Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Why Bulking Up the US Military Presence in Asia Is a Bad Idea

The Wall Street Journal reports, “the Pentagon has endorsed a plan to invest nearly $8 billion to bulk up the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region over the next five years by upgrading military infrastructure, conducting additional exercises and deploying more forces and ships.”

The reasons behind such a military build-up in Asia are not entirely clear. Here are Senator John McCain’s statements justifying it:

“This initiative could enhance U.S. military power through targeted funding to realign our force posture in the region, improve operationally relevant infrastructure, fund additional exercises, pre-position equipment and build capacity with our allies and partners,” Mr. McCain told Adm. Harris in an April hearing.

Dustin Walker, a spokesman to Mr. McCain, described the plan in an email as a way to make the American posture in the region more “forward-leaning, flexible, resilient and formidable.”

This is essentially a garbled word salad of Pentagon jargon that emphasizes tactical justifications while omitting any strategic rationale. The reporter gets a bit closer to a clear strategic justification here: “The effort is seen by backers as one way to signal more strongly the U.S. commitment to the region as Washington confronts an increasingly tenuous situation on the Korean peninsula, its chief security concern in the area.”

To be clear, spending almost $8 billion to boost U.S. military presence in Asia will have precisely zero utility in resolving the “tenuous situation on the Korean peninsula,” and in fact would likely be detrimental to that goal. Furthermore, signaling “more strongly the U.S. commitment to the region” is unnecessary even on the terms of our current strategy. The United States already maintains more than 154,000 active-duty military personnel in the region. Washington keeps scores of major bases throughout Asia, five aircraft carrier strike groups, including 180 ships and 1,500 aircraft, two-thirds of the Marine Corps’ combat strength, five Army Stryker Brigades, and more than half of overall U.S. naval power. And finally, the United States is treaty-bound to defend most of the region’s major nations, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand. Do we really need $8 billion worth of more troops, equipment, exercises, and infrastructure to signal our commitment? Hardly.

Rather than a buildup, Washington should be debating how and when to draw down forces in Asia. The massive U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region is not necessary to protect America’s core economic and security interests. And staving off a rising China or upholding the “liberal world order” are bad reasons for maintaining preponderant military power in the region. Indeed, in some ways it exacerbates tensions by making China feel encircled and motivating Pyongyang to obtain deliverable nuclear weapons. China is a long way from achieving a hegemonic position in Asia and the region generally is in a state of defense dominance where conquest is hard, offense is risky, and deterrence is robust. American military dominance is simply not needed to keep the region peaceful, to protect trade flows, or solve myriad local disputes. 

Trump’s First 100 Days and the Deepening Militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy

Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office have set U.S. foreign policy on a dangerous course. Trump’s actions and rhetoric have raised the profile of America’s military power while weakening other sources of U.S. influence. Such an approach is in line with the “peace through strength” formula Trump espouses. However, the deepening militarization of U.S. foreign policy carries a host of risks and costs that may cause more headaches than victories.

The growing role of the military in U.S. foreign policy is not a new phenomenon. Barack Obama’s presidency was hardly peaceful. This was especially true in the Middle East, where the “light footprint” approach reduced the on-the-ground U.S. military presence but made extensive use of air power to conduct foreign policy by precision strike. However, Obama also spearheaded multilateral initiatives that relied on other sources of American power and influence, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Not all of these initiatives were successful, but they demonstrate a foreign policy approach that places value on non-military tools.

The Napoleon Complex and Trump’s First 100 Days

The “first 100 days” was a dictatorial metaphor from the start. It entered the presidential lexicon in 1933, when journalists likened FDR’s legislative onslaught to Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1815 breakout from Elba and subsequent three-month rampage, ending at Waterloo.  

Thankfully, President Trump’s first 100 days haven’t been nearly so dramatic. It’s as if Napoleon, instead of marching to Paris and then to war, just sat around his Tuscan villa, hand in his waistcoat, ranting about his enemies.

