William D. Hartung: Bombings raise questions of whether a Trump doctrine is afoot
But erratic outbursts likely to do US and global security more harm than good, he says
Editor’s Note: William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. The views expressed are his own.
Two high-profile bombings in a week have sparked a debate about the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
Is there a new Trump doctrine in the making, or has the President simply found a formula for distracting the public and the media from his troubles at home: from allegations of collusion with Russia during the 2016 election to his failure at pushing through his most cherished domestic initiatives?
The first strike – the launching of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attack on his own civilians – drew praise from unlikely suspects. These included MSNBC’s Brian Williams, who described the attack and the weapons used to carry it out as “beautiful,” and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, a longtime Trump critic and foreign policy analyst, who suggested that the strike finally certified Trump’s status as a real live president.
The dominant narrative was that a new sheriff was in town who was going to act forcefully when he saw a threat to US interests, in contrast with his predecessor, who was seen as feckless and indecisive. This characterization of President Barack Obama overlooks the fact that his administration dropped 12,000 bombs on Syria in 2016 alone – hardly the actions of someone who is reluctant to use force.
For those who are impressed by military fireworks, the Trump administration’s second strike, which involved hitting ISIS fighters in Afghanistan with the most powerful conventional bomb ever dropped by the United States in combat – the Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb, or MOAB, more popularly referred to as the “mother of all bombs” – was even more awesome.
And now US ships are moving toward the Korean Peninsula, with a not-so-veiled threat to launch a pre-emptive strike if Pyongyang moves toward yet another nuclear weapons test.
An attack on nuclear-armed North Korea would have far greater consequences than the first two strikes, threatening to spark devastating conventional attacks on the South Korean capital of Seoul, which sits well within striking distance of the North. One hopes someone in the Trump camp is thinking long and hard before taking such a reckless step.
So, what are we to make of this new aggressiveness, which includes a relaxation of the criteria for US airstrikes, from Iraq to Syria to Yemen, and has caused a surge in civilian casualties, including a mistaken attack on US allies in Syria? Is it a new, get-tough doctrine with the rapid use of force? Or is it a series of erratic, emotionally driven, ill-conceived outbursts that is likely to do more harm than good to US and global security? My vote is for the latter.
The Syrian strike may have actually strengthened the Assad regime, demonstrating that it can absorb a US strike without skipping a beat, as it demonstrated by launching bombing raids from the airfield targeted by cruise missiles the day after that strike.
The use of the MOAB in Afghanistan made a big bang, but it did not appreciably alter the strength of ISIS forces there. And as noted above, saber-rattling or an actual attack on North Korea will put one of our closest allies in Asia at risk without changing the fact that Pyongyang is a nuclear-armed power that could wreak havoc in the region, even if it does not have nuclear weapons that can reach targets in the United States.
The lack of military efficacy of these high-profile bombings suggests they are domestically driven and have nothing to do with any coherent new strategy. The costs of continuing down this road could be high indeed, not just in terms of US standing in the world, but also in terms of the safety and security of the United States and its allies.
Congress and the public deserve to know that this administration has a long-term plan, and that it understands the implications of its actions, before we sign off on further bombings of the sort we have seen in Syria and Afghanistan.