Who is Robert O'Brien, Trump's new national security adviser? And what has he walked into?

It is now up to O’Brien to demonstrate to critical players around the world that he can move the president toward shaping a newly coherent vision.
Image:  President Donald Trump with newly announced White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien at Los Angeles International Airport on Sept. 18, 2019.
President Donald Trump with newly announced White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien at Los Angeles International Airport on Sept. 18, 2019.Tom Brenner / Reuters
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By David A. Andelman, Executive director of The RedLines Project

The temperament and myopia of Donald Trump that led to the sudden departure — whether by choice or by force — of his third national security adviser in less than three years is a vivid demonstration that the president’s bold, unorthodox foreign policy initiatives are probably doomed.

A clone in many respects of his predecessor John Bolton, new adviser Robert O’Brien is an on-again, off-again diplomat who won Trump’s trust as a hostage negotiator. Most recently, O’Brien leapt to the defense of the American rapper ASAP Rocky after the artist was charged in Sweden for assault. (Trump’s investment in the case may have been less about the rapper’s welfare and more about pushing a specific narrative about immigrants and crime.)

Bolton and O’Brien seem to have shared views of a muscular foreign policy that O’Brien believes should battle “appeasement and retreat,” as he described Obama foreign policy choices in his book “While America Slept.” But will O’Brien simply follow Trump’s orders? Because breaking any major new ground in regions and disputes that across the globe are largely frozen by inaction will require someone with the savvy and spine to stand up to the president on occasion and not simply following the commander in chief’s flights of diplomatic fancy.

Unlike Bolton, whose droopy, bushy mustache was only one of many irritants for Trump and top aides, O’Brien brings a different, more traditional aesthetic. But like many of Trump’s past personnel choices, the looks often don't make the man. “I think the greatest challenge he will have is his relative lack of experience inside the U.S. government, and with the interagency process, given that a gigantic part of the job is coordinating the interagency process,” Richard Fontaine, the chief executive of the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security, told The New York Times.

Breaking any major new ground in regions and disputes that across the globe are largely frozen by inaction will require someone with savvy and spine.

O’Brien's biography on his law firm's website describes him as a lawyer who "focuses on complex commercial litigation … in the entertainment, oil and gas, technology, finance and real estate industries.” O'Brien has also worked in various diplomatic posts, usually behind-the-scenes. But the challenges he now faces constitute an extreme trial by fire.

Among the doomed or failed initiatives that O’Brien will now be inheriting is the bizarre relationship between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un; the ongoing confrontations with China over tariffs and Beijing’s dominance in the South China Sea; America’s withdrawal from a daisy chain of treaties including nuclear pacts with Iran and Russia and a climate pact with the world. Then there’s Trump’s embrace of dictators and right-wing demagogues like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salmannot to mention Vladimir Putin, whose every utterance and claim of innocence Trump appears to believe unquestioningly.

None of these friendships, bold moves or efforts to tear down proven norms and rebuild them better, longer, more profitably has yet to bear fruit. And they probably won't. There is quite simply no such thing as unorthodox foreign policy initiatives. They have almost all been proven to fail in the end.

There are several essentials to successful global leadership. The first one is consistency. Nations must be persuaded that a leader is prepared to establish a negotiating position and maintain it. This is the opposite of what we’ve seen with North Korea, where, Trump’s initial position with respect to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal — fire and fury — morphed into a total reversal the moment Kim sent an invitation to a summit, followed by a succession of unctuously flattering letters to Trump.

Consistency does not in any sense preclude flexibility, another central attribute of a viable agreement between nations. But flexibility must develop in the course of a process of negotiations, rather than any abrupt volte-face. None of Trump’s significant dealings with foreign powers has this attribute.

Which brings us to a final attribute — reliability. Can America’s long-standing friends and allies count on us to respect the rules of the road established not only by Obama but for generations before. Could Europe ever count on Trump’s America to come to its defense as it did in two world wars and countless regional conflicts? The critical Article Five of the Charter of the United Nations establishes that if one NATO member is attacked, all must respond. This has only been invoked once — on 9/11. But any number of smaller NATO members, particularly the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that share long and direct borders with Russia, continue to take great comfort in Article Five.

There is a reason these negotiating rules need to be followed. When President Woodrow Wilson journeyed to Paris a century ago to personally negotiate the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, he failed to understand the reality that successful treaties are born out of realpolitik not ideology. The price the world paid was the Second World War barely 20 years later.

Sadly, Trump has also failed to understand this lesson. In large part, his failures stem from his inability to surround himself with those who understand the rules of the road — how diplomatic systems work or do not work and who have studied the errors and successes of the past. Henry Kissinger called this understanding “weltanschauung,” and there have been few national security advisers who either arrived with one or developed one in office. No Trump adviser has done so to date.

There was a reason the Camp David meeting produced a concrete outcome for President Jimmy Carter and peace between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin. There was a shared understanding of the stakes involved and a consistency of message that Carter helped bring to the negotiations from the beginning. Same for Richard Holbrooke's Dayton meetings that led to peace and an end to murderous ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Kissinger's Vietnam Paris talks in Paris led to a final U.S. withdrawal and an end to American bloodshed in Indochina.

More recently there was the agreement between every major nation on earth to arrive at a pact to contain global warming and the complex American-brokered talks that halted Iran’s dash toward a nuclear bomb. Trump was so eager to torpedo these two landmark accords that he utterly failed to understand why they had been accomplished — or how little chance there would be to replace them under his rules of diplomatic chaos.

Most immediately, and potentially most toxic, is the Iranian nuclear issue, which continues to affect a host of foreign policy conundrums, including America’s relationships with Europe, Russia, Saudi Arabia and much of the Middle East. Will the president meet with any senior Iranian leader and under what terms? How will the attack on Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia effect these negotiations? Both are questions O’Brien will have to tackle as soon as possible.

All these pingpong locutions leave the American people — not to mention the people of Iran and the other American allies who signed the nuclear agreement — dangling on a limb. It is now up to Robert O’Brien to demonstrate to all these critical players that he understands the stakes and can move the president toward shaping a coherent, consistent vision that will allow America to lead again.