Like health care and tax policy, the Trump administration is quickly finding out that foreign policy – including when and how to deploy the military – is “incredibly complicated” with moving parts and few quick or easy wins. Inside Trump’s first 100 days we’re beginning to see a pattern that raises some concerns about how his foreign and military policies work in tandem to achieve positive results. The three most significant concerns are:
- Quick sugar-high in the polls
“President Trump’s overall approval rating edged up,” according to a CBS News poll following the Syrian missile strike, “though most respondents voice unease about his approach to Syria going forward, and say Congress must authorize further actions there.” Donald Trump is famously poll-obsessed and has a propensity for action. If airstrikes or missile strikes can improve his standing in the polls while doing something that is immediately visible to friends and foes alike, then he is more likely to repeat the action even if there is no clear strategic or political outcome. Further, Donald Trump has been markedly reluctant to assume responsibility for failures even when they are glaringly obvious to others. “What I do is, I authorize my military,” Trump recently claimed. “We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done a job as usual. So we have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing. And, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.” Trump glosses over the late January raid in Somalia that cost a US service member his life and resulted in very little useful intelligence. By all accounts, after the Trump administration hyped the positives in the raid, the intelligence gathered has done little to advance US interests in the region.
2. Military leadership with limited civilian input
Trump’s statement about “authorizing the military” raised further concerns among defense experts because his senior leadership is so heavily staffed by career military officials while many of the civilian posts that help the military think through the long-term consequences of military action remain unfilled. Alice Hunt Friend, a Senior Fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes about the potential pitfalls of a military operation that lacks the input of civilian colleagues. She refers specifically to the 1993 incursion into Somalia that resulted in the now famous “Blackhawk Down” incident that cost 18 US service members their lives. “The lessons of Somalia should apply to any political appointee in a position to connect strategy to military operations, and should encourage contemporary policymakers not to ignore DoD’s operational choices.”
3. Military intervention leading to political stability
Based on the failure of the American Health Care Act and President Trump’s inability to strike a deal with the members of his own party, Americans are beginning to wonder if Donald Trump is as good at making deals as he claims. In fact the kinds of deals that Trump must now make are fundamentally different than the deals he made as a real estate investor. In the geopolitical arena, successful deals are about trade-offs, relationships, respect, and following through on your word. It’s not really about besting your opponent or crushing the competition. Can you make your enemy into your friend and help advance both parties’ interests? The military is a remarkable tool in terms of supporting or achieving a political outcome. But even the most hawkish US military leaders, along with left- and right-leaning politicians, are wary of regime change without a plan for eventual political stability.
In the final analysis President Trump’s use of the military to achieve foreign policy objectives is causing great concern and could potentially create instability that is detrimental to US interests.