Of the umpteen items in Trump’s “100-day action plan,” unveiled last fall in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he’s barely moved on most, reversed himself on others, and been stymied by Congress and the courts on the few where he’s made a serious push. The candidate who proclaimed “I alone can fix it” is learning that, on the home front at least, our political system remains resistant to one-man rule. 

It’s reassuring to learn that our system of separated powers still has some life left in it, at least when it comes to domestic affairs. The danger is that, with his agenda stalled on the home front, Trump may overcompensate abroad. Perversely, it’s in the exercise of military force—the area where presidents can do the most damage—that checks and balances are weakest.

No administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days” the president insisted recently—a claim that ranks with prior Trumpian whoppers like “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration” and “biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan.” Trump was closer to the mark a few days later, when he called the 100-Days metric a “ridiculous standard.”

However, the blustery press release the White House put out Tuesday, “100 Days of Historic Accomplishments,” embraces the skewed premise that presidential success should be measured by sheer volume. “President Trump has accomplished more in his first 100 days than any other president since Franklin Roosevelt,” it blares, because he’s “signed 30 executive orders” and “A SLEW OF LEGISLATION”! 

But of course Trump’s 100-day record can’t measure up to FDR’s 15 major bills passed in the panicked atmosphere of the Great Depression. Nor has he pulled off anything as mammoth as Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package, signed less than a month after his inauguration, during the worst financial crisis since the Depression. But so what? In the modern era, most presidents can’t manage a legislative blitzkrieg absent a national emergency. As political scientist David R. Jones notes, 

President George W. Bush’s first term produced an impressive six landmark acts, but four were prompted largely by a single dramatic event, the terrorist attacks of 9/11: the Authorization for Use of Military Force against the terrorists, the USA Patriot Act, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 and the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the federal department.

Are we supposed to be disappointed that Trump hasn’t (yet) enjoyed the proverbial “good crisis” you never want to waste? 

Takeaways from Trump’s First 100 Days

For foreign policy wonks, Trump’s first hundred days have been a bit like a roller coaster ride. In just over three months, the new administration has veered from one crisis to another, from Syria to North Korea, China to Canada. Sudden Trumpian reversals on various foreign policy issues have been sharp enough to produce whiplash. Meanwhile, a dizzying barrage of strange foreign policy choices and statements makes it difficult to guess what’s coming next.

Nevertheless, amid all the confusion, there are a couple of big takeaways from these first 100 days that may help us better understand where Trump’s foreign policy approach is headed:

1. There really is no such thing as the Trump Doctrine

Trump’s reversals on issues like NATO have been hailed by some as bringing him closer to a “normal” presidency. Indeed, it is not always obvious from a President’s campaign what his broad foreign policy approach will end up being, or the obstacles and inertia that he will face in trying to alter American foreign policy. Yet even by these standards, Trump’s approach to the world remains unclear. A recent attempt by White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus to outline what he sees as the Trump Doctrine merely adds to this confusion:

Trump is “reshaping our position in the world,” Priebus said, and “really establishing, I think, a Trump Doctrine in setting some certain lines of where we’re not going to allow people like [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] to go, but at the same time making it clear that we’re not interested in long-term, you know, ground wars in the Middle East, but obviously focusing in on ISIS and what we’re doing in the Middle East to protect us here in the United States, working with China on ongoing issues with North Korea that are very real and are serious issues that takes cooperation within the region to handle appropriately.”

Another official “added that Trump’s status as ‘an incredible negotiator’ is also central to the doctrine.” As these statements suggest, Trump’s foreign policy so far has been highly reactive – responding to crises – but with no indication of an overarching strategy. 

2. Trump is escalating the War on Terror

Though the most visible indicator of this escalation was the use of a MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb), affectionately known as the ‘Mother of all Bombs,’ in Afghanistan, the new administration has chosen to escalate conflicts in a number of countries. More troops are being sent to the greater Middle East, in particular to join the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and U.S. Special Operations Forces are now engaging in ground actions against Al Qaeda in Yemen.

The administration has also loosened the rules of engagement in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere, and has increased the number of bombing raids and drone strikes. According to at least one watchdog group, Trump’s choice to give his generals a free hand in these conflicts has resulted in a massive increase in civilian casualties in these areas.

