most complex national security issues facing the country.

Politico reported this week that in fact, "most of the NSC's key policy jobs are also open. They include senior directors handling such regions and issues as the Middle East, Russia, Afghanistan, economic sanctions, and nuclear proliferation."

What is active, however, is Trump's "shadow national security council," as the Washington Post revealed Thursday. That so-called "national security kitchen cabinet," which the Post says is "shaping his policies and setting itself up as the center of power for all matters of international significance," includes far-right strategist Steve Bannon, Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, and incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.

According to the Post, each of these men "has emerged as influential on foreign policy in unique ways," with Bannon focused on the U.S. relationship with Asia, building up the U.S. military, and spreading far-right populism around the world; Kushner acting as "a main interlocutor for foreign governments and...interacting with leading representatives from countries including Israel, Germany, and Britain;" and Priebus managing political considerations such as how decisions will be perceived by U.S. lawmakers, the media, or foreign officials. 

Not everyone is reassured by this arrangement:


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