President Trump is barely two months into his term, and already he's on course to make the foreign policy mistakes of the Obama administration much, much worse. Instead of cutting American losses in unwinnable situations, moving toward retrenchment, and re-assessing America's long war in the Middle East, the Trump administration seems to be taking bigger gambles in operations, loosening the rules of engagement for the military, and doubling down on conflicts that only have the most marginal relation to core U.S. interests.
It's a bitter result for those who hoped that a candidate opposed by most foreign policy hawks would turn out to be a dove as president. But getting to a more peaceful and restrained foreign policy was always going to be a problem for Trump. As a candidate, Trump was always of two minds on foreign policy. Non-interventionists and other peaceniks hoped that Trump would lean toward his conviction that the United States has been fighting dumb wars for years, and that these wars resulted in gains for our enemies and enormous costs in blood and treasure for America.
But candidate Trump didn't just criticize our leaders for their impulsiveness and stupidity. He also lambasted them as weaklings who followed politically correct rules and had lost the will to achieve victory. He said that's he'd bring back worse than waterboarding, and that he wouldn't rule out nuclear weapons. He would "knock the hell out of" the Islamic State, and we would win wars again.
The obvious problems between these conflicting positions presented themselves almost immediately. The Obama administration handed Trump a number of military engagements which were never intended to be measured in clear victory or defeat. These military engagements were about mitigating risk of terrorism, or in shaping marginal outcomes across the Islamic world in a more pro-U.S. direction. Obama was content to manage a half-dozen conflicts, none of them having real approval of the American people through Congress. Just use some American air power here, or special forces there. So long as it can be done with a minimum of local political damage, use drones to kill anything that looks too dangerous. The U.S. not only has troops and air power operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. Most Americans are probably totally unaware of our many ongoing wars.
President Trump could have looked at some of these conflicts and said they were a misuse of American power. But instead he is looking to find bigger upsides. More dramatic raids were launched under Trump in Yemen with the stated goal of obtaining better intelligence. U.S. operations in Iraq have recently become more deadly, too. A series of strikes in Mosul against the Islamic State resulted in as many as 200 civilians killed. That number of civilian deaths is more reflective of the kind of strikes taken during the height of the Iraq War than anything since the Bush administration's surge wound down. Looking at the number of air strikes versus the number of reported fatalities, The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald concluded that the Trump administration is liberating the military from already loose rules of engagement in these conflicts.
Top national security advisers are going to urge Trump to expand U.S. involvement in Somalia, and give greater discretion to local military personnel in choosing and carrying out missions. Defense Secretary James Mattis will advise the administration to increase its military involvement in Yemen in a war against the Houthis, a Shia Muslim group that revolted against a Sunni-dominated Yemeni government that had been in the pocket of neighboring Saudi Arabia. The administration and the press both portray this as a move that would "signal" a more aggressive intention toward Iran, a country whose involvement in Yemen is barely substantiated.
President Trump could reject this advice and pursue an updated version of his America First foreign policy. But the nature of the presidency seems to militate against that. Trump's two predecessors each campaigned on having a humbler, more peaceful foreign policy and became more hawkish in office. And presidents naturally start to drift toward finding accomplishments in foreign affairs as Congress blocks or botches their agenda at home.
It only took Trump two months to discover that it was easier to effect change on foreign policy than on American health care. Expect Trump's continuing frustrations at home to be reflected in expansion of America's military operations abroad.
Trump is going to have trouble bringing any of America's many conflicts to a decisive and pleasing end. But he'll at least be able to say he is doing something, whatever the damage to our reputation and the lives of others it entails.