President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team has drawn praise, if for no other reason than that it functions without drama and within the guardrails of mainstream conservative thought. As the Daily Beast reports:
There’s a new band in town that’s guiding national security by quietly tutoring the most powerful man in America. Never-Trump Republicans who’d been apprehensive about President Donald Trump are celebrating the trio’s influence, calling Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Homeland Secretary John Kelly the “Axis of Adults.”
Through near daily contact with the trio, as well as Trump’s National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and CIA director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s world view appears to be morphing more closely [to] match hawkish conservatives of the Bush administration.
The Axis of Adults, in essence, has ignored virtually everything Trump said during the campaign about foreign policy. Candidate Trump wanted to get along with Russia, start a trade war with China, let Russia deal with Syria, declare NATO obsolete and force Mexico to pay for his 2,000-mile wall. The Axis of Adults has steered Trump back to reality and into bipartisan policy decisions. He now acknowledges that Russia is not our friend, intervened (however briefly) in Syria and recognizes that strategic cooperation with China is necessary, that NATO is our most critical alliance and that Mexico isn’t paying for an ounce of concrete, let alone the entire wall.
Rather than represent the president’s pro-Putin views, Tillerson has become a junior partner in the Axis of Adults, less vocal than others but supportive of a tough line on Russia and a robust NATO alliance.
Unfortunately, with the singular exception of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, the group has given short shrift to human rights, embracing Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi without reservation and remaining silent on human rights violations in China and even in Iran. Failure to integrate strong defense of democratic values may be one casualty of a foreign policy driven by generals and a former oil-company CEO.
What’s the key to the effectiveness of the members of the Axis of Adults? They embody everything Trump and his campaign clique rejected. They have decades of public service and believe in U.S. leadership in the world. They understand the seminal failure of the Obama administration (i.e. creating vacuums that were sure to filled by bad actors) and the need to rebuild U.S. credibility. They have no fidelity to Trump per se and did not sacrifice intellectual integrity to shill for him during the campaign. And they allow no amateurs (i.e. Stephen K. Bannon) to meddle in or politicize national security. (In essence, giving Jared Kushner the portfolio of “peace in the Middle East” is akin to sending him on the quest for the Holy Grail. Send word when you find it, Jared! In the meantime, the Axis of Adults will handle the real foreign policy.)
Knowing the president’s lack of foreign policy prowess, the Axis of Adults presents him with consensus recommendations, which he is in a poor position to reject. The praise garnered from following its direction will no doubt encourage him to sign off on future recommendations.
Unfortunately for the country, this model of policy creation and implementation cannot easily be duplicated on the domestic side. There, policy amateurs and family members dominate. The campaign brain trust (e.g. Reince Priebus, Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller) continues to wield influence. Moreover, the president — to his detriment — is engaged from day to day but not informed on policy details. The result is a string of fiascoes such as health-care reform and the travel ban. Once again, the sole success was the result of deferring entirely to non-campaign conservative experts, those lawyers who put now-Justice Neil Gorsuch on the list of judges to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia.
In sum, what makes the Axis of Adults successful and its foreign policy coherent cannot feasibly be re-created on the domestic side, where ideologues, campaign flunkies, family members and ignoramuses rule the roost. Put differently, whatever Trump is most engaged in — and wherever his handpicked cronies and relatives dominate — becomes a disaster area.
Jennifer Rubin is a Washington Post columnist.