As a novice candidate for high office, Donald Trump spelled out his views on war with admirable clarity. The smart approach, he insisted, is to use maximum force in order to win quickly. If victory fails to materialize, then you cut your losses and get out. The last thing you want to do is to get bogged down in long, drawn-out, indecisive armed conflicts.
Of course, since 9/11, long, drawn-out indecisive armed conflicts have become something of a Pentagon specialty. Trump offered himself as someone who would fix that problem. To Trump’s critics, this sounded like a recipe for isolationism. To his supporters, here was one more reason to vote for Trump rather than Hillary Clinton, with her amply documented record of supporting interventions that yielded long, drawn-out, and indecisive results.
Since Trump’s installation as commander in chief, however, efforts to implement his win-or-bolt approach have met with little success. Campaigns begun by his two immediate predecessors continue on his watch. In some cases, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, Trump has even approved a modest increase in the number of US troops or the intensity of US bombing. Those fearing a sudden embrace of isolationism can rest easy. As for those looking to Trump to curtail the American penchant for fighting in far-away places, they can forget it. The swamp refuses to be drained.
If further evidence on that score were needed, the zigs and zags of recent administration policy regarding Syria provide it.
At a press conference earlier this month, Trump declared categorically, “I want to get out [of Syria]. I want to bring our troops back home.” In what was undoubtedly an unscripted comment, Trump then put a
$7 trillion price tag on the larger US military enterprise, in which Syria figures as only a small part. Coming from our fact-challenged president, this is actually a reasonably accurate estimate. Trump then pivoted from costs to outcomes. “Seven trillion dollars over a 17-year period,” he mused, and “we have nothing — nothing except death and destruction. It’s a horrible thing.”
Trump’s suggested withdrawal from Syria elicited an immediate pushback. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump loyalist, wasted no time in denouncing the idea as “the single worst decision the president could make.” Graham’s views were representative of the foreign policy establishment as a whole. Bringing the troops home from Syria, or anywhere else for that matter, is simply unacceptable.
As if channeling Graham, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad then moved quickly to preempt any possible US disengagement. Just days after Trump announced his interest in allowing Syria to become someone else’s problem, Assad’s forces conducted a vicious attack, allegedly using chemical weapons, that killed dozens of civilians in the Syrian city of Douma.
In the United States, calls to punish Assad for this outrage were immediate. Having apparently forgotten his determination to extricate the United States from Syria, Trump himself chimed in, warning in a classic tweet that “nice and new and smart” US missiles would soon be flying toward their targets in Syria.
Ever so briefly, the policy question of the moment had centered on whether the United States might be on the verge of winding down its $7 trillion war in the Middle East, with withdrawal from Syria a first step. Now, in an instant, that possibility vanished.
In effect, the perceived need for further military action annulled Trump’s inclination to assess what the trillions already expended had accomplished. Control of US policy thereby passed from the president to the Pentagon. With retaliation now deemed mandatory, only the timing and scope of a US attack were up for discussion.
On that score, Defense Secretary James Mattis, a former four-star general, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, also a four-star general, knew exactly what they wanted: military action sufficient to satisfy demands that the United States “do something” while minimizing risks of that “something” producing unintended consequences. The generals had no ideas for how to win; but they adamantly opposed getting out.
As is so often the case with this president, the generals got their way. With the symbolic participation of French and British forces, American warships and long-range bombers flung a few dozen missiles at a grand total of three Syrian targets. In effect, the intent of the attack was to make a statement without making a difference.
Based on those criteria, we must judge it a success. Indeed, Trump himself wasted no time in declaring “Mission Accomplished!” And if the mission’s purpose was to ensure the perpetuation of US involvement in endless war, for once at least, the president spoke truthfully.
Andrew J. Bacevich is the author, most recently, of “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.”