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Respectable Disagreements: Presidential StratComms

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Welcome to a new series with the Wavell Room, “Respectable Disagreements”. Here, two authors will examine an issue from opposing sides. Not a debate, per se, as there is no intention to decide a favourite or a “winner”, the intention is instead to demonstrate that on any given issue, two correct arguments can exist. Moreover, it is important to recognise that such intellectual disjunctions can exist respectfully and collegially.

For this first instalment, John Laurens and I will argue two contrary positions on the subject of President Trump’s foreign policy strategic communications in the deaths of Baghdadi and Suleimani. Bringing the favourable review, Laurens offers a compelling interpretation of Trump’s use of the bully pulpit that is the American Presidency. Give it a read and a think and next we will bring you my piece in respectable disagreement. – Jill S. Russel

Does the Don do STRACOM?

How should POTUS react when a foe is felled?  And what about when that foe is the leader of arguably the most dangerous and awful terrorist grouping of our lifetimes, ISIS? 

That was what faced Trump on 27 Oct 2019 when POTUS watched via head cam as al-Baghdadi blew himself and his children up in a tunnel, cornered by US SOF.   If anybody thought he was going to deliver an Obama style display of dispassion, or that he would be conciliatory, they were disappointed.

On the surface, the statement he made and the way he made it was gauche, bragging Trump.  According to him this hit was a bigger deal for the US than OBL’s assassination by Obama.  There was the awful, familiar lack of self-awareness when he described how it was ‘as though you were watching a movie’, as if he’d just watched a James Bond chase and not a family being brutally dispatched.  He also revealed he had previously imagined special forces entered such situations through front and back doors. 

But as well as revealing that every day really is a school day for this POTUS, Trump also delivered some well thought through messages.  I argue that this was a virtuoso STRATCOM performance and therefore by definition statesmanlike.  Deeds supported words.  Words articulated policy and strategy, and threats were followed through.  Trump demonstrated sublime use of the rhetorical triangle of credibility, facts and emotion and so his message landed perfectly with its intended audience of supporters at home and foes abroad:  the technological dominance which allowed him to watch events ‘so clearly’; the implied threat of the ‘long reach’ of the US; the detail of the mutilated body; the comparison of al-Baghdadi to a dog, that animal so reviled by the Arabs; the whimpering terror of the man about to die; even the fact that the US compelled others to kill themselves and that there were no US casualties as a result were all elements of communication.  Don just did STRATCOM.

And in case you weren’t so sure look what just happened to QUDS Force Commander, General Suleimani.  On New Year’s Eve 2019 Trump tweeted that ‘Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damaged occurred, at any of our facilities,’ when discussing the protests around the US Embassy in Baghdad.  Kamenei responded on Twitter with ‘You can’t do anything.’  On 3 Jan Trump attacked Suleimani, killing him in an audacious strike in Baghdad.  Again, words supported by deeds.  The audience seems clear and there’s not much to be lost in translation on this occasion.  As to the ramifications of the strike, we’ll have to wait and see.  Had Trump involved his allies in the moment and shared the news, he may well have received more unequivocal backing from at least Boris Johnson, and that is a lesson for next time.  Such displays of strength are exactly what these audiences in the ME respect.  The actions are precise, refined and follow clearly articulated threats and so they are just as likely to deescalate the overall situation as to escalate.  Keeping a lid on this is the next STRATCOM challenge and will require Saudi Arabia and Israel to hold off taking advantage of any perceived weaknesses within Iran.  Surely Iran will make a counter move to save face, and the other challenge for the US administration is to judge its appropriateness after the fact, not before it, and respond accordingly.   Iraq is interesting.  Who knows if they’ll keep the US there to complete the defeat of ISIS, or send them home.  If they stay, the US looks strong.  If they get sent back, Trump will claim he predicted it and that he bought the troops home. 

Trump manages this massaging in other situations too.  I’ve been to the White House for briefings twice, once during Trump’s tenure.  The messages on China, NATO, and the UK were very clear, and supported by his actions.  He has backed up the messages with an ongoing trade war, voicing publicly doubts about NATO’s future given the current burden sharing arrangements, and made clear who he supported during the election.  It really wasn’t like that the first time I went.

In the examples I have cited Trump has little between him and his audiences.  No swamp, no DoS, no Democrats.  With al-Baghdadi and Suleimani, decisions were almost exclusively kept between POTUS and the military.  He denied knowledge to the ‘Gang of Eight’ (think of the Privy Council as an equivalent) who would normally expect to be informed.  As competent as I argue he is at STRATCOM, when he hits other elements of government or governance US actions and deeds don’t always match up; but the White House, he and his staff all get this most modern way of achieving effect. 

Trump lacks a lot of qualities we’d hope to see in POTUS, or indeed from a human being.  But he is canny, and canny enough to be POTUS.  He really gets STRATCOM.  Where he struggles is as it gets further from him and his team, others may not. 

John Laurens

John is an active duty officer in Her Majesty’s Forces. He has written previously on military policy and personal experience at CCLKOW

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