The American president's domestic failures are fuelling militarism abroad. It's a dangerous mix.
A series of accelerating and interlocking security crises, from the Middle East and southwest Asia to North Korea, makes the first months of 2017 an especially perilous time. Increasing the dangers is the way that domestic politics in the United States are coming to shape the Trump’s administration's global military adventurism.
To understand what is happening, look back a few months. Trump's electoral success in November was partly owed to his stance as defender of the ordinary American facing an entrenched Washington establishment. This elite, he proclaimed, was out of touch with and ignorant of the everyday problems of post-industrial and rural middle America.
This political approach went beyond windy generalities. It involved clever targeting of relatively small constituencies, raising issues that struck a chord with them: an end to Obamacare, controlling Muslim immigration, walling off Mexico, scepticism on climate change, the need to expand US military power and to rapidly crush ISIS. Trump's broader concerns included suspicion of China (especially over currency manipulation), friendship with Putin, moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closing the Export-Import Bank. and supporting the use of torture.
Now look at what has happened in the three months since his inauguration. Many of these priorities are on hold, while others have simply been abandoned. Ending Obamacare is stuck in the legislature, keeping Muslims out is being thwarted by the judiciary, the Mexicans won’t pay to build the wall, the Chinese are turning out to be the (fairly) good guys whereas Putin is on the naughty step, the Tel Aviv embassy move has been delayed, the torture notion has been quietly dropped, and the Export-Import Bank survives (it turns out to be supporting medium-sized American businesses).
True, climate scepticism still rules. But in the economic field the Trump administration doesn't seem keen on doing anything for the little people – hardly surprising when five billionaires sit around the cabinet table, but a shock to millions of voters who bought into a distinction between the Trump circle and the Washington elite. Sharper political analysts in the Trump team worry that at some point his faithful crowds may realise he is part of the problem, not the solution.
One way ahead
But Trump is forging ahead on one front: war. The shift is already clear, and there is every chance that it will become central to maintaining his popularity – a vital requirement for him and his handlers. The Pentagon has been given much greater freedom to pursue wars as it seems fit, major special-forces operations have been conducted in Yemen, fifty-nine cruise missiles hit one of Assad’s biggest air-bases in Syria, air operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq are expanding, the huge MOAB bomb has been used in Afghanistan, and tensions with North Korea have sharpened.
The problem for Trump, though, is that military matters are likely to dominate in the wrong way. Using American power effectively while retaining the support of his followers requires evidence of serious progress on two fronts – North Korea and ISIS. Yet campaigns against both are mired in problems.
Over North Korea there may be room for manoeuvre if China is prepared to exert a degree of influence vis-à-vis Pyongyang. But even Beijing will be unable to persuade a notional ally to end its nuclear ambitions. The regime is far too fearful of foreign interference to even think of giving up what it sees as its deterrent. Some easing of tensions might be possible, but the North Korean conundrum is simply not amenable to a military solution.
Over ISIS the dilemmas are even more pressing, and here the US's bombardment of an Assad regime facility makes no difference. The fighting in Mosul, now rarely reported in the western media, is about to enter its seventh month, with intense fighting in the city's west. The Iraqi army’s elite forces are buffeted by mounting casualties, leading to greater recourse to air-power and artillery-bombardment – mostly supplied by the US and its western European allies. The results are inevitable, as AirWars reports: “More civilians were likely killed by the coalition in March than any other month of the war against ISIL – with a record number of bombs and missiles also released.”
Mosul will eventually be taken, but those supposedly pessimistic predictions in autumn 2016 that mid-2017 was a feasible date for the end of the battle now look increasingly realistic. Even when ISIS is driven out, the legacy of bitterness among hundreds of thousands of Sunni Iraqis against their government will feed into more support for whatever movement replaces ISIS. In addition, the Iraqi government is hugely dependent on its relatively reliable special forces to maintain security, and they are being degraded in the conflict, with thousands killed or injured.
Meanwhile, ISIS is making considerable progress in Egypt, aided by Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi’s security crackdown following the two latest bombings of Coptic Christians. Parts of Sinai are essentially under ISIS control. In its southern region on 18 April, the group's attack on the famed St Catherine’s Monastery killed a police officer and wounded four.
The situation in Afghanistan is also deteriorating, so much so that Trump’s national-security advisor General H R McMaster visited Kabul at such short notice that many senior officials were not even told in advance. McMaster is considering whether to recommend a major increase in troop deployment in the country three years after the uneven process of withdrawal began. In fact the decision seems to have been made, in that hundreds of US marines are already being sent to southern Afghanistan to help the Afghan national army resist an anticipated Taliban surge once the “fighting season” starts in earnest in May.
What, then, happens next? The history of Trump’s approach to the presidency offers a safe bet. He will respond not with a nuanced attempt to understand why more than fifteen years of the war on terror has delivered not greater security, but its opposite. Instead, he will expand the wars, pouring yet more fuel on the flames.