Brief # 95 Foreign Policy
Trump’s Erratic Military Policies
By Colin Rugg
October 23, 2020

Policy Summary

In the wake of Jeffrey Goldberg’s September 3rd Atlantic report lambasting Trump for his disparaging comments about the United States Military, the president has come under fire from Military commanders and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Trump has a reported history of mocking veterans, calling soldiers who lost their lives abroad “losers,” making disparaging remarks about prisoners of war, and complaining that “nobody wants to see” disabled veterans injured in the line of duty at a military parade. On a Memorial Day visit to the grave of Lt. Robert Kelly, son of Gen. John Kelly, the president reportedly turned to the general and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” The president denies these claims. But actions speak louder than words and the president’s lack of respect for domestic and international military norms goes much deeper than the claims of disrespectful language.

To understand the president’s current cagey relationship with the US military, it is important to understand the context in which he interacts with it. During his presidential campaign in 2016, Trump promised to swiftly pull troops back from “endless wars” The American people,  tired of seemingly endless conflict with billions of dollars spent on a national defense budget in lieu of domestic needs, were generally in favor of the sentiment despite concerns of military top brass and Republican lawmakers. But the urgent demands of addressing the insurgence of the Islamic State and rising tensions between the Afghan government and the Taliban pushed the president to increase foreign military presence, raising the Obama-era cap of 8,400 troops stationed in Afghanistan to 15,000.

Now, under the shadow of a looming presidential election, Trump has been hasty to make good on his promises to reduce the foreign US military presence. In contrast to Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s stated goals to support longtime NATO allies and to pull out of the Middle East “in a manner that ensures we both guard against threats to our homeland and never have to go back,” Donald Trump does not seem concerned about such long-term  concerns. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top US military commander for the Middle East claims that at the current rate, the number of troops in Afghanistan could fall below 4,500 in November, and down to 3,000 in Iraq.


While the withdrawal of troops might sound like good news to humanitarian and the America-First movements alike, the policy’s carelessness should be of concern to both parties. Iraq and Afghanistan are both in critical political moments that require support beyond what local governments can provide.

The Afghan-Taliban peace talks are only just beginning and are already steeped in contention. President Trump is clearly eager to disengage, proclaiming victory as soon as the Taliban came to the negotiating table, already having lowered the number of troops well in advance. In the wake of the president’s hasty retreat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the negotiations will be deeply contentious. They have already been marred by increased Taliban attacks on Afghan soldiers and assassination attempts, with scores of civilians killed in the crossfire.

Iraq has also seen Trump declare premature victory only to disengage with no thought for long-term consequence. The president announced in late 2018 that the US would withdraw nearly all its troops from Syria under the pretense that the Islamic State was decimated. And while the radical terrorist movement indeed lost all its territory and their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, military commanders from Iraq and the Pentagon urge caution. Both put the current number of Islamic State members between 14 and 18 thousand – 4 to 8 thousand more than when the organization first proclaimed a caliphate.

Not only is the Islamic State still growing and organizing underground, but those who survived the initial conflict have been further radicalized and trained in live combat. Masrour Barzani, the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan and former leader of the Kurdish paramilitary force known as the peshmerga, claims the Islamic State is reorganizing at an alarming rate. Even at its nadir, the organization continued to launch an average of 60 attacks a month on Iraqi security forces. It is under these circumstances that Trump is removing antiterrorism forces from the country, leaving a nascent anti-American Islamist terrorist organization to develop undisturbed.

Trump’s ham-fisted attempts to make good on his electoral promises will have disastrous consequences in the Middle East. It has already cast doubt on the United States’ reputation as a loyal ally following the president’s removal of troops stationed in longtime NATO allied countries like Germany.

But the most frustrating aspect of the president’s military policy is the fact that these actions are deeply hypocritical. Trump boasts about delivering on his campaign promises to cut foreign military spending and bring American forces home, while in the same breath he signs into law the National Defense Authorization Act which drastically increased the military budget, redeploys soldiers elsewhere around the world, and bullishly enflames conflicts with the potential to pull the United States into deeper military entanglements. He recalls and redeploys forces to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on a whim, baiting Iran into conflict. According to the Congressional Research Service, Donald Trump’s history of conducting unilateral military action against Iran could easily lead to future military conflict, including action against Iranian allies or proxies, retaliation against Iranian key targets and facilities as seen in the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, blockades, or even outright invasion. With the current breakdown of international military cooperation as well as the lack of communication and support between the United States and its NATO allies, it is likely that a regional conflict would be deeply taxing for the United States.

Trump’s blatantly hypocritical approach to military policy will have disastrous results for the American people and our allies abroad. It will risk American lives by pushing away our allies, enflaming our regional rivals, and allowing anti-American terrorism and instability to grow deep roots abroad, while skirting around the stated goal of decreasing the military budget. These policies were put in place to stroke Trump’s ego by allowing him to grandstand on an international stage, spend exorbitantly on nothing more than a show of force, and lend false legitimacy to the claim that he made good on his promises to the American people.

Resistance Resources

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) – TAPS provides a variety of programs to offer compassionate care to those grieving the loss of a loved one who died while serving in the Armed Forces, or as a result of service. TAPS has helped more than 70,000 surviving families, caregivers, and casualty officers since the nonprofit was founded in 1994. – In the absence of a multilateral military mission from the United States, the best hope at maintaining stability and decency abroad is through the support of international organizations like the United Nations. – Vote in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Foreign and Military policy are inextricably linked to the Commander in Chief. We need a responsible steward of our nation now more than ever.

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