Commentary: Flynn's departure leaves Trump administration rudderless, with a feuding crew

Former State Department counselor Eliot Cohen conjures Captain Ahab in sharp assessment of White House operations to date

Michael Flynn stands with arms crossed in front of Trump supporters at rally

Image caption: Michael Flynn, who resigned from his role as national security adviser in the Trump administration earlier this week, is shown at a Donald Trump campaign rally in Phoenix in October 2016.

Credit: Gage Skidmore

Sea metaphors abound in Eliot Cohen's commentary, published today in The Atlantic, about the future of the presidency of Donald Trump.

Eliot Cohen

Image caption: Eliot Cohen

Cohen, a former State Department counselor and a professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., likens the U.S. to a ship, and Trump to the captain. He sees two possibilities for the future: Either the president relinquishes control of the ship by "conced[ing] the direction of foreign policy" to his cabinet secretaries; or the ship itself is "in serious trouble." The latter, he argues, is the far more likely outcome.

He points to two problems, the first of which is the controversy surrounding embattled national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who resigned late Monday.

"Since World War II, the United States has evolved a system for making foreign policy that depends on an effective White House operation in the form of the National Security Council staff," Cohen writes. "The elaborate hierarchy of interagency committees that evolved actually works rather well most of the time, but it depends critically on the ability of a competent staff working directly for the president to orchestrate it."

Cohen, a frequent Trump critic, also suggests that a conflict of personalities—between White House senior aides and officials and the president himself—is also probable. He sees a series of disparate circles of foreign policy influence emerging within the upper echelons of the White House, including the national security council staff (which he calls "paralyzed"); White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon; Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser; and possibly the offices of the Vice President and White House Chief of Staff.

"Trump seems to like this arrangement, which is not only confusing but built for serious conflict," Cohen says.

More from The Atlantic:

The optimistic theory could prove true, if Trump appoints a forceful national security adviser and diminishes Bannon's and Kushner's roles. It is more likely, however, that the White House will be the scene of knife fights below decks and shouted orders and counterorders on the quarterdeck. And at the end of the day, Trump, like Captain Ahab, will probably remain topside, pursuing whatever Moby Dick his imagination has just conjured up. That story did not end particularly well for all aboard.

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