In the post-Cold War world, successive US administrations have jostled with the inclination to adopt military means to achieve policy goals. Reflecting the regularity of such an inclination are the findings of a recent US Congressional Research Service report, which states that the United States has deployed its armed forces in over 190 rotational and active conflict missions abroad between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and October 10, 2017.
This ‘militarisation’ of US foreign policy is underpinned by Washington’s sprawling defence architecture. The United States’ Department of Defense or the Pentagon is the world’s largest employer with “over 3.2 million employees” as per the World Economic Forum.
Monetarily, it has had an average (post-Cold War) budget of about $553 billion – with its spending accounting for over one-third of the world’s total military expenditure (source: SIPRI). Also, the American defence architecture has an unparalleled power projection capability of “nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad”. Thus, spurring the implication – unarguably honing the best hammer renders every problem to appear as a nail.
The militarisation of US foreign policy was most famously evidenced in 1993 in the then-US Ambassador to the UN Madeline Albright’s advocacy for American military intervention in Bosnia. In a meeting with national security officials who were reluctant for military engagement in Eastern Europe, barely a couple of years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ambassador Albright complained, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” In an interview with The Atlantic in 2016, President Barack Obama referred to this trigger itch – if you will, as the “Washington Playbook”, which prescribes “responses to different events” that mostly “tend to be militarised responses.”
This militarisation thus spurs a möbius strip of institutionalising an activist, values-exporting US foreign policy under Neoclassical Realist constructs stemming from an adherence to America’s “urgent” need to maintain its aforementioned unparalleled military capability year after year.
With nine months in, it is still ambiguous on what sense of grand strategy or worldview lends structure to President Trump’s foreign policy. However, greater militarisation of US foreign policy under his leadership is increasingly apparent, beyond his erratic tweets declaring that US forces are “locked and loaded”, bluster-filled comments like vowing to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea, and undermining the efficacy of diplomatic solutions by repeatedly undercutting his chief diplomat Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Moreover, President Trump has exacerbated the risks of an all too militarised US foreign policy in the following ways:
According greater latitude to US military theatre commanders
Failing to articulate clearly-defined political end-states to render military tactical and operational level considerations to double as strategies
Setting an untoward civil-military relations precedent by encouraging the politicalisation of the military.
Soon after assuming office, President Trump – in an unprecedented move as the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. forces – delegated the Pentagon to determine troop levels in active conflict zones in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. In June, as the Trump administration grappled with outlining its new strategy towards Afghanistan and the South Asian region at-large, it was reported that President Trump was yet to meet or speak with theatre commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. In comparison, President George W. Bush spoke to his military commanders in Iraq nearly every week. In addition, in response to media reports that the recent Niger mission that left four US soldiers dead did not have adequate civilian supervision or permission, President Trump set the confines of military authority in ambiguously expansive parameters. He said, “I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win. That’s the authority they have”.
From a political standpoint, President Trump seems to have abdicated his constitutionally-mandated duty as Commander-in-Chief to exercise civilian oversight in order to conveniently distance himself from when military operations fail.
For instance, following a botched military raid in Yemen that left one US Navy Seal dead, President Trump conveniently blamed the military. In an interview with Fox News, he said, “This was something that was, you know, just – they wanted to do”.
This abdication of civilian oversight has also encouraged the military to act with increased nonchalance. In the last nine months, the US has dropped the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb – the “largest non–nuclear bomb ever used in combat” – in Afghanistan without the military needing President Trump’s approval; the Pentagon has raised the total number of US military personnel in Syria to nearly 1,000; and it has decreased transparency by classifying key figures like troop levels and casualties with respect to its mission in Afghanistan. As per foreignpolicy.com, under President Trump, America has “dropped about 20,650 bombs through July 31, or 80 percent of the number dropped under [President] Obama for the entirety of 2016”. This greater militarism has also had ramifications in terms of civilian casualties. The UK-based non-profit monitor Airwars recently reported that the Trump administration’s fight against the ISIS in its first seven months has “already resulted in more civilian deaths than under the entirety of the Obama administration”. Whereas in Afghanistan, the UN recently reported a 67 percent increase in civilian deaths from US airstrikes in the first half of 2017 compared to that of 2016.
