Despite President Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric of putting "America first" by repudiating the expensive role as the world's policeman, calling Hillary Clinton "trigger-happy" and demanding U.S. allies spend more, he has, according to a new report from CNN, ramped up military intervention from Europe to Africa and the Middle East to South Asia.
Trump is escalating U.S. military presence and activity in Poland, the Baltics, Somalia, Yemen, Syria and may very very well do so in Afghanistan and Libya as well. In Syria, he launched a cosmetic cruise missile strike on a Syrian military base as a symbolic response to President Bashar Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons, and he is saber-rattling by suggesting a military response to North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Although Trump has egged on European allies to spend more on their own security, he recently augmented U.S. forces and funding for those forces in Europe. More generally, a similar contradiction exists. If allies spend more, and the United States, by theoretically eschewing the role of being the world's policeman, gets enmeshed in fewer conflicts, the U.S. defense budget should see a reduction in size, certainly not the 10 percent increase the president has proposed.
After six months, President Trump has failed to meet his three big foreign policy goals.
Also illogical is any re-escalation of the war in Afghanistan – adding 3,000 to 5,000 new troops to the 8,000 already there – without any new strategy to stanch the resurgence of the Taliban. This war has gone on for 16 years, but the U.S. lost it long ago, just like the British repeatedly did in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and as the Soviets did in the 1980s. They don't call Afghanistan the "graveyard of empires" for nothing. If the United States couldn't defeat the ragtag Taliban with 100,000 U.S. military personnel in the country, why would several thousand more American trainers make the corrupt, illiterate, desertion-prone Afghan security forces capable of doing so?
Most of this increased military activity overseas is done to fight "radical Islamic terrorism," and is being done quietly, so as not to rile Trump's political base. And Trump has virtually turned over decisions on war to his secretary of defense – who is a former general, as is his national security adviser and his new White House chief of staff – apparently to escape blame if some military action goes haywire. But the old cliche that "war is too important to be left to the generals" applies here – as does "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." In other words, generals usually only know how to deploy troops and fight, so they think that most violent eruptions in foreign societies require armed force to solve them.
And the generals also have a giant conflict of interest, because it was their handy work in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia that actually exacerbated radicalism and terrorism in those countries – so much so that (to use another cliché) the U.S. now has a finger in the dike and needs to bring in more fingers to plug more emerging holes in those societies.
In fact, politicians, the media and the public readily heap praise on a military leadership that has been so incompetent that it made the same mistakes of using excessive force in Afghanistan and Iraq as it did in Vietnam decades earlier. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were lost long ago, as was the peace in Libya. Deposing dictator Sadaam Hussein in Iraq was a disaster, so why was U.S. military leadership complicit in thinking a different outcome would occur when the United States did the same thing in Libya? Unsurprisingly, chaos, mayhem, internecine conflict and terrorism resulted yet again.
President Trump hasn't delivered on the fresh foreign policy approach his campaign promised.
As a candidate, Trump opposed all those wars, so why then, as president, doesn't he withdraw U.S. forces, instead of escalating these conflicts? Predictably, Trump has adopted former President George W. Bush's strategy of the "best defense [of the United States] is a good offense [overseas]," used in W's failed so-called global war on terror. It was counterproductive for Bush (and Obama), and it likely will prove so for Trump. Bush's invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq stoked Islamist terrorism in those countries and worldwide.
Trump can probably get away with going against his political base if he escalates these wars quietly, using small numbers of ground forces and airstrikes. However, when this aggressive policy merely fuels the adversary's resistance, the generals will want to escalate even more, as they did in Vietnam. Although Americans care less about foreign policy than they do about the economy, taxes, infrastructure, health care and other issues that affect their pocketbooks, a major quagmire involving large numbers of American forces overseas is not popular at election time, as voting showed in 2006 and 2008.
Trump should think about that before dipping his toe back into all these nonstrategic backwater nations – but he can't. Not only is he absent a coherent strategy to "win" in any of these perpetual foreign hell holes, but he also doesn't have an overarching national vision for what an effective U.S. role in the world should be.
Ivan Eland is a senior fellow with the Independent Institute.