MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
When President Trump stepped up to the podium last night, he touted what he views as his administration's accomplishments, both here at home and abroad.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria...
Accelerated our negotiations to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan...
If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.
KELLY: President Trump at the State of the Union talking there about ISIS, about Afghanistan, about North Korea. For some perspective on the challenges the president faces on the world stage these next two years and how prepared he and his team are to confront them, we turn to Tony Blinken. He was deputy national security adviser, then deputy secretary of state under President Obama. Tony Blinken, thanks for joining us.
ANTONY BLINKEN: Great to be here. Thank you.
KELLY: Did you hear anything from the foreign policy section of last night's speech that - I don't know - delighted you, dismayed you, surprised you?
BLINKEN: There were - there was the good. There was the bad. And there was the something in between. The good is, look; the president is right that we have made dramatic progress against the Islamic State, ISIS. And the president was actually following through on a game plan designed by his predecessor, President Obama. But he did a good job in further ensuring that the caliphate that ISIS is trying to build has actually been destroyed. But he's undercut the success of his own policy and the policy of President Obama by this impulsive withdrawal of the 2,000 special forces that we had in Syria precisely to keep a foot on ISIS' throat and to enable about 60,000 local forces to do the same thing. So...
KELLY: And notable that there was not a big section on Syria in this speech. He didn't dwell on it at great length in the State of the Union.
BLINKEN: Which is interesting - and similarly Afghanistan. I think the president reflects a desire across the board in the United States to pull back from what some people call forever wars. And that instinct is probably a good one. But again, here, he, a few weeks ago, impulsively and unilaterally declared that we were pulling out half of the remaining troops at the very moment we're negotiating with the Taliban, basically taking the leverage away from our chief negotiator, giving something away for nothing.
KELLY: You wrote a piece for The New York Times the other day in which you argue that the Trump administration has not yet faced a real foreign policy crisis and wouldn't be prepared to handle one when and if it should come along. So let me push you on this specifically and just setting aside what you like or don't like about the president's policy, why do you think they're not ready?
BLINKEN: Three things - people, process, policy; the right people in senior levels of government to be able to give a president good ideas and tell him when he was pursuing bad ones, a process that actually brings all of the key people from all of the different departments and agencies around the same table to develop options, to debate them, to stress test them and then to give them to the president and, finally, all of this in service of developing actual policy so that we have a starting point so that the entire administration knows where we're going and so does the rest of the world. In each of these three areas, this administration is the least prepared in modern memory.
KELLY: Let me challenge you to apply your thinking to maybe the newsiest thing that President Trump talked about last night - North Korea. He's announced another summit is now set in Vietnam end of this month, February 27 and 28. We, of course, don't know outside the government exactly what's going on, but it does appear from what we can glimpse that there is more groundwork being laid certainly than we saw in the run-up to the first Kim Jong Un summit in Singapore.
BLINKEN: Well, that's the key question, and you make the key point. The first summit, there was virtually no preparation. The process that I talked about as being so important didn't happen. And so the president went into that summit and essentially gave a lot of things away and got very little, if nothing, in return. The art of the deal turned into the art of the steal for Kim Jong Un. So the question now is are they...
KELLY: And do you think they've learned a lesson from that?
BLINKEN: I hope so.
KELLY: What do you see as the greatest potential risk that we may be facing in the next couple of years?
BLINKEN: Look; unfortunately, there are a whole series of them, and that's why I said what concerns me is that we have not yet been tested in a profound way, either as a country or as an administration - a massive terrorist attack of some kind, a cyberattack that disables the economy or industry. Those would be significant.
KELLY: Although, in fairness, would any of the past administrations you served have been completely and utterly prepared to deal with...
BLINKEN: No one is completely and utterly prepared.
KELLY: ...A terror attack or cyberattack? Yeah.
BLINKEN: No one's completely or utterly prepared. But consider this - the George H.W. Bush administration, which in many ways was a model for having the right people, the right process, the right policy, handled the end of the Cold War brilliantly. And suffice to say, there was nothing preordained about that going smoothly because they had those three things - people, process, policy - they did a terrific job. I like to think the Obama administration in the way it handled Osama bin Laden, or, for that matter, the Ebola outbreak, demonstrates those same principles.
KELLY: Tony Blinken - veteran of the National Security Council and the State Department under the Obama administration. He is now at the Penn Biden Center. Tony Blinken, thanks.
BLINKEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.