Compounding the President’s decision to accord theatre commanders greater latitude by decreased civilian oversight, stands the Trump administration’s unwillingness to articulate clearly-defined strategies. In the absence of well-defined strategies i.e. clearly defined political end-states, tactical and operational considerations, which are strict domains of the military under the United States’ tradition of objective civilian control of the military, double as strategies. For instance, the Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, recently lamented the lack of a strategy in Afghanistan. Addressing Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford, Senator McCain said, “… we know that the military has been given more flexible authorities to target our enemies. But we still do not know how these military gains will be translated into progress toward a political solution.”
In his speech in August on the “New South Asia Strategy”, President Trump underscored an ambiguous strategy that had influences of both; a limited counterterrorist mission that called for “the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future”, and an expansive counterinsurgency-inspired open ended conflict not based on “arbitrary timetables”.
Whereas, speaking in Afghanistan alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the former four-star marine general-turned-Secretary of Defense said, “our coalition is committed to doing everything humanly possible to protect the innocent caught up in this war where our enemy purposely targets the innocent”. The Secretary’s statement reflects an ambitious shift to an overarching population-centric mission in contrast to President Trump’s limited interests’ mission of “We are not nation-building. We are killing terrorists”. This failure to outline a coherent strategy with clear political end-states has rendered military operational and tactical aims to serve as slippery slopes to an ever-expansive war.
The inefficacy of employing military means without outlining a desired political end-state was also apparent in the decision to order airstrikes on Syrian Air Force facilities in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in early 2017. The same was not coupled or followed by a diplomatic endeavour to oversee the systematic dismantlement of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, until months later when Syria agreed to join the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention with its staunch ally Russia’s coaxing.
Lastly, the ramifications of this greater militarisation also encompasses the Trump administration setting an uneasy precedent for American civil-military relations. Speaking at a Center for a New American Security conference in June 2017, Dr. Kori Schake – an observer of American civil-military relations – accused the Trump administration of “hiding behind the military’s institutional credibility”. Dr. Schake opined that overtime such a trend could “cause the public to believe that politicised roles are okay for our military when, in fact, public support for the military comes from them being rigorously apolitical.”
Such an implication coupled with the fact that the Pentagon is “the most admired” of all US institutions including democratic institutions like the Congress, has evidently militarised America’s foreign policy further. In a televised interview in September 2017 on the issue of North Korea’s continued nuclear brinksmanship, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told CNN’s Dana Bash: “We have pretty much exhausted all the things that we could do at the [U.N.] Security Council at this point. Now, I said yesterday I am perfectly happy kicking this over to General Mattis, because he has plenty of military options.”
Not only was the Ambassador’s frivolous demeanour to opt for a military solution alarming, but also a testament to the administration’s overt affinity for a route that could endanger the lives of nearly 25 million in the region. In addition, the Ambassador’s use of the term ‘General’ whilst referring to a retired Marine General now serving in the second most powerful civilian role in the military chain of command – as the Secretary of Defense – denotes the administration’s attempt to – in Dr. Schake’s words – hide “behind the military’s institutional credibility.”
Another example of the Trump administration hiding behind the brass includes, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster – who remains on active duty as a Lieutenant General of the United States Army – addressing the press to defend the President’s decision to share sensitive intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. Retired four-star marine general and now the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly recently addressing the press to defend President Trump reportedly telling a grieving widow of a slain soldier that her husband “knew what he was getting into” also suggests similar conduct.
In late 1961, armed with the benefit of hindsight in the aftermath of the botched military invasion of the Bay of Pigs under the advisement of bellicose Joint Chiefs, President John F. Kennedy observed, “The first thing I’m going to tell my successor is to watch the generals, and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men, their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.” As various foreign policy challenges – from North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship to Venezuela being on the brink of a sociopolitical fallout – surface, the prospects of greater American military adventurism under the Trump administration are all too real with Kennedy’s advice continuing to escape the present Commander-in-Chief.
Kashish Parpiani is a Research Fellow at ORF Mumbai
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).