America Needs to Rethink Its Use of Military Force

By Will Solomon

November 4, 2020 

Policy Summary

It can be difficult to find coherence in Trump’s agenda, foreign policy included. In contrast to almost every prominent Republican since at least World War II, Trump has espoused (at least rhetorically) a doctrine of isolationism since his run for and during his time as president, railing against NATO and American involvement in the Middle East—and specifically bucking Republican orthodoxy in vocally criticizing the Iraq War. (Arguably, this latter position was a major reason Trump won the Republican primary in 2015-16).

One of the more bizarre aspects of the Trump presidency has been the increased militarism and aggressiveness by Democrats in response to both this rhetoric and Trump’s actualized foreign policy. But does this quasi-role reversal reveal a genuine strategic shift by the Trump administration, and a significant move away from a previously-existing bipartisan consensus on American overseas commitments? It is helpful to examine two regions in which Trump has sought to reduce American troop commitments.

First, the War in Afghanistan, which remains the longest-running war in US history. As noted above, a major feature of Trump’s 2016 campaign was a rhetorical commitment to reducing American involvement in the Greater Middle East. However, over the first two years of the Trump Administration, the number of soldiers in Afghanistan actually increased, possibly to a maximum of over 15,000 soldiers. This number has reportedly decreased over the past two years and was listed around 8,600 earlier this year—roughly the level they were at when Obama left office—after the February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban. Earlier this fall, Trump announced without warning that all US troops would be out of Afghanistan by Christmas—and yet it appears there is no substance behind the claim, and a gradual if indefinite process of withdrawal will continue.

Trump has also repeatedly made a spectacle of criticizing NATO allies for not contributing enough to the mutual defense pact. This summer, the US announced its intent to remove 12,000 troops out of Germany. While Trump claimed this was because of German failure to sufficiently pay into the treaty, Pentagon officials stated this was consistent with long-term strategy—and it is noteworthy that about half those troops were to be redeployed to Belgium and Italy, which pay a lower percentage of GDP towards their defense budgets than does Germany. This is arguably also consistent with the “pivot to Asia” that began during the Obama Administration.

Policy Analysis

While Trump’s rhetoric has signaled a marked shift from prior postwar American presidents, thus far, his actions with regards to military deployments overseas have been fairly consistent with recent precedent. Like Obama in particular, Trump has relied heavily on airstrikes, drone warfare, and special forces raids in military engagements across the globe.

Which is not to say this is good: despite frequent proclamations to the contrary, the seventy-five years since the end of World War II have been marked by violence and destabilization around the globe, much of it directly instigated by the United States. The most significant war of the twenty-first century—the War in Iraq—was the result of a largely unilateral American decision to invade a sovereign nation. The war may have resulted in a million dead, including several thousand American troops, and Iraq remains a broken nation. The War in Afghanistan—frequently characterized as the more just war—has, again, become the longest-running war in US history, and is acknowledged by senior US government officials as unwinnable.

Trump’s rhetoric should not be downplayed, and having an erratic mouthpiece at the head of government is a major threat to international security. But the media ought to pause on its reflexive opposition to Trump and ask, broadly, whether American military engagements overseas are achieving their aims. Indeed, what exactly are these aims? This does include questions like: what is the purpose of NATO in the year 2020? Are these deployments of American soldiers helpful, or destabilizing? While answers may vary by case, recent history (not just including Trump’s tenure) would suggest that this broad strategy ought to be reconsidered, regardless of who is president.

Resistance Resources — “CODEPINK is a women-led grassroots organization working to end U.S. wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect our tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs.” — “Veterans For Peace is a global organization of Military Veterans and allies whose collective efforts are to build a culture of peace by using our experiences and lifting our voices. We inform the public of the true causes of war and the enormous costs of wars, with an obligation to heal the wounds of wars.” — “Democracy Now! produces a daily, global, independent news hour hosted by award-winning journalists Amy Goodman and Juan González. Our reporting includes breaking daily news headlines and in-depth interviews with people on the front lines of the world’s most pressing issues.”

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