In some of my columns from the past year, I took the Obama Administration to task for not having an effective foreign policy – especially with regard to national security. Indeed, I have long believed that it was the former president’s inability to cogently elaborate a successfully strategic vision that led to such debacles as the overthrow of the Quaddafi regime in Libya, which effectively turned that country into a failed state, irresoluteness of his policy on Syria, the failure to stop the expansion of ISIS, the failure to contain the aggression of North Korea and the failure to stop the continued growth of the complex Iranian threat.
Well, we have now had Donald Trump as our President for one hundred days – that fabled but ultimately meaningless milestone – and what have we witnessed? On the issue of Syria, the new President did a rapid about-face: first, his Administration signaled that it was satisfied with leaving the Assad regime in place and, then, almost immediately launched a missile attack on a Syrian airport after the regime utilized poisonous gas on its own citizens. Then, the Administration dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on an al-Queda complex in Afghanistan that appears to have had no strategic purpose whatsoever. Finally, the Trump Administration ratcheted up tensions with the rogue state of North Korea, even claiming that they were sending a naval carrier group into the vicinity (when it was actually not).
If we were to be charitable, we could say that these incidents represent the “growing pains” of a new presidential administration seeking to find its footing. Indeed, most Presidential administrations seem to experience crises early in their tenure that make them appear irresolute or even weak. Recall, for example, the now-obscure incident in June 2001 when the Chinese captured US pilots and servicemen and held them captive on Hainan Island for two weeks, forcing the Bush Administration to issue an apology for the U.S. straying into Chinese airspace. Or consider the Clinton Administration’s early response to the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993 that was criticized at the time for appearing irresolute. New administrations often struggle to find their footing and make errors that reveal their inexperience.
Yet, the Trump Administration’s foreign policy actions in its first 100 days suggest something far more concerning – an Administration that, despite its aggressively nationalist rhetoric (“Make America Great Again”), does not have any kind of strategic vision. Ultimately, every administration, good or bad, seeks to secure and, if possible, advance the U.S.’s national interests but they differ on how best to do this. Some administrations opt for a relatively benign approach that emphasizes what the writer Joseph Nye has called America’s “soft power” (the global appeal of American culture, our foreign aid, etc.) – the Clinton Administration, for example, was a typical “soft power” Administration. Some choose a more assertive “hard power” approach that sees the use of force to effectuate our national goals – the hallmark of this approach was the George W. Bush administration.
With the Trump administration, however, it appears that a “hard power” rhetoric is being married to a strategy that focuses on short-term optics rather than long-term results and especially a disconnect between the use of the military and a goal to achieve political outcomes. What do I mean? Let’s take the bombing in Afghanistan: by dropping the largest non-nuclear bombon a remote part of Afghan territory, the Trump Administration sought to make itself appear tough and resolute, although no military experts that I have read argues that the bombing made any difference in the U.S.’s war against either the Taliban or ISIS in that country. Similarly, launching a missile attackinto Syria made the new administration appear like it was forcefully responding to Assad’s most recent war crime, but it did little to stop or deter the key regional threats: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Indeed, the air base targeted in the attack was open the very next day. Finally, by engaging in bellicose rhetoric against North Korea, the new administration risks stirring up one of the world’s most dangerous hornet’s nest – leave aside for a minute the risk that the North Koreans may have an ICBM within the next few years, they already have the capability of totally destroying Seoul and Tokyo. Yet, by claiming a “delayed fact” that a Navy carrier group was coming to put pressure on Pyongyang, the new Administration did little more than antagonize our South Korean allies who, let’s admit it, have an existential interest in what happens on the peninsula.
Boiled down to its essence, Trump’s strategy appears to be one of making a show of toughness without any appreciable follow-through. As a former military officer combined with my interest in Public Policy and strategy, I believe that this is a non-sustained strategy. Power is only credible when there is an effective strategy that undergirds it and results in a desired political outcome: otherwise, leaders are tempted either to use it arbitrarily or inconsistently. If the main consideration in the use of force is how it will make the leader appear or an emphasis on the optics, then there will be a tendency to seek out short-term advantage over long-term achievements. This is just as bad as having no strategy at all. Obama’s “strategic patience” strategy with North Korea may have been a fancy way of kicking the can down the road. Similarly, a lot can be said about Obama’s letting Vladimir Putin can the diplomatic advantage with regard to Syria. Obama’s actions were consistent with inaction and now President Trump strategy is active but inconsistent and confusing as to its goals.
The Trump Administration, of course, has plenty of time to learn from its mistakes and settle down into a coherent strategy that will demonstrate consistency and resoluteness on the world stage. At least, that is what I hope will happen. But it is difficult to look at these first hundred days with anything less than being perplexed. The United States is still the world’s most powerful nation and, given this, it has a duty to act in a manner that will result in positive political outcomes that favor the USA. The key to remaining a responsible power acting in the best interest of the United States is to develop and effectuate a national security strategy that is not based on tactical responses at what is perceived as an emerging threat or crisis, The administration is responsible to develop a national security strategy that demonstrates a consistency of purpose towards friends and foes alike. The “first 100 days” have demonstrated that inconsistent national strategy is just as bad as no strategy at all.