3. Brinksmanship may be back  

The new president appears to have a gift for raising tensions around the world. Though his administration did certify that Iran is complying with the Obama-era nuclear deal, they also announced a 90-day review of the deal. Various officials are using increasingly tough rhetoric towards Iran. The administration has also indicated that it intends to step up support for the GCC campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, a group often described as an Iranian proxy.

Trump is also taking an increasingly hard line towards North Korea, with Vice President Mike Pence warning the DPRK that “all options are on the table” in the case of further missile or nuclear tests. Tensions around the peninsula are high, with joint U.S.-South Korean drills, and a North Korean live fire exercise taking place this week. Whether the new administration’s statements are accurate indicators of their position, or merely heated rhetoric, such statements can easily raise the potential for conflict.

4. Advisors really matter

Political science research has shown that even experienced advisors cannot substitute for an inexperienced president. Unfortunately, Trump is anything but experienced on foreign policy. And while some of his appointments have been reassuringly experienced (such as James Mattis, now Secretary of Defense), others are either inexperienced (such as Jared Kushner) or have disturbing worldviews (i.e., Steve Bannon).

Infighting between advisors inside the administration has been notable during these first hundred days, and Trump’s policies seem to vary depending on which individuals he is listening to on any given day. If you are interested in the internal dynamics of the Trump administration, you can check out my recent article at War on the Rocks, which explores the civil war in the White House. The Cliffs Notes version? Advisors really matter, and it’s still unclear which faction – if any – will triumph in the struggle for influence between Trump’s teams of rivals.

5. Competence is key

Some of Trump’s foreign policy decisions appear to be trending closer to a traditionally hawkish Republican line, while some of the problems that he faces – such as Turkish-Kurdish tensions in Northern Syria, or the intractable conflict in Afghanistan – have been around for far longer than this administration. Yet it is worth noting that the new administration’s response to various crises has often been less than competent. Some of this is the result of inexperience and a lack of appointed officials in key positions at the Departments of State and Defense, but others are self-inflicted wounds. The administration’s immigration bans and TPP withdrawal are cases in point.

Other foreign policy incidents have been frankly bizarre. Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, was forced to resign after only 25 days for misleading the administration on his lobbying and ties to Turkey and Russia. In an oval office meeting, Trump refused to shake Angela Merkel’s hand, later claiming that he didn’t hear the request. He phoned Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogun to congratulate him on a questionable referendum victory that consolidated his dictatorial power. Moreover, the administration misplaced an aircraft carrier, announcing that the USS Carl Vinson was heading for the Korean Peninsula as a show of force, when in fact, it was near Australia, moving in the other direction.

Taken alone, these incidents are concerning. But when considered in the broader context of Trump’s tendency to bluster and saber-rattle, his support for escalating the war on terror, and his inability to articulate any coherent strategy for U.S. foreign policy, they raise even bigger questions. If Trump’s first hundred days are truly representative of his foreign policy approach, it’s going to be a bumpy four years.

Pettifogging the Iran Nuclear Deal

A post at The American Interest, vaguely attributed to “Walter Russell Mead and staff” criticizes the Iran nuclear deal as “worse than we knew.” That judgement is based on a Politico article discussing the seven individuals that the Obama administration agreed to release from U.S. custody, and another fourteen fugitives for whom they agreed to drop charges, as part of a “one-time gesture” to sweeten the deal for the Iranians.

Politico reports on some of the charges these individuals were accused of: three of them “allegedly sought to lease Boeing aircraft for an Iranian airline that authorities say had supported Hezbollah”; another tried to “buy thousands of U.S.-made assault rifles and illegally import them into Iran”; another “was charged with smuggling U.S. military antennas to Hong Kong and Singapore for use in Iran,” and so on.

The American Interest claims these are “far more serious threats to national security than was previously disclosed.”  But what the Politico article reveals is more detail about the allegations made of men already revealed to be smugglers. To describe them as “serious threats to national security” is an exaggeration. It’s not clear, for example, what exactly is threatening about an Iranian airline with some vague association with Hezbollah leasing a Boeing aircraft, or whether Iran importing more assault rifles meaningfully aids its military capability. Moreover, the fourteen people that saw their indictments dropped weren’t in U.S. custody and thus weren’t about to have their smuggling efforts stopped, though indictment limited their ability to travel. Letting them slide did not obviously increase their threat.

