John Podesta, chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, served as counselor to President Barack Obama and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and is the founder of the Center for American Progress. Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
The United States used to debate the wars its military was fighting. But that’s not the case with the ongoing silent surge of U.S. military operations and arms sales across the Middle East.
The downing on Sunday of a Syrian warplane by an American F/A-18, along with a strike last month in Syria against a pro-Assad regime militia, were just the latest episodes in a creeping military escalation across the region that lacks well-defined strategy and goals understood by the American public.
Unlike the 2007 Iraq surge under President George W. Bush and the 2010 Afghanistan surge under President Barack Obama, this surge by the Trump administration is occurring without an engaged public discussion of the risks or about diplomacy and other tools of national power needed to protect the United States. Although today’s surge doesn’t involve hundreds of thousands of troops occupying major urban areas, it represents an increasing military presence, particularly of Special Operations forces, that is not transparent.
In just five months, President Trump has moved U.S. troops closer to the front lines in complex fights in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. As he has recently done in Afghanistan, Trump has also delegated greater authority to the Pentagon to set force levels and hit targets from the air. The frequency of drone strikes has quadrupled compared with Obama’s average. In Yemen, U.S. aircraft hit as many targets in just one week in early March as Obama would strike in a year . In Iraq and Syria, the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition released more guided munitions and other weaponry in May than in any previous month of the campaign. The United States also just quietly deployed a long-range artillery system in southeastern Syria, a move that failed to prompt any discussion.
In the Middle East’s tinderbox, for every action there’s a reaction, and it is not clear that the Trump administration has thought through what could go wrong — such as the possibility of slipping into a direct war with Iran or U.S. troops facing chemical weapons attacks by the Islamic State.
Certainly, some of these moves represent the next step in a long-term campaign to defeat the Islamic State that began under the Obama administration, particularly in Iraq and the drive to retake the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. What’s different is the downgrading of diplomacy and other tools necessary to end the fighting and produce long-term stability — including proposed drastic cuts at the State Department and leaving key diplomatic and national security posts unfilled. Trump has also placed the United States squarely on one side of the Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict roiling the region — quite a shift from Trump’s two predecessors.
What’s to be done? Congress should do its job of providing oversight and asking tough questions in three areas.
First, safeguard against a slippery slope to war. Congress should renew the debate on a new authorization for the use of military force to replace the one passed to counter al-Qaeda and its associated forces more than 15 years ago. Across the broader Middle East, the United States has about 80,000 troops deployed — far fewer than the more than 300,000 serving in 2008. Today the overall numbers are not as important as where the troops are located, what they are doing — and, most critically, how the use of military force fits into a broader strategy. The Trump team needs to explain this strategy, and Congress needs to authorize it and set appropriate limits.
Second, no blank checks to our regional partners. Congress should carefully examine any proposed weapons sales, such as additional arms to Saudi Arabia and military assistance to countries including Egypt, and ask tough questions of the administration and U.S. partners. The central one is how this security cooperation will produce greater stability and result in de-escalation, rather than the continued fragmentation of the state system in the Middle East.
Lastly, invest in the complete inventory of national security tools. Congress should resist the Trump administration’s proposal to gut elements of national power essential to defeating the Islamic State, ending conflict and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. That means fully investing in the State Department and strongly supporting efforts by international organizations such as the United Nations to address the historic refugee crisis.
The United States needs to work with partners to defeat terrorist groups and counter destabilizing policies from countries such as Iran. But in five months, the Trump administration has exposed the country to greater risks without a clear strategy. Drowned out by real concerns about Russia and the daily grind of Trump’s erratic politics at home, the United States is lurching closer to the heart of the complicated crossfire in the Middle East without sufficient scrutiny. It’s time for Congress to step up.