scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Trump, an untested leader, facing several key military crises

President Trump arrived at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last week.FRIEDEMANN VOGEL/POOL/EPA

WASHINGTON — President Trump has packed his Cabinet with more generals than any president since World War II. One of his favorite movies is “Patton,” he owned a football team in the 1980s called the New Jersey Generals, and he’s often touted his relationship with the military brass.

But despite Trump’s deep affinity for the armed forces, he is a historically inexperienced commander in chief now dealing with an array of problems that have vexed each of his predecessors as well.

Wars in Syria and Afghanistan. Warlike talk coming out of North Korea, not to mention missiles. Nose to nose with Vladimir Putin on several fronts. And who knows what comes next.


Assessments of Trump’s capacity to deal with such challenges break down along familiar lines. To his critics, he has struggled to demonstrate he has a plan or any coherent approach to dealing with the world’s most intractable problems. To his supporters, he is refreshingly willing to take risks and prepared to yield to his military advisers.

And now, courtesy of North Korea’s unpredictable leader, Trump has a huge and immediate threat to contend with, one that arrived early on his presidential learning curve. Just before he departed for crucial meetings in Europe on his second foreign trip, North Korea, which is developing nuclear weapons, demonstrated that it has the ability to fire a ballistic missile that could hit Alaska.

The development increases the pressure on the Trump administration to craft a solution for containing threats from the isolated, secretive country that have bedeviled three previous presidents. Out of this crucible will emerge the clearest picture yet of the president’s approach and capacities for command.

“We are now at a point of peril that is difficult for us to imagine,” said Gordon Chang, author of the book “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World.” “I can’t think of anybody I have confidence in making the correct decisions. There’s so little margin for error. This is not Trump’s fault. But Trump is the president we have. And we all better hope he makes the right decisions.”


Trump so far has been vague and inconsistent, offering veiled threats but few specifics.

“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said on Thursday. “I have some pretty severe things that we’re thinking about.” A few hours later, Defense Secretary James Mattis offered clarification: War, he said, was not one of the things they were thinking about.

“I do not believe this capability in itself brings us close to war,” Mattis said, adding that the emphasis would be on economic and diplomatic avenues.

Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended a panel discussion Saturday at the G-20 summit.Ukas Michael/Pool/Getty Images

The topic was a constant theme during Trump’s two days of meetings at the Group of 20 conference that concluded Saturday in Hamburg. In meetings with South Korea and Japan, Trump assured leaders that the United States would support them. And during a meeting Saturday with President Xi Jinping of China, who has been reluctant to pressure his country’s North Korean ally, Trump stressed that “something has to be done.”

“It may take longer than I’d like, it may take longer than you’d like,” Trump said. “But there will be success in the end one way or the other.”

Following a lengthy face-to-face meeting with Putin on Friday, the Trump administration also announced an agreement with Russia for a limited cease-fire in southwestern Syria.


But the conference also put on display how isolated the United States has become under Trump, with other world powers now pursuing their own trade deals and agreeing to continue working together on climate change.

Even simple handshakes with longtime allies can now seem fraught.

Watching Trump on the foreign stage can be jarring after eight years of Barack Obama. While the former president was deliberative, thinking things out from every angle and sometimes avoiding firm decisions, Trump’s reactions seem more visceral and instinctual.

“If you have somebody who was steeped in foreign policy their entire lives and acting on their gut? Fine,” Chang said. “But you’re dealing with someone who is not a foreign policy guy and he’s making decisions on his gut.”

Still, Chang said, Trump should be judged on results rather than how he does it.

Obama’s tenure was rocked by the Arab Spring and the dramatic shifts that upheaval introduced into the region. Libya descended into civil war, and Syria’s regime, fighting its own civil war, used chemical weapons on its own people.

He followed through on his promised Iraq draw-down, which many observers believe was premature and gave an opening to the Islamic State. But Obama achieved some military successes: He authorized the killing of Osama bin Laden and oversaw a large expansion of drone operations that took out terrorist plotters and insurgents.

