Even prior to running for president, Donald Trump was a critic of the deployment of American troops abroad. During the 2016 campaign, he frequently promised to bring U.S. forces home and end what he believed to be the unnecessary burden of overseas commitments. In his 2019 State of the Union address, Trump noted that it was time to stop fighting endless wars. During a subsequent Cabinet meeting he announced, “I got elected on bringing our soldiers back home.”
It would seem appropriate to consider whether or not he has lived up to this promise, how he has attempted to do so and if this effort has made the nation safer.
Consequently, in the closing weeks of his 2020 re-election campaign, it would seem appropriate to consider whether or not he has lived up to this promise, how he has attempted to do so and if this effort has made the nation safer.
The size and deployment of American forces is a key element of the nation’s military strategy, and many of his senior advisers have described Trump’s approach to policy as transactional. The president views it as a balance sheet that should be evaluated as a matter of financial profit and loss. He believes American forces perform a quasi-mercenary role that primarily benefits the host nation.
As a result, in Trump’s view, the United States should expect significantly higher levels of compensation for keeping troops abroad, and he has repeatedly threatened American allies for not paying enough. For example, Trump has argued the United States gets “practically nothing compared to the cost” of keeping forces on the Korean peninsula and suggested he might withdraw the U.S. from NATO.
He does not accept that U.S. forces abroad are often in the vital interests of the nation. They are the clearest demonstration of America’s commitments. Their presence serves as a deterrent to conflict and helps preserve global stability. Wise policymakers realize that sudden decisions in one part of the world may cast doubt on the nation’s willingness to fulfill promises elsewhere. This can encourage enemies and alienate allies.
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other administration officials attempted to explain to the president the value of U.S. commitments and alliances. Mattis pointedly informed Trump that America’s forward military deployment in Korea was intended to avert World War III, according to reporting by Bob Woodward. But these efforts have been to no avail, and Trump’s treatment of American allies was cited by Mattis as a primary reason for the general’s resignation. Even senior Republicans have recently suggested that under his leadership “the United States now regularly sells out our allies.”
But as Americans vote this fall, Trump’s promise of a dramatic reduction in American troop presence abroad has not been achieved, nor has he dramatically shifted costs to U.S. allies. In fact, the Trump administration has increased U.S. defense spending in the last several years by nearly $140 billion, from $611 billion in 2016 to $750 billion in 2019, Foreign Affairs reported. When Trump settled into the Oval Office in January 2017, the United States had a little under 200,000 troops deployed overseas. Best estimates are that number has been reduced slightly, but this may largely reflect a difference in accounting. Since 2017, the Department of Defense has excluded troops deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria from its official reports, arguing that providing the number of troops in a combat theater violated operational security.
Consequently, the actual total on Election Day 2020 will be roughly equivalent to the number Trump inherited following his inauguration.
Consequently, the actual total on Election Day 2020 will be roughly equivalent to the number Trump inherited following his inauguration, according to Foreign Affairs. Trump has, however, made sudden decisions on numerous long-standing American troop deployments. These were frequently made without consultation, contrary to long-established policy, and often made via Twitter. They left both American allies as well as his own administration surprised, confused and bewildered. Often, they rewarded American opponents.
For example, in October 2019, the White House announced that the United States would remove its forces from the northern border of Syria, opening the door for a Turkish offensive against the Kurdish troops who had been considered American allies. The president then boasted about this decision on Twitter.Trump made this sudden shift in policy despite recommendations from his senior military and State Department advisers. Brett McGurk, former special envoy to the global anti-ISIS coalition, described it as a “gift to Russia, Iran, and ISIS.”
This pattern of a “Twitter strategy” has accelerated as the president approaches re-election and his prospects appear increasingly difficult. In June, he directed the Pentagon to remove roughly one-third of American troops in Germany by September. This announcement was a surprise to many senior administration officials and criticized by senior Republicans.
German officials described it as “unacceptable,” since no advance discussions had been conducted or warning provided. Others saw it as an attempt to punish German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her refusal to attend a planned G7 summit in Washington due to the ongoing pandemic. NATO experts saw this as a gift to Russian President Vladmir Putin, who delights in any sign of NATO disunity.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien made a surprise announcement on Oct. 7 that the U.S. would reduce its presence in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year. This completely dumbfounded the Pentagon and top military commanders. The confusion was compounded a few hours later by the president’s tweet that all forces “serving in Afghanistan” would be “home by Christmas!” Also blindsided were our Afghan allies in Kabul, who had just begun negotiations with the Taliban about an overall peace settlement. The president’s tweet was, however, endorsed by the Taliban.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley quickly attempted to limit the damage. He stated that the United States-Taliban agreement and associated drawdown plans were all conditions-based. “The key here is that we’re trying to end a war responsibly, deliberately, and to do it on terms that guarantee the safety of the U.S. vital national security interests that are at stake in Afghanistan,” he told NPR.
Even relatively small deployments have not been spared presidential scrutiny. Trump recently told his top advisers that he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia as it would further allow him to fulfill his campaign pledges. Currently, American forces number roughly 650 to 800 troops, including special forces that are training the Somali army. This decision comes even though the president of Somalia believes his country is on the brink of defeating the al-Shabab insurgents, according to Bloomberg. Many senior military and counterterrorism officials think a precipitous American withdrawal would bolster Al Qaeda’s largest and most active global affiliate while benefitting both China and Russia geostrategically.
An effective national military strategy is critical to the security of the nation. It requires careful analysis by administration experts that includes both the direct and indirect consequences of major policy shifts, as well as discussions with allies to coordinate efforts and mitigate risk.
Trump’s tweeting cannot be brushed off as simply diplomatic malpractice. There are real operational consequences for allies whose troops serve alongside U.S. forces — and often depend on American intelligence, logistic and medical support — in difficult places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Conducting such a process in an erratic or chaotic manner can have disastrous consequences. It undermines confidence in U.S. readiness and deterrence. Allies may begin to believe that the United States will not stand behind its global commitments and seek out alternative alliances, encourage conventional arms races and even consider the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.
On the other hand, resources are not endless. The American people have every right to expect their leadership to review defense costs carefully and demand that our allies share common burdens. Rising government deficits and the most serious economic challenge the nation has faced since the Great Depression make this even more imperative. Adjustments in the size and deployment of American military forces may be required. But they should be done responsibly and not in 280 characters. Consequently, the nation’s military strategy should be a major topic of the ongoing presidential campaign. So far it has not been.
In October 2016, I was quoted in The New York Times saying then-candidate Trump “doesn’t know a damn thing about military strategy.” In an interview a few days later, Trump strongly disagreed and said he was going to teach me a couple of things. His actions during the past four years and recent uninformed, erratic and precipitous decisions about vital questions of American security suggest to me, at least, that sadly he has not learned anything since. I am still waiting for my lessons, and the nation is less safe.