Trump Is Stuck in His Own Foreign Policy Trap


That President Donald J. Trump has not faced a major foreign policy test has been a fairly commonplace observation among the punditry for fifteen months now– but his luck can’t hold out forever. Indeed, Trump looks more and more like a man who is taking the gloves off, with Iran and North Korea in his crosshairs. But perhaps an even more important and frightening question is: how will Trump react once he is in the OODA loop?

For those who don’t know, the OODA, or Boyd loop, is a conceptual framework devised by Naval pilot and military strategist John Boyd (1927 – 1997) to explain how conflict is won and lost. It is a deceptively simple cycle that looks like this:



Simply put, Observation is pretty much what you would expect: one’s perception of what is going on all around you.

Orientation is a bit more complex: Boyd defined orientation as frame of reference, “a complex set of filters comprised of genetic makeup, heritage, cultural pre-disposition, personal experience and knowledge,” according to Dr. Frans Osinga. 

Decision is a review of alternative courses of action and the selection of the preferred course.

Action is the implementation and testing of that decision.

And then the loop begins all over again and again and again. Until the end.

The basic idea Boyd was promoting with this model is that success in war, the achievement of victory, even survival, hinges on the quality and tempo of the cognitive processes of leaders and the organizations they lead. Conflict, according to this model, is a series of collisions of opposing organizations all undergoing their respective OODA loops. The individual or organization that navigates the loop most effectively throughout the duration of the conflict will likely prevail.

For Boyd, the key to success is orientation. “Orientation shapes the character present OODA loops while these present loops will shape the character of future loops” and “Orientation is the key factor – and variable –that enables or hinders generating harmony and initiative so that one can or cannot exploit variety/rapidity,” he wrote in 1995.

The wild card is that a person in the OODA loop cannot escape their orientation. They can learn, they can adapt, but they cannot –at least without training and help—become what they are not. Thus the leader acts according to his or her own orientation until learning to adapt.

And that is a frightening thought when it comes to Trump, given his total lack of desire to learn and the belief that he knows better than the experts, in this case the generals.

It’s fair to say that Donald Trump is the least experienced foreign policy President in American history. But all Presidents –the experienced and the novices -- find themselves in the OODA loop. How they cope with their first experience, what they learn from it and how they adapt in subsequent conflict, makes for a useful comparison and may indicate how the current President will react to a crisis. A case in point is how JFK, confronted with the OODA loop during the Bay of Pigs invasion, learned from the experience and fundamentally changed in a way that George W. Bush and Barack Obama never could.

A Case Study: JFK and 

It might be instructive to recall that John F. Kennedy ran for President as a Cold Warrior. On the campaign trail he often discussed the “missile gap” – an alleged strategic disparity between the United States and the USSR that he implied was created by lost opportunities by the Eisenhower administration and his opponent, VP Richard M. Nixon, to keep up with the USSR's technological advancements in developing missile technology.

Once in office, eager to prove his bona fides and with what he thought was a clear understanding of the rules of engagement, JFK green-lighted a plan to have a force of Cuban exiles invade Cuba and trigger a popular revolt aimed at deposing Fidel Castro. It did not go well. The fighting on the beach was a disaster, but JFK also made a poor decision to send in air support, leading to the deaths of four airmen from the Alabama Air National Guard. So deep was the shame that it took the Pentagon more than 15 years to recognize the airmen’s valor, in a medal ceremony their families were required even then to keep secret.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco convinced Kennedy that a primary task of his presidency was to bring the military under strict control, which included an enemy that would later be familiar to Obama and Trump: leakers. Articles in both Time and Newsweek portrayed Kennedy as much less aggressive than the Pentagon. Kennedy told his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, “This shit has got to stop” and, according to Salinger, told guests at the White House, “The first thing I’m going to tell my successor is to watch the generals, and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”

Having experienced the OODA loop for himself, Kennedy gained the resolve he needed to navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis without taking the advice of SAC General Curtis LeMay and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Maxwell Taylor, both of whom advocated taking actions that might have triggered a nuclear war.  “They always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and their split-second timing, but it never works out,” Kennedy said. “No wonder it’s so hard to win a war.”

