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Trump's National Security Strategy Empowers Military Commanders


President Trump's national security decision-making style is becoming clear early in his administration, and it's quite a change from his predecessor. Trump has empowered his top military commanders in new ways, and he feels free to reverse his positions. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here to talk more about it. Hey there, Greg.


CORNISH: So the president is giving his military commanders leeway to act as they see fit. Now, is this being looked at as a change in style or actually a real change in substance?

MYRE: It's really both. Under President Obama, commanders in the field had to work their way up the chain of command. Plans would go off into the White House to the National Security Council, there would be meetings, then work its way back down. This is very different under Trump, he's authorized his generals. He's literally given them the authority to pull the trigger.

CORNISH: Now, Trump says this is already making a big difference. Here's how he described it yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have given them total authorization. And that's what they're doing. And, frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately. If you look at what's happened over the last eight weeks and compare that's what - really, to what's happened over the last eight years, you'll see there's a tremendous difference.

CORNISH: Greg, is there a tremendous difference?

MYRE: Well, the trajectory in the wars that the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan, in Iraq and Syria really hasn't changed very much. So that might be a bit of a stretch. But consider Afghanistan, for example. This is a place that Trump really didn't talk about in the campaign or during the early months of his presidency, and there's no sense that he specifically has a new plan for Afghanistan. But it was in the headlines yesterday because of this use of this large American bomb. And so it shows that by giving authorization to the generals, things can happen on the battlefield even if Trump wasn't intentionally planning a new approach.

CORNISH: Another thing, if military commanders choose more aggressive options, what does that mean in terms of civilian casualties?

MYRE: Well, this is a topic that keeps coming up, and it's being very closely watched. But as far as we know, there's been no specific changes to the rules of engagement. However, there have been some misfires that have resulted in some very high casualty tolls. Earlier this week in Syria, Syrian forces - they're are allied with the U.S. - were hit by U.S. air strike, and 18 of these fighters were killed. Now, apparently, the wrong coordinates were called in. And this was a mistake. It was an accident. It's the kind of thing that could happen at any time.

Also last month, we saw in Iraq there was a bombing where more than 100 civilians were killed in a very densely packed urban area. This is under investigation. But these are the kinds of things that will be watched very closely. And this was one of the reasons the Obama administration said we need to be very, very careful about where we're going. We want to vet a lot of these operations.

CORNISH: And I'm sure U.S. allies are watching closely, as well. How are they experiencing this shift?

MYRE: Well, there's a lot of questions out there. They want to know what Trump's policies have been. He's been moving in a lot of different directions. Just this week, the NATO secretary general was here in Washington. It's an alliance that Trump called obsolete during the campaign. Now he seems to be embracing them. And it's something that he's come around on.

His generals - whether it's H.R. McMaster, national security adviser, General Mattis, his defense secretary - had already been saying this. And seemed to be pushing Trump in the direction of more mainstream approaches. So while he's jumping around in different directions, one of the things we're seeing is more a conventional approach in some of these national security decisions.

CORNISH: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thanks so much.

MYRE: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.