[OP-ED]: Trump stumbles into another decade of war in the Middle East
While we have been focused on the results of special elections, the ups and downs of the Russia investigation, and President Trump’s latest tweets, under the radar, a broad and consequential shift in American foreign policy appears to be underway. Put simply, the United States is stumbling its way into another decade of war in the greater Middle East. And this next decade of conflict might prove to be even more destabilizing than the last one.
Trump came into office with a refreshing skepticism about America’s policy toward the region. “Everybody that’s touched the Middle East, they’ve gotten bogged down. ... We’re bogged down,” he said during the campaign. But Trump also sees himself as a tough guy. At his rallies, he repeatedly vowed to “bomb the s--- out of” the Islamic State. Now that he is in the White House and has surrounded himself with an array of generals, his macho instinct seems to have triumphed. The administration has ramped up its military operations across the greater Middle East, from Syria to Yemen to Afghanistan to Somalia -- more troops, more bombings, more missions. But what is the underlying strategy?
In the fight against the Islamic State, U.S. forces have been aggressively initiating attacks, resulting in a considerable rise in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria. And in a dramatic escalation, this week the U.S. shot down a Syrian warplane, putting Washington on a collision course with Syria’s ally, Russia, with the real possibility of U.S.-Russian military hostilities. Worse yet, it is unclear how this belligerence toward the Bashar Assad regime will achieve the sole stated mission of America’s involvement in Syria -- to defeat the Islamic State. Logically, if Assad gets weaker, the main opposition forces -- various militant Islamist groups, including the Islamic State -- will get stronger. Compounding the incoherence, the administration explained that while it had attacked Assad’s forces, it was not fighting the Assad regime and the downing was simply an act of “collective self-defense.” A few more such acts of self-defense and American combat troops could find themselves on the ground in Syria.
In Afghanistan, Trump has delegated the details of a mini-surge of 4,000 more troops to Defense Secretary James Mattis and other senior military leaders. But there are limits to the perspective even of distinguished generals. Military officers can tell you whether, for example, they can take a hill. But does taking that hill serve America’s broader strategy? Can that hill be held at reasonable cost? Does this mission distract from other, larger American interests around the world? Those are questions that must be answered by the commander in chief.
The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for 16 years. It has had several surges in troop numbers and has spent almost a trillion dollars on that country. Last year, America’s aid to Afghanistan was equivalent to about 40 percent of that nation’s GDP. And yet, Mattis admits that the United States is “not winning.” What will an additional 4,000 troops now achieve that 130,000 troops could not?
In Yemen, the United States is now more actively engaged in a conflict that has little connection to the war against radical Islamic terror. With the latest arms sale, Washington is further fueling Saudi Arabia’s proxy war against Iran -- a war that has led the kingdom into a de facto alliance with al-Qaeda in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, seems likely to persist in this conflict, even though it has gone much worse than expected and has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe. A child in Yemen is dying of preventable causes every 10 minutes, according to UNICEF, and the poorest country in the Arab world has been turned into a wasteland in which terror groups will compete for decades to come.
In almost every situation American forces are involved in, the solutions are more political than military. This has become especially true in places like Syria and Afghanistan where many regional powers, with deep interests, have staked out positions and spread their influence. Military force without a strategy and a deeply engaged political and diplomatic process is destined to fail, perhaps even to produce a series of unintended consequences -- witness the last decade and a half.
During the campaign, Trump seemed to be genuinely reflective about America’s role in the Middle East. “This is not usually me talking, OK, ‘cause I’m very proactive,” he once said on the subject. “But I would sit back and [say], ‘Let’s see what’s going on.’” Yes. After 16 years of continuous warfare, hundreds of thousands dead, trillions of dollars, and greater regional instability, somebody in Washington needs to ask -- before the next bombing or deployment: What is going on?