The saga of stunning reversals that has defined the Donald Trump administration so far looks to continue with foreign policy being the latest sphere. The electoral promise of prioritizing a domestic agenda and eschewing overseas military intervention overseas has seemingly all been ripped up. In recent days, President Trump has intervened against the Syrian government, threatened North Korea and dropped one of the largest-ever non-nuclear weapons on a purported Islamic State (IS) base in Afghanistan. If this was intended to come across as a bellicose show of strength, it certainly has achieved that purpose in the short term. Yet Trump should be wary of military adventures that risk becoming a quagmire, creating economic volatility and derailing a domestic policy agenda.
In Syria, the military strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime marked a difference with the Barack Obama administration which contemplated action in 2013 but decided against it. To be fair to Trump, when the facts change on the ground, he cannot be faulted for altering the course either. In that light, a contained strike intended to send a clear message to Assad that a red line had been crossed was arguably justifiable. However, the truth is that there is no coherent strategy to bring about an orderly transition in Syria. For all his sins, Assad has also held firm against Islamic State (IS) militants. A great degree of caution would, therefore, be advisable. Replacing Assad at this stage through unilateral action might generate headlines but is likely to provoke greater chaos, humanitarian suffering and strife in an already troubled region. Persuading Russia to gradually withdraw support for Assad without losing face and working collectively towards a transitional plan remains vital.
Similarly, to defuse tensions with North Korea, it will be critical to keep China on one’s own side. The US may send a warship to patrol Korean waters as a warning to Kim Jong-Un but it is China that holds sway in its “near abroad”. At least, Trump seems to acknowledge this. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, he suggested that he would not label China a “currency manipulator” because he needed its co-operation.
What might be said then about Afghanistan? The astonishing news that the Trump administration has dropped the mother of all bombs—one of the largest-ever non-nuclear weapons (weighing 9,300kg)—on an alleged IS base in the Momand valley has already evoked strong reaction. For some, this was essential to demonstrate a firm signal to IS that the US will not be cowed by it. Yet others have queried whether this was disproportionate to the actual risk. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai did not mince his words by condemning this as an inhuman and most brutal misuse of his country.
In broad terms though, the overall US approach to Afghanistan remains entirely unclear. Trump has spoken in the past about extricating US troops from Afghanistan. If he intends to mount a fresh surge, he should think again. More than 15 years after the farcically titled “Operation Enduring Freedom” was launched in Afghanistan albeit with good intentions, it has achieved the opposite result. Living under the fear and barrage of drone attacks and the attendant violence has meant that instead of enduring freedom, ironically, it might be said, the war has led Afghans into a cycle of enduring misery. If ever a perverse strategy to win “hearts and minds” was launched, this must be it. No wonder the Afghans aren’t a grateful bunch.
Given all this, what should Trump be mindful of? Three key factors come to mind. First, while a seductive bravado might point towards unilateral US action, that approach has strategic long-term limitations. Building alliances to secure long-term objectives continues to be as pivotal as ever. Second, winning local hearts and minds cannot be ignored. The rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration does not sufficiently address this. That does the US a disservice. As President Bill Clinton once said memorably, “people the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than the example of our power”. Equally important, majority of voters at home—Trump’s evocative “forgotten men and women”—are weary of wars overseas with billions spent without an end in sight. They would prefer a focus on economic revival with an emphasis on job creation and infrastructure. If Trump wishes to “make America great again”, he would do well to pay heed to these themes before embarking on wider military adventures.
Rishabh Bhandari is a London-based lawyer and political commentator