Trump on Afghanistan is just the latest sign that the age of American grand strategy is over

Peter Dombrowski and Simon Reich

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In the early days of the last presidential election campaign, then candidate Donald Trump tweeted that ‘We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!’

Yet shortly after we completed our article for the latest issue of International Affairs, President Trump reversed course, announcing that the US would once again expand its involvement. Reputedly, that decision ‘was less a change of heart than a weary acceptance of the case, made during three months of intense White House debate by the military leaders who dominate his war cabinet’.

Trump’s announcement was long on rhetoric but short on details. The number of new troops to be sent to Afghanistan was unspecified, as was their role in the conflict and his definition of ‘success’. But based on what he did announce, his approach to a great extent mimicked those of his two predecessors, Presidents Bush and Obama. Indeed, the only substantial difference may be Trump’s declaration that there would be no end date to America’s involvement in what has become its — and NATO’s — ‘forever war’.

Commentators will long debate the implications of America’s deeper re-engagement in Afghanistan. What may be just as significant about this decision, however, is the theme we address in both our new article and a forthcoming book, The end of grand strategy: US maritime operations in the twenty-first century (Cornell University Press, 2018): namely the inability of modern American presidents to implement any grand strategy and — in contrast — the role of operational factors in pushing policymakers to utilize instead what we term ‘calibrated strategies’. Calibrated strategies are situational, contextual, and more driven by field staff and military commanders rather than politicians or policymakers in Washington articulating the top-down principles and visions that they prefer govern American foreign policy.

Three factors heavily influence these calibrated strategies. The first is the nature of the actors. It isn’t surprising to discover that America’s military employ differing strategies depending on who they oppose; be it pirates, jihadist militants, transnational criminal organizations or nuclear-armed states. The second is the nature of the threat. This stretches from the kind of existential military threats posed by countries like North Korea firing missiles that could reach the US mainland, to anthropogenic ones like containing an epidemic of Ebola or responding to humanitarian crises in the aftermath of a tsunami. Finally, the third factor concerns the potential or actual form of conflict American forces face; whether that is conventional warfare involving missiles and tanks, asymmetric counterterrorism campaigns against irregular forces that use IED’s, or unattributed hybrid operations where an unseen enemy employs cyber instruments and disinformation tactics. American military forces are expected to routinely plan for, and carry out field operations against, varied combinations of these factors.

Yet, this multitude of possible options undermines the broad designs inherent in any grand strategy. Rather, the strategy has to match the circumstances. Ignoring this vital requisite may prove rash — largely explaining the failure of George W. Bush’s audacious attempt to recast places like Iraq in America’s image. It also, conversely, may help explain the more cautious Barack Obama’s often-criticized reticence to articulate any grand strategy at all.

Flouting such concerns, candidate Trump advocated an ‘America First’ isolationist grand strategy that emphasized sovereignty and border control. As president, Trump has often repeated that position and, in some circumstances, has even been able to implement elements of that strategy. At home, his administration has carried out new measures against undocumented immigrants and introduced a temporary travel ban against citizens of a handful of countries on security grounds. Forgoing legislative approval, Trump has been able to accomplish both through executive orders — which can therefore easily be reversed by his successor. Abroad, he has withdrawn the United States from both the Paris Agreement on climate change and participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Again, both withdrawals were relatively straightforward because there had been no actual American operational commitment of resources.

In many instances, however, President Trump has had to eschew his ‘America First’ vision because of prevailing operational factors. As Trump has said occasionally about a foreign policy issue since his inauguration, ‘it’s complicated’. As the Afghan example illustrates, grandiose rhetoric — whether about an ‘America First’ isolationist strategy or alternatively the United States’ role as a global sheriff or multilateral leader — is often confronted by reality and the need to adapt to field operations.

In fact, an analysis of its military operations reveals that the United States simultaneously pursues a variety of strategies every day — from isolationism to primacy, multilateral leadership and beyond. If we ignore Trump’s abrasive rhetoric about NATO’s utility and costs, for example, and look instead at NATO’s operations in the last eight months, we discover that little has changed. The United States has spent over a billion dollars, rotated its forces, and carried out joint military exercises — just as it did during the Obama presidency.

Likewise, candidate Trump excoriated President Obama about ISIS, claiming to have a ‘secret plan’ to destroy it and vowing that he ‘would bomb the s*** out of them’. But, with the eccentric symbolic exception of a missile strike against the Syrian government in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons, the Trump administration’s strategy in Iraq and Syria has been more notable for its continuity in the implementation of Obama’s sponsorship strategy; the United States has minimized its leadership role while subsidizing allies who share America’s interests and are motivated to implement them.

As we discuss in our book, notable examples of such varied operational strategies abound: from implementing a sponsorship strategy to fight pirates in African waters to a primacist one that ensures oil supplies flow through the Strait of Hormuz; from an isolationist strategy to combat drug trafficking in the American littoral to an embryonic attempt to create a retrenchment strategy in the Arctic’s quickly melting waters.

Three key observations, however, emerge from our work. First, from a strategic perspective, it is important to look beyond the seemingly ceaseless cacophony of tweets and policy pronouncements, and to focus on actual field operations. Second, that the formulation and eventual implementation of contemporary strategy has as much to do with the information that is fed up the chain of command as it has with any grand visions about how America should engage the world. And, third, that these strategic lessons may extend far beyond the United States, applying as much to Britain, France or indeed other great powers such as China.

Peter Dombrowski is Professor of Strategy in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the US Naval War College.

Simon Reich is a Professor in the Division of Global Affairs and Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, Newark. He previously served as Director of Research and Analysis at Chatham House.

The authors’ recent article in International Affairs is titled ‘Does Donald Trump have a grand strategy?’ It appears in the September 2017 issue.

Read the article here.

Disclaimer: The views here reflect those of the authors and not the U.S. Naval War College or any governmental entity.

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