America could not have celebrated 100 years since its first military involvement on the world stage any better, dropping the “mother of all bombs” — a 21,600-pound explosive-packed device which was never used in combat before — on caves and tunnels in Afghanistan. At the same time, America ordered the deployment of warships to the Korean Peninsula amid escalating tensions and heated rhetoric with North Korea. This comes after striking a Syrian military airfield with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles in response to a chemical attack against civilians in Syria that Western powers blamed on the Syrian government, while Russia and Iran blamed Syrian rebels for it.
The strategic goals of these military actions are still not clear. What will follow is even less clear. However, if the aim of these military gestures is to show the world that mighty American power still works, it failed miserably. Not only it did not achieve any goal, but also no one believed it. During his election campaign, Trump made the case against US military intervention abroad repeatedly. So, there are good reasons for critics to call Trump’s recent military actions “political theatre” that could not change the military equation, but might help the US administration look more serious in fighting terrorism and taking decisive action against human rights violations to boost Trump’s low ratings in opinion polls and divert attention from his domestic woes.
Trump’s campaign promise was always difficult to keep and he soon discovered from his aids, especially US Defence Secretary James Mattis and US National Security Adviser H R McMaster, that US wars abroad serviced America’s hegemonic power very well for the last 100 years. When the US Congress voted in April 1917 to allow American troops to fight alongside its European allies — England, France, Italy and Russia — against Germany, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary, America became part of what was called The Great War and the “war to end all wars.” It was an unprecedented conflict in terms of its scope and cost, with an estimated 38 million military and civil casualties.
Asking Congress to declare war against Germany, US President Woodrow Wilson said that “the world must be made safe for democracy. It is a fearful thing to lead these great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilisation itself seeming to be in the balance.” Four days later his request was granted and America would soon be sending its first troops to fight in Europe. US involvement in World War I had a profound impact on US domestic and international politics ever since. The US overtook Britain as the new superpower, the US dollar replaced Sterling as the most powerful currency. In short, the Pax Britannica (1815-1914) ended and the Pax Americana started, shaping the world order ever since.
All American presidents, from Wilson to Barack Obama, were committed to internationalism. They were ready to join wars, to shape the rules of the international system, to create new organisations and establish guidelines for military cooperation and trade. Different presidents used different approaches. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and George W Bush, for example, preferred hard power to achieve American’s goals, while presidents Bill Clinton and Obama preferred soft power and engagement.
However, President Trump is something very different from any American president before and his policies so far are a break from American traditions developed in the last 100 years. He is reluctant to use either soft power or hard power meaningfully. He does not want to engage with conflicts, crises and challenges abroad, military or otherwise. However, he needs to look as if he is doing something in a world troubled with unprecedented challenges.
“Trump does not only want to back away from the rules of the current international system that America built with Europe but to pull it down and dismantle it by using his slogan ‘America First.’ But this is not America first, it is America only, and for a simple reason, which is that every American president since World War Two has put America first, this is not new. This is the first obligation to your citizen. But to achieve your citizen’s interests you should be obliged to some international norms. It is not a zero-sum game. It is a win-win situation when your allies do well,” Charles Kupchan, who served as special assistant to the president for national security in the Obama White House, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The problem is that Trump, the businessman, does not see the world in those terms, explained Kupchan at a recent talk at the London School of Economics, noting that Trump does all his calculations based on profit and loss. “To protect its hegemonic power, the US needs to not withdraw and leave a strategic vacuum for other powers,” said Kupchan, who differentiates between isolation and strategic retrenchment.
Trump is not the first US president to show a tendency for retrenchment. If anything, he is following the footsteps of his predecessor, Obama, who applied strategic retrenchment to reduce America’s international and military costs and commitments after two catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, retrenchment does not necessarily involve the avoidance of all strategic commitments.
Trump’s recent military strikes showed his style but not substance. In bombing Afghanistan, Trump knows that this is not about defeating the Islamic State group. The Taliban is the largest foe in that region. And while Afghan officials did not oppose the strike publicly, President Trump’s National Security Adviser McMaster travelled immediately to meet Afghan officials in Kabul to give some answers amid questions about the new administration’s plans for the military mission in Afghanistan.
Inside America, sceptics were many. In a statement, immediately after the MOAB deployment, Democratic congresswoman Barbara Lee said, “President Trump owes the American people an explanation about his escalation of military force in Afghanistan and his long-term strategy to defeat ISIS. No president should have a blank cheque for endless war, especially not this president who is acting without any checks or oversight from the Republican-controlled Congress.”
Syria was not less problematic. The military strike did not achieve any strategic goal. On the contrary, it made US-Russia coordination and future talks more difficult.
But the military actions in Syria and Afghanistan made good rhetoric. US Vice President Mike Pence warned North Korea that recent American military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan showed President Trump’s resolve should not have been questioned, warning his country’s “era of strategic diplomacy” with North Korea was over. His warning came hours after North Korea carried out a failed missile launch.
“All options are on the table to achieve [our] objectives and ensure the stability of the people of this country,” said Pence referring to South Korea.
At a White House Easter celebration Monday, Trump was asked if he had a message for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He replied: “Gotta behave.”
However, Pyongyang vowed to continue missile and nuclear tests every week. North Korea’s deputy representative to the United Nations, Kim In Ryong, accused Washington of creating “a situation where nuclear war could break out any time” and said that Pyongyang’s next nuclear test would take place “at a time and at a place where our headquarters deems necessary”.
All of that leaves America with limited options. The military action is not an option as it would trigger massive retaliation and casualties in South Korea and Japan and among US troops. Trump’s dealings so far, meanwhile, show very little willingness to use smart or soft power. When asked days ago about long-term US strategy in Syria and Afghanistan he remained elusive.
In a campaign rally last year in Iowa, candidate Trump said, “I’m really very good at war. I love war, in a certain way.”
When the US entered World War I, the old world was dying and a new one was emerging. Some would say that we are at a similar juncture today, with the rise of nationalism, protectionism, isolation and economic uncertainty.
But if 1917 could teach us anything about 2017 it would be that military interventions are very costly and better be part of a larger political plan. That is what fundamentally and dangerously is missing from recent American military actions.