More importantly, neither Politico nor The American Interest directly confronts the Obama administration’s evident judgement that the nuclear freeze it got from Iran was worth letting some shady people off the hook. Does the risk from the releases hold a candle to the problem of nuclear proliferation? How about the danger posed by U.S. hawks ever-eager to use Iran’s nuclear program as a justification for launching another war in the Middle East? Surely, those menacing scenarios are worse than any the released smugglers posed.

Temperament Matters in Foreign Policy

The last few weeks have seen a surprisingly activist foreign policy from the Trump administration. Since the inauguration, the rate of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the willingness to launch special operations raids in countries like Yemen, and the use of taunting rhetoric towards adversaries had all increased in comparison to the Obama administration.

But this month things seem to have been put into hyper-drive. Trump authorized a symbolic punitive airstrike on a Syrian military base–a serious escalation that had no legal authorization. The administration also threatened to engage in preventive war against North Korea if it should move forward with a sixth nuclear test. Trump ordered an aircraft carrier strike group to sail within 300 miles of North Korea’s coastline in a show of force meant to bolster this threat. And finally, Trump’s penchant for militarism was on display when America’s biggest non-nuclear bomb ever used in active combat was dropped in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to say whether these are signs of a clear Trump Doctrine emerging, or whether this intensification of military activism abroad simply reflects Trump’s character. One can easily recall warnings from candidate Trump’s opponents, on the Democratic side but also from many in his own party, that he was temperamentally unfit for office.

In the latest edition of Survival, Francios Heisbourg, Chair of the International Institute for Strategic Studies Council, which publishes the journal, compares Trump to Kaiser Wilhelm II, the leader of Germany from 1888 to 1918. Wilhelm II goes down in history as the man who took Germany down the path of naval expansion, colonial aggrandizement, and aggressive militarism, eventually contributing to the outbreak of World War I thanks to military postures that were a great departure from those of the more restrained Otto Von Bismarck, whom the Kaiser dismissed in 1890. Heisbourg quotes a German historian describing Wilhelm II thusly:

[He had] a taste for the modern–technology, industry, science–but at the same time [was] superficial, hasty, restless, without any deeper level of seriousness, without any desire for hard work…without any sense of sobriety, or balance and boundaries, or even for reality or real problems, uncontrollable and scarcely capable of learning from experience, desperate for applause and success…He wanted every day to be his birthday–unsure and arrogant, with an immeasurably exaggerated self-confidence and desire to show off.

GAO Weighs In On “Countering Violent Extremism”

The ongoing controversy and litigation over the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” has reignited a debate that has raged since the 9/11 attacks: Who commits more domestic terrorism–violent Salafists or traditional “right wing” extremists? According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, it’s the latter and by a very wide margin. From p. 4 of GAO’s report:

Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent). 

But as researchers at the Georgia State recently reported, media coverage of terrorist incidents makes it seem as if terrorism is almost exclusively perpetrated by Muslims:

We examined news coverage from LexisNexis Academic and CNN.com for all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015. Controlling for target type, fatalities, and being arrested, attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks. Given the disproportionate quantity of news coverage for these attacks, it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist. More representative media coverage could help to bring public perception of terrorism in line with reality.

That incident-media reporting disconnect is matched by another: the notion that Arab/Muslim-Americans are more susceptible to radicalization, and thus to becoming terrorists, and that there are a discreet set of reliable indicators that will tell authorities who is or is not more likely to become a terrorist. 

The same month the Georgia State researchers released their terrorism-media bias findings, the Brennan Center released a report on the state of the debate and federal “countering violent extremism” (CVE) programs. Citing dozens of empirical studies and recognized experts in the fields of criminology, psychology, and intelligence, the report states “Extreme or radical views are often assumed to lie at the heart of terrorism. But evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in, nor support, violence.”