Donald Trump was elected in part because voters liked his shoot-from-the-hip attitude. As Trump moves further into his shoot-first-ask-questions-later presidency, the American people — and the rest of the world — are finding out what his personal style means for how he wields power.
And one of the most powerful entities in the world is the U.S. military.
Trump holds the generals in high esteem and has shown it by giving them more authority over decision making, which has implications for foreign policy and international relations. There are pros and cons to this move, and they are interrelated.
The biggest pro is that the Pentagon now has a greater ability to act more quickly on executing missions and tactics, which can result in more efficient ground operations.
“It also allows operators more latitude to adapt to changes in real time,” Alice Hunt Friend, a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Diplomat.
“People can be more tactically flexible and responsive so they can take advantage of opportunities that the normal chain of command might force them to miss,” said Thomas Donnelly, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in an interview. “Most of the senior generals have grown up in Iraq and Afghanistan, so they know their trade pretty well.”
But they may not be as adept in the tradecraft of diplomacy — not to mention the fact that both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan turned out to be costly quagmires with mixed results. That’s why some experts worry that handing more power to the Pentagon could lead to the militarization of foreign policy and possibly drag American troops into the kind of murky conflicts that Trump pledged to avoid as a candidate.
The U.S. military has significantly increased its presence in Iraq and Syria to root out the Islamic State, in addition to ramping up drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia. Trump has given the Pentagon wide-ranging authority to possibly send thousands of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. He has also reveled in displays of military might, dropping the “mother of all bombs” to kill Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, for example, although he has failed to deliver a comprehensive plan to defeat the terrorist group. And while U.S.-backed forces have made significant strides in dislodging the Islamic State from its sanctuaries in Mosul and Raqqa, American-led airstrikes have been blamed for killing hundreds of civilians.
Without a long-term strategy or sufficient oversight by the president, experts warn that loosening restrictions on the Pentagon could lead to more casualties, alienate allies and undermine broader U.S. goals. But Trump seems to prefer a more hands-off approach — and he clearly favors generals over diplomats. According to a review by The Washington Post, at least 10 out of 25 senior policy and leadership positions on the National Security Council are held by current or retired military officials (as opposed to two at the end of the Obama administration).
Trump is handling the military as a businessman would, said Peter Haynes, a senior fellow focusing on defense strategy and warfare at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “It’s really more of a businessman’s approach in that you hire the right people and let them do their work. It’s all about them getting results.”
Grasping the Big Picture
The new freedom can be a relief to commanders, who may appreciate the shift from President Barack Obama’s style of extensive deliberation over major military decisions, which some likened to micromanaging.
However, greater freedom for the military on operational decisions raises big questions: What is every move for? What is the grand strategy guiding warfighting decisions? And how do these decisions affect foreign policy?
The Pentagon must have a broad understanding of the risks and possible ripple effects of decisions, which requires knowing what the long-term strategy is, especially after victory on the battlefield is achieved. What is necessary is that “those in the White House and civilian leaders have a sense of what the objectives are,” Loren DeJonge Schulman, the deputy director of studies and the Leon E. Panetta senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told The Diplomat. “What are the limits of the strategy and our interest in pursuing it? What are other trickle-down factors, risk tolerance for civilian casualties, possibility of mission creep?”
“If you’re going to give a lot of autonomy on the operations side, they have to understand the larger strategic picture,” said Friend. “You have to understand when an operation is not supporting strategy. That’s where a collaborative relationship works over the years. There has to be back and forth between senior strategists and folks on the ground so each understands the other.”
Where Responsibility Lies
When Trump moved more decision making into the Pentagon’s court, he also shifted responsibility for the outcome of operations. The prime example of this is the Jan. 29 raid in Yemen, which the military said was conducted to gather intelligence on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). U.S. counterterrorism efforts have been hampered by a civil war in Yemen, but instead of being a victory against AQAP, the raid resulted in the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, as well as Yemeni civilian deaths. Trump punted the blame to the Department of Defense (DoD).
“Giving authority to DoD and military services while also giving them responsibility for the outcome of their actions is dangerous,” said Friend. “A White House can very quickly lose control of what the military is doing and why, and the White House is always going to be answerable when something goes wrong.”
The Yemen raid shows how the White House has given the Pentagon leeway to make decisions on operations without giving it guidance about the greater strategic objective. Without this guidance, the DoD is unlinked from national purpose, argued Friend. “This is not good for the White House or the country,” she said.
Indeed, what some praise as decisiveness on Trump’s part, others denounce as an impulsiveness that could endanger American lives.
“The discussion for the operation was made in haste,” said Schulman about the Yemen raid. “There was no strategy in Yemen.” Trump is not understanding his responsibility as commander in chief, added Schulman. “The American people deserve to have a sense of why men and women in uniform put themselves at risk.”
Trump’s brash style stands in stark contrast to Obama’s more cautious, studious approach. But defense experts say that while Trump seeks to position himself as the opposite of Obama on many issues, military actions under his leadership are not that different in tone from the previous administration.
“What you’ll see is operations continuing to support the strategy as we have them now,” said Friend. Case in point: Somalia. “We’ve had a strategy for years of counterterrorism and building the capacity of the Somali government and military. You’ve seen that mission persist. You’ve seen the president giving more authority to the Pentagon to continue its line of operations but to make adjustments in the number of personnel deployed, types of capabilities used for particular operation purposes. They’re allowed to make those choices themselves now,” she said.
Trump’s main focus for defense at the moment seems to be counterterrorism, with the Islamic State as a major target. He has given Secretary of Defense James Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Iraq and Syria. Mattis is also deciding on whether to send a reported 4,000 troops to Afghanistan in addition to the 8,400 U.S. troops already stationed there.
Obama wanted to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, but he found a complete withdrawal of forces unwise. The U.S. military presence in the country was given an exclamation point in April with the decision by Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to drop the “mother of all bombs,” or MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the nation’s arsenal, on a tunnel complex used by Islamic State fighters. It was a tactical move, and he made it without needing White House clearance.
It can be argued that the MOAB was successful in that it resulted in almost 100 fighters killed — and possibly sent a signal to the world that the U.S. would not hesitate to act militarily.
At the time, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un had launched a salvo of missiles while Syria’s Bashar al-Assad had allegedly directed a chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held area, leading analysts to speculate that the MOAB was Trump’s way of warning both leaders.
“That was not so — an American commander in Afghanistan had simply taken it upon himself to use a particularly large bomb on a cave complex in the remote province of Nangarhar,” wrote Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper in The New York Times.
In addition to exposing a possible lack of communication between the White House and Pentagon, the decision to drop America’s largest conventional bomb on a vastly smaller adversary rattled and bewildered allies (compared to Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State does not have a significant presence in Afghanistan). Critics say the MOAB fit a pattern in which Trump’s bluster is more show than substance.
“What’s missing is the broader decision-making process. If you use MOAB, that will affect other theaters,” said Schulman. “How do we message that? Let’s make sure the message is consistent.”
Foreign Policy Implications
What the U.S. military does around the world is typically in service of foreign policy. The Trump presidency, still feeling its way during its start perhaps, has yet to come up with, or publicize, a strategic framework for the U.S. role abroad and how the military plays into that.
Giving the military more agility and speed in theaters of operation may be good in terms of tactical execution, but questions remain about the specifics of the U.S. master plan, or whether there is, or ever will be, one under Trump.
For instance, the president promised to defeat the Islamic State, but has yet to formulate a plan to do so. He has vowed to stop North Korea from developing the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear bomb, but has run up against the same wall of limited options that his predecessors faced. He has repeatedly disparaged NATO, forcing his commanders to defend the alliance. And other than vague, dramatic tweets, Trump has failed to articulate how — or whether — he would tackle the deep-seated sectarian grievances and governance problems driving conflicts from Afghanistan to Yemen.
The problem with this policy vacuum is that the different threads of action resulting from the Pentagon’s newly minted freedom might not have a unifying arc, which sends confusing signals to other countries about Washington’s underlying intentions.
“Many of our allies likely are getting the message that the White House is interested in doing independent transactions, not acting as part of a broader theme or strategy,” a former defense official told The Diplomat.
“For Trump, there tends to be a transactional basis to his strategy. There’s problems with that because it allows really big decision making at the lower levels, but they may not all be aggregate and heading in the same strategic direction in terms of results. That’s the problem when you delegate more authority,” said Haynes, who added that Mattis is much more involved in foreign policy and operations than his predecessors.
In addition to the potential for confusion in foreign relations, there is also the risk of a widening gap between the Defense Department and State Department. “Unless U.S. embassies overseas understand what the combatant commanders are doing and work with them, there’s a possibility you may delink U.S. defense policy overseas with U.S. foreign policy,” said Haynes. “There needs to be that bridge between operational goals and the achievement of foreign policy goals to accomplish grander political goals.”
Trump’s authorization of a missile strike on an airfield in Syria in April illuminates the confusion that can arise from focusing on tactics untethered from strategy. From one perspective, the strike could have effectively been Trump rapping Syrian President Assad on the knuckles for attacks against his people.
But from the perspective of Congress and Syria, this looked at first glance like a declaration of war — until it became clear that the strike was a one-off event. Trump’s decision also seemed to catch his own team off-guard. Just days earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had suggested that Assad could remain in power, saying the Syrian people should decide his fate.
Filling the Void
Yet the absence of a unifying strategic framework for U.S. operations abroad cannot easily be filled by either the Pentagon or the State Department without leadership from the White House — even if Trump were to give diplomats more decision-making freedom as he did the generals.
“It’s not like Rex Tillerson or Secretary Mattis or [National Security Advisor] H.R. McMaster have well-developed views about local American strategy,” said Donnelly. “There’s not much indication that these individuals involved are standing by with a grand program to rebuild American power. I think we got a way to go before there’s anything like a normal policy-making apparatus or process in place.”
If one goes with the theory that Trump leads like a businessman, then it seems he would value efficiency. Giving the military more authority on decision making is one way to achieve that, but the administration may be getting in its own way by being very slow to fill civilian appointments. In fact, there are hundreds of vacancies across the government for which Trump has yet to name candidates, including many at the Pentagon and State Department (also see article in the June 2017 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
The administration would be able to “get a lot more done” by not waiting so long to fill key positions, argued Friend. A White House-approved staff under Mattis and Tillerson would enable the administration to implement its vision, whatever that happens to be.
“There’s also very little practical connectivity between the White House and the day-to-day folks who work on things out of the embassies, out of headquarters,” Friend pointed out. “What’s the policy-planning shop up to? Does Tillerson have one or want one? What guidance are chiefs of mission getting about how to portray our foreign policy in the world?”
There are operational benefits in giving the military the authority to act on its own, but the means must have an endgame for the U.S.
“What you need longer term is strategic planning to make the lines of effort go in the same direction,” said Haynes.
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.