Trump Today:

Trump is a whole different story. In some ways Trump more resembles the younger Churchill -- who authorized the attack on the Dardanelles-- than the older, wiser Churchill whose sober calculations and hard-headed, at times perhaps immoral decisions, helped lead the Allies to victory.

Trump’s orientation (or lack of it) should terrify America. His refusal to understand, his refusal to learn, his refusal to take responsibility for mistakes, his inability to share credit with others, his insatiable greed and his utter lack of moral character is a terrible orientation for someone entering the OODA loop, especially when his adversaries are likely to be tested North Korean and/or Chinese generals, the Iranian government and military, and Vladimir Putin, his criminal enterprise, and the FSB. All of these adversaries are experienced, well-trained and disciplined. Trump is none of those things.

Trump’s most characteristic traits are his thin skin, his aversion to reading and learning, his inability to tell the truth, and his unwillingness to take responsibility for mistakes. An early experience in the OODA loop told us exactly what to expect from Trump the Commander-in-Chief:

Less than a week after taking office, Donald J. Trump authorized a raid in the al Bayda province in central Yemen, his first counterterrorism operation as Commander-in-Chief. The raid did not go well, to say the least. Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens was killed in the raid, along with nine children under the age of 13.

Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer gave what was either a wrong or a dishonest assessment to the press, insisting that the mission was a “successful operation by all standards.”

Yet soon the administration was distancing itself from the raid, as the scope of the disaster became apparent. In another press briefing on February 2, Spicer emphasized that most of the planning happened in the final weeks of former President Barack Obama’s administration.

When Trump, along with his daughter, Ivanka, went to pay their respects to the Owens family as the flag-draped casket was taken off the airplane at Dover Air Force Base, the SEALs father refused to meet with them. Mr. Owens demanded an investigation and asked some tough questions:

“Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration? Why? For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen — everything was missiles and drones — because there was not a target worth one American life. Now, all of a sudden we had to make this grand display?”

So Trump passed the buck on ownership of the mission on February 28 when, in an interview with Fox and Friends, he re-iterated that the previous administration -- and “his” generals -- shared responsibility for the death of Owens:

"Well, this was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something that was, you know, just they wanted to do. And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. My generals are the most respected that we've had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan."

As has often been the case since then, the bureaucracy or “deep state” of the military pushed back on Trump with a leaked statement of their own. Three U.S. military officials speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters: “Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support, or adequate backup preparations.”

As a result, the three officials said, “the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.”

A few months later, two completely unrelated military missions occurred. First came the missile strike on Syria, in retaliation for a sarin gas attack, and then the detonation of the MOAB (Mother of All Bombs) in Afghanistan, targeting an ISIS compound. In neither case did Trump himself sign off on the action. He said, “What I do is I authorize my military.... We have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing.”

So in what is a stark contrast to Kennedy, the lesson Trump took away from the disastrous Yemen raid was to delegate more autonomy to the Pentagon in conducting military operations. And after years of strict supervision of drone strikes and other military operations under Obama, the military was free to follow its own doctrine, decide where and when and how to strike and at whom.

“I have generals that are great generals. These are great fighters; these are warriors. I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win. That’s the authority they have. I want to win. And we’re going to win,” Trump said.

Victory often takes a more cohesive strategy than winning. Losses are expected, and hopefully managed. Donald J. Trump has talked often of winning but whether he has what it takes to achieve victory is far from a given. And the prospect of Trump in the OODA loop is downright frightening. His lack of sound orientation, his inability to accurately observe and his refusal to make adjustments from mistakes will be costly.

And yet now Trump seems poised to enter this loop. He has fired Tillerson and McMaster and replaced them with Pompeo and Bolton, the enablers he needs to endorse his gut feelings and absurd belief that he somehow knows better than his generals, and he has tuned out any critics that might have useful advice for him.

Boyd wrote: “Orientation is an interactive process of many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections that is shaped by and shapes the interplay of genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences and unfolding circumstances.”

Given what Trump has shown himself to be, who he is surrounding himself with, and the bellicose nature of what he is tweeting and saying -- we don’t stand a chance.