Amid the often jarring inconsistency of President Trump’s foreign policy, one thing has always been crystal clear: He loves a big show of American military force.
“You gotta knock the hell out of them — Boom! Boom! Boom!” Trump said of Islamic State terrorists at a January 2016 rally in Iowa, punctuating each “boom” with a punch of his fist.
That same impulse has been apparent over the past 10 days as Trump pummeled a Syrian air base with cruise missiles, threatened military action against North Korea over its nuclear weapons program and praised the U.S. military’s first-ever use of a massive 11-ton bomb, nicknamed the “mother of all bombs,” to kill Islamic State militants in Afghanistan.
“So incredible. It’s brilliant. It’s genius,” Trump said Tuesday of the missile strike in Syria. “Our technology, our equipment is better than anybody by a factor of five.”
As he searches for a coherent foreign policy during his first months in office, Trump has celebrated but often inflated the effect of military actions. The massive shows of strength, at times, have seemed to be a strategy unto themselves.
“If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what’s happened over the past eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference, tremendous difference,” Trump told reporters after the military unleashed the giant bomb on a largely unpopulated region of the Afghan wilderness. “This was another very, very successful mission.”
U.S. military officials estimated that the giant bomb killed 36 Islamic State fighters.
Trump’s full-on embrace of military force offers a sharp contrast to Barack Obama, who promised to end America’s wars and who worried publicly about escalation and overreach, often to the point of paralysis. Trump has taken the polar opposite approach, and for the moment he seems to be benefiting.
Some foreign leaders took comfort in the speed of Trump’s response after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people.
“In Asia, they appreciated the decisiveness,” said Richard Fontaine, a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and president of the Center for a New American Security. “They see this as a sign that the administration will move quickly in response to events.”
The tough talk and the cruise missile strike have provided a small boost to Trump’s approval rating at home and have drawn widespread cable news coverage, distracting from his domestic struggles and the ongoing probe into contacts between his campaign officials and Russia.
Trump has also drawn praise from a foreign policy community that has blanched at his criticism of NATO and worried about his isolationist, “America First” instincts.
“There’s value in Donald Trump signaling to the world that this is a different United States you are dealing with and we aren’t going to tolerate certain behavior,” said Danielle Pletka, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. “His actions have been an improvement.”
The big question is whether Trump’s recent military maneuvers can be fashioned into a long-term strategy or whether they are the Trump foreign policy equivalent of an angry tweet.
“The problem for all of us is judging where does he go from here,” Pletka said.
For now, Trump seems to be embracing precisely the strategy that Obama came to reject. In meetings with his closest aides and in an interview in The Atlantic magazine, Obama often railed against the “Washington playbook,” which he said too often pushed presidents to use military force.
“It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign policy establishment,” Obama said. “Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”
It may be too early to draw conclusions from Trump’s Syrian strike and the saber rattling directed at North Korea. By military standards, the missile strike was a low-risk mission that put no troops at risk, cost little and was telegraphed in such a way as to ensure that Russian troops were not injured.
“That is not a real military commitment,” said Eliot Cohen, a senior official in George W. Bush’s State Department and a professor at Johns Hopkins University. “That was an easy decision.”
It is also unlikely that the strike in Syria or the massive bomb drop in Afghanistan will produce much military benefit in conflicts that are rooted in poor governance and deep-seated ethnic and sectarian differences.
But Trump’s unpredictability could be yielding some benefits. With North Korea thought to be preparing for a new nuclear test and U.S. Navy warships steaming toward the Korean Peninsula, Trump unleashed another bellicose tweet.
“I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will! U.S.A.,” he wrote Thursday.
Trump’s defenders, and even some of his critics, suggested his impulsiveness might be serving as something of a stabilizing influence on the volatile peninsula. In recent days, China has stepped up pressure on Pyongyang, threatening consequences if it provokes a confrontation with the United States.
For the moment, it’s tough to tell precisely what’s driving the Chinese to take a tougher stand. “Is it because of our leverage or because of what North Korea is doing?” asked Derek Chollet, who served in the White House and the Pentagon under Obama.
Even less clear is whether Trump, who has long been fascinated with the military and generals, fully appreciates the limits of his military-heavy approach.
When Trump described his foreign policy strategy on the campaign trail, it was often in vague, broad and even contradictory terms: He promised to strengthen the military — in hopes that it would never have to take action. He pledged an “America First” mentality that would keep the United States out of an another expensive, deadly war — but also promised to “bomb the s---” out of the Islamic State.
The same contradictions have followed Trump into the White House.
One fear is that in overestimating the military's power he could also overestimate its effectiveness. “It’s all swagger, bluster and showmanship,” said Cohen, a Republican and a Trump critic. “He will run into the limits of that. I just hope he doesn’t kill a bunch of young Americans doing so.”
Trump’s unpredictability — praised as an asset after eight years of Obama’s carefulness and caution — also could quickly become a problem if it causes allies to question America’s reliability in a crisis.
“Most people see this for what it is, which is Trump not having thought things through,” Chollet said.
For at least this week, though, Trump seems to be settling on a foreign policy philosophy, one that has been taking shape since his first days in office.
“The generals are wonderful, and the fighting is wonderful, but if you give them the right direction — boy, does the fighting become easier, and, boy, do we lose so fewer lives and win so quickly,” Trump said in a speech to the CIA headquarters the day after his inauguration. “And that’s what we have to do. We have to start winning again.”
Twelve weeks into his presidency, Trump now speaks as if the military has already scaled up. “What I do is I authorize my military,” he told reporters Thursday. “We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”