Frida Ghitis: President Donald Trump is likely to deploy troops to a combat zone
But such a move would be risky without careful deliberation and a coherent foreign policy strategy first, writes Ghitis
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Late Monday night, the White House issued an ominous statement, warning about “potential preparations for a chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime” in Syria. If Assad conducts another chemical attack, the statement vowed, “he and his military will pay a heavy price.”
We don’t know exactly when or where, but the probability is extremely high that the United States will become involved in a new war, or that it will sharply escalate its involvement in an existing conflict. It may be in Syria, but there are other places where that could occur.
We can expect this because the current administration has clearly shown it has a predilection for the use of force over the exercise of diplomacy and because sometimes war is all but unavoidable.
Going to war is always a risky proposition. But as the United States sees growing dangers and challenges emerging from Syria, North Korea and several other places, it is also increasingly likely that the next major conflict will erupt without the benefit of careful deliberation, a coherent foreign policy or any semblance of national unity or bipartisanship.
The wars launched by George W. Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan provide further evidence that successful military action can prove much more elusive than the generals anticipate, and it can trigger a chain reaction of unintended consequences. Afghanistan is already America’s longest war.
American troops are already deployed inside Syria, where Pentagon officials are privately telling CNN that the US could be drawn into a much larger war. The mission now is to fight ISIS, but recent confrontations have already shown how easily the fighting could escalate, potentially putting the US at war with Iran and with the Syrian government, which is strongly backed by Russia.
The US recently shot down two Iranian drones and a Syrian plane, the first manned enemy aircraft downed in more than a decade by the US military. The aircraft was reportedly threatening US-backed forces. Iranian and its militias are becoming more active in more active in southern Syria, where US forces have a base of operations partly to train local tribesmen to fight ISIS.
American objectives in Syria clash with Iranian aspirations to establish an Iranian-controlled corridor from Tehran to Beirut on the Mediterranean. Iran’s foes, including US allies, view that prospect with alarm because it would make Iran and its allied militia, Hezbollah, which the US State Department designates as a terrorist organization, a much greater threat to the region.
While the Trump administration includes some highly experienced, talented members, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security advisor H.R. McMaster, it is also driven by infighting and a lack of a crucial larger strategy. Though the Obama administration suffered from excessive caution and spent far too much time pondering and analyzing, the Trump administration is devoid of a strategic point of view.
President Trump’s opinion seems to shift depending on with whom he last spoke or what he saw on Fox News. That leaves US foreign policy as a mess of contradictions and confusion, undermining the confidence of allies and sending dangerously murky signals to enemies.
Consider the recent diplomatic crisis between the Gulf Arabs. When Saudi Arabia led a diplomatic break with Qatar, accusing it of helping terrorists, President Trump tweeted his approval, siding with Saudi Arabia. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson praised Qatar as a vital US ally and called for the Gulf States to work together to resolve the crisis. The contradictory positions have continued since then.
Donald Trump’s own views, unmoored by careful consideration, can change radically with circumstances. In the past, he had opposed involvement in Syria. “We should stay the hell out of Syria,” he tweeted. Then he said he had a secret plan to defeat ISIS.
When Syria used chemical weapons, Donald Trump announced, “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” In response, he greenlighted the use of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian air base, discussing it with the Chinese president while eating chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago. But the big explosion did not visibly alter policy.
The risk of a larger regional war in the Middle East, perhaps bringing the United States in direct confrontation against Iran, is a very real possibility. Foreign Policy reported that two top White House officials, including a holdover from Mike Flynn’s doomed stint as national security advisor, are actively advocating a more direct confrontation with Iran and its proxies in Syria.
The Middle East is not the only place where there’s talk of war. North Korea continues its determined pursuit of a nuclear arsenal and the means to fire it all the way to California.
Pressure to push back grew after the death of Otto Warmbier, the US student imprisoned during a visit to North Korea and released in a coma after 17 months in captivity.
But war would surely trigger an attack against US-allied South Korea, whose capital stands less than 40 miles from the border, with millions of people within easy weapons range. Scenarios, including the use of Sarin gas by North Korea, are horrifying.
Trump had claimed he would get China to fix the North Korea problem. But China has conflicting views. It wants to prevent a major crisis, but it doesn’t mind seeing America’s dominance over the Korean Peninsula challenged by its North Korean ally. China, as Donald Trump noted, has not solved the problem.
Meanwhile, America’s involvement in Afghanistan is about to heat up. Defense Secretary Mattis told Congress that President Trump has given him full authority to set the “military commitment” in Afghanistan. Bypassing Congress and the American people, Mattis could send thousands more US troops to the region in the coming months.
The Trump administration has already escalated American involvement in the Middle East without much communication with the public. Decisions that in the past would have engendered national soul-searching and discussion of US goals are unfolding quietly, under the radar.
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Sometimes, a country needs to go to war. But the decision requires thoughtful consideration, national discussion and as much national agreement as possible.
Whether a major escalation begins now in Syria or elsewhere in the months to come, US actions are likely to be weakened by the lack of a coherent, overarching policy. In a country bitterly divided with an unpopular president and a far less popular Congress, the next big war is likely to bring accusations that the President is going to war to boost approval ratings, countered by charges that critics are playing politics with national security – and many around the world wondering if the United States knows what it is doing.