Trump's team is starting to think seriously about counterterrorism

By Matt Purple

Two recent developments showed the Trump administration is starting to think seriously about national defense.

The first was a speech given by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that fleshed out Donald Trump’s policy of “America First.” That moniker comes encumbered with historical baggage, but Tillerson managed to extract from it something coherent and sensible, spotlighting the “fundamental values” that guide “all our foreign policy actions” while also acknowledging America’s national security interests must sometimes override those values.

He’s right: we’re not about to torch our relations with oppressive Saudi Arabia or autocratic Jordan; we need both to help fight terrorism. Progressives and defense hawks can yelp all they like, but Tillerson’s marble-cake approach to values and interests is more a statement of how the world works than it is a radical shift.

The second development was a White House memo, viewed by Reuters, which laid out the future of American counterterrorism strategy.

The draft stipulates that Islamic radicalism must be combatted, but adds, “We will seek to avoid costly, large-scale U.S. military interventions to achieve counterterrorism objectives and will look increasingly to partners to share the responsibility for countering terrorist groups.”

That language is refreshingly free of both the “democratize or die” saloon-brawl idealism of the Bush administration and the technocratic naivete of the Obama crowd. The snippets released to Reuters are only bare bones—the entire memo is only 11 pages long—but they’re enough to inspire some confidence, especially after last month’s strike on a Syrian airbase left many wondering what exactly Trump was thinking on foreign policy.

The most important reveal here is that the Trump administration really is serious when it insists our allies must stop free-riding on America’s security guarantees and start rebuilding their militaries. The “unipolar world” was always a mirage. A terrorist threat that’s manifested itself on five continents can only be countered globally. That means Europe in particular, as Islamic hate preachers poison minds in France and