Trump arrived at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on Feb. 1 to meet with the family of a Navy SEAL killed during an operation in Yemen.Stephen Crowley/New York Times/File/Globe Freelance

Trump is relying heavily on his military advisers early in his administration and has shown in several instances that he is willing to engage more readily than Obama.


“What we’ve seen is not the hesitation or reluctance to use military force that it seems sometimes plagued his predecessor,” said Mitchell Reiss, a former senior diplomat who held top State Department positions during the George W. Bush administration.

Shortly after taking office, Trump authorized a raid in Yemen in which a Navy SEAL was killed. Trump later went to Dover Air Force Base to witness the return of the remains of Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens.

When criticism of the operation emerged, however, he seemed to put responsibility for the raid on his generals.

In early February, after Iran test-fired a ballistic missile, Trump’s administration responded aggressively, saying Iran was “on notice.” It won raves among his fans.

“That was confrontation,” said Retired Army General Jack Keane, who talked with Trump during his transition. “When he did that, at that point, the appeasement and accommodation policy of the Obama administration was over. He declared that he was going to confront our adversaries.”

The biggest action Trump has authorized was a strike on Syria in April, in retaliation for President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. His administration also deployed the so-called mother of all bombs, a massive conventional weapon, on Afghanistan, although Trump would not say whether he personally authorized it.

“I think he’s very decisive, certainly making the decision to execute the strike in Syria was very decisive on his part,” Keane said. “He wasn’t vacillating.”

But the previous military options presented to Trump were far less risky than any scenario available for North Korea, which could easily retaliate with massive strikes aimed at South Korea’s civilian population.


“He’s following on a 25-year record of bipartisan failure on North Korea policy,” said Peter Feaver, who worked on the Bush administration’s National Security Council. “So far he seems on track to suffer a similar fate. And in fairness to Trump, it’s harder now than it was before. Obama had more options than Trump, Bush had more options than Obama, and Clinton had more options than Bush.

“The options have narrowed as time has gone on. It’s hard to criticize Trump alone without tarring his predecessors with the same brush.”

People in Seoul watched a TV newscast last week after North Korea’s purported intercontinental ballistic missile launch.Lee Jim-man/Associated Press

Some of Trump’s reactions have also been over-the-top, with bellicose language that he hasn’t been able to back up. He promised in a January tweet that North Korea would not attain intercontinental missile capacity: “It won’t happen!” Last week, it did.

So, now what?

“Trump started off with a lot of bravado on North Korea, declaring ICBM capacity won’t happen. Well, now it’s happened. He said there was the powerful armada streaming toward North Korea, when it was actually headed in the opposite direction,” said Robert Einhorn, a former US Department of State special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control.

“Trump has begun to understand that we have no viable option,” he added.

The most likely direction for the new administration, Einhorn and others said, would be one of containment, putting an emphasis on developing capabilities to intercept any missiles while building up the defenses of key allies like South Korea and Japan. More pressure on China could be applied, while also increasing the number of sanctions on North Korea.

“We were able to deter the Soviet Union when they had 30,000 weapons,” said Reiss, who was a negotiator in the Korean peninsula. “You’re telling me we can’t deter an isolated, paranoid country that has maybe a dozen weapons?”

In some cases Trump has yielded some of his authority — which supporters say empowers the military advisers who know best and critics worry could lead the country to unnecessary wars.

“We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done the job as usual. We have given them total authorization,” Trump said in April. “And that’s what they’re doing.”

Trump last month empowered Mattis to set troop levels in Afghanistan, although The Wall Street Journal, citing a classified memo, reported last week that the White House is requiring Mattis to come back for approval beyond 3,900 troops.

But there is near universal worry about Trump’s rhetoric and how that could have consequences, intended or not, in ratcheting up the tension.

“Trump believes the belligerent talk is helpful,” Einhorn said. “He believes that a climate of not just uncertainty but tension can lead to positive results. . . . There can be miscalculation, people can get too edgy, and it could lead to conflict.”

Mattis often tries to tamp down talk of military action.

“I stand with most Americans in hoping [Trump] would stop tweeting. But you have other voices,” Reiss said. “You need to make sure these other voices are heard and speak up. And either the president will relent on the impulse tweets or start to use the words that diplomats use.”

Matt Viser can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mviser.