Trump embraces hard power solutions to help ‘Make America Great Again’
“We know that weakness is the surest path to conflict,” Trump proclaimed. “And unmatched power is the surest means to our defense.”
He spoke of the need to “fully fund” the US military and to “modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal.” He underscored America’s determination to continue its fight against Daesh and its military campaign in Afghanistan. And, while stopping short of threatening military action in North Korea, he declared that “we are waging a campaign of maximum pressure” to prevent “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons” from threatening the US homeland.
These positions generally play well with Trump’s conservative political base.
To be sure, the “Make America Great Again” crowd is no fan of extended military engagements abroad, such as the Afghanistan war. The administration took a major political risk last year when it decided to send more troops to fight in America’s longest-ever foreign conflict. Still, Trump’s boasts of flexing American military muscle and killing bad guys are sure to resonate in a big way with his core supporters.
With an administration as unpredictable as Trump’s, it’s hard to gauge how much of what he laid out in his speech will be translated into policy. But this much is true: A muscular foreign policy could undermine one of the White House’s chief objectives — protecting American lives.
First, merely intensifying military pressure on terrorists won’t make them go away. Killing terrorists may translate to short-term tactical gains, but unless you also kill the murderous ideologies that sustain them, any triumphs against terror will be short-lived and fresh recruits will quickly emerge.
Trump was wise to acknowledge that “there is much more work to be done” in the anti-Daesh fight. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama similarly boasted of success against Al-Qaeda, while conceding that it remained a major threat. Today, thanks to its potent regional affiliates, Al-Qaeda remains resilient and lethal. So long as Trump restricts his counterterrorism strategy to military tools, Daesh could prove just as resilient as Al-Qaeda.
Second, Trump spoke of how US troops in Afghanistan “have new rules of engagement.” This means Americans soldiers now have more freedom to target the Taliban on the battlefield. Unfortunately, this won’t make the Taliban go away, much less weaken it in a big way. Given that the United States couldn’t turn the tide in the war with 100,000 troops on the ground several years back, it’s highly unlikely to do so now, with less than 15,000. Last month brought a tragic reminder of the Taliban’s great strength when its fighters staged multiple mass-casualty attacks in Afghan cities over a period of less than 10 days. The sad reality is that more American troops — and even more long-suffering Afghan soldiers and traumatized civilians — are bound to lose their lives in a war that can’t be won militarily.
US president focused on fighting terror, waging war in Afghanistan and managing the North Korea threat during his State of the Union speech, but all of these involve immense challenges and dangers.
Third, applying “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang — which, based on frequent signaling from the Trump administration, may include the use of limited military force — could trigger North Korean retaliations that destabilize the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding region, where thousands of American troops are based. US policymakers play with fire when they escalate pressure on a hostile state that is sworn to “regime preservation” and dead-set against denuclearization.
Perhaps the most telling predictor of Trump’s North Korea policy came not from his speech, which focused more on the North Korean threat than on how to respond to it, but from news that surfaced several hours before it. The administration reportedly reneged on its decision to nominate Victor Cha, a widely respected Korea expert, as the next US ambassador to Seoul because of his opposition to the idea of a limited military strike on North Korea.
All three of these examples — fighting terror, waging war in Afghanistan, and managing the North Korea threat — involve immense challenges and dangers. Addressing them effectively will necessitate working closely with regional partners and more broadly engaging in effective diplomacy.
To its credit, the Trump administration is by no means jettisoning diplomacy. The White House has sought to maintain and manage the coalition of nations originally assembled by the Obama administration to target Daesh. Meanwhile, in a speech last year outlining his new Afghanistan strategy, Trump vowed to integrate “all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic, and military — toward a successful outcome,” and the administration has steadfastly vowed to work closely with the Afghan government. Finally, for all its saber-rattling and bluster, the administration has refused to rule out negotiations with Pyongyang.
Nevertheless, over its first year in office, the Trump administration has consistently emphasized the importance of hard power. Indeed, for Trump, making America great again necessitates a strong military and a willingness to deploy its firepower abroad. This perspective — one shared by many of his supporters — was thrown into sharp relief in his first State of the Union address.
Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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