While we have been focused on the results of special elections, the ups and downs of the Russia investigation and President Trump’s latest tweets, under the radar, a broad and consequential shift in U.S. foreign policy appears to be underway. Put simply, the United States is stumbling into another decade of war in the greater Middle East. And this next decade of conflict might prove to be even more destabilizing than the last one.
Trump came into office with a refreshing skepticism about U.S. policy toward the region. “Everybody that’s touched the Middle East, they’ve gotten bogged down. . . . We’re bogged down,” he said during the campaign. But Trump also sees himself as a tough guy. At his rallies, he repeatedly vowed to “bomb the s--- out of” the Islamic State. Now that he is in the White House and has surrounded himself with an array of generals, his macho instinct seems to have triumphed. The administration has ramped up its military operations across the greater Middle East, in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia — more troops, more bombings, more missions. But what is the underlying strategy?
In the fight against the Islamic State, U.S. forces have been aggressively initiating attacks, resulting in a sharp rise in civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria. And in a dramatic escalation, this week the United States shot down a Syrian warplane, putting Washington on a collision course with Syria’s ally, Russia, with the real possibility of U.S.-Russian military hostilities. Worse yet, it is unclear how this belligerence toward the Bashar al-Assad regime will achieve the sole stated mission of the United States’ involvement in Syria: to defeat the Islamic State. Logically, if Assad gets weaker, the main opposition forces — various militant Islamist groups, including the Islamic State — will get stronger. Compounding the incoherence, the administration said that although it had attacked Assad’s forces, it was not fighting the Assad regime, and that the downing was an act of “collective self-defense.” A few more such acts of self-defense, and U.S. combat troops could find themselves on the ground in Syria.
In Afghanistan, Trump has delegated the details of a mini-surge of 4,000 more troops to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior military leaders. But there are limits to the perspective even of distinguished generals. Military officers can tell you whether, for example, they can take a hill. But does taking that hill serve America’s broader strategy? Can that hill be held at reasonable cost? Does this mission distract from other, larger U.S. interests around the world? Those are questions that must be answered by the commander in chief.
The United States has been in Afghanistan for 16 years. It has had several surges in troop numbers and has spent almost a trillion dollars on that country. Last year, U.S. aid to Afghanistan was equivalent to about 40 percent of that nation’s gross domestic product. And yet, Mattis acknowledges that the United States is “not winning.” What will an additional 4,000 troops now achieve that 130,000 troops could not?
In Yemen, the United States is more actively engaged in a conflict that does little to advance the fight against radical Islamist terrorism. With the latest arms sale, Washington is further fueling Saudi Arabia’s proxy war against Iran — a war that has led the kingdom into a de facto alliance with al-Qaeda in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, seems likely to persist in this conflict, even though it has gone much worse than expected and has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe. A child in Yemen is dying of preventable causes every 10 minutes, according to UNICEF, and the poorest country in the Arab world has been turned into a wasteland in which terrorist groups will compete for decades to come.
In almost every situation that U.S. forces are involved in, the solutions are more political than military. This has become especially true in places such as Syria and Afghanistan, where many regional powers with major interests have staked out positions and spread their influence. Military force without a strategy or deeply engaged political and diplomatic process is destined to fail, perhaps even to produce unintended consequences — witness the past decade and a half.
During the campaign, Trump seemed to be genuinely reflective about America’s role in the Middle East. “This is not usually me talking, okay, ’cause I’m very proactive,” he once said on the subject. “But I would sit back and [say], ‘Let’s see what’s going on.’ ” Yes. After 16 years of continuous warfare, hundreds of thousands dead, trillions of dollars spent and greater regional instability, somebody in Washington needs to ask — before the next bombing or deployment: What is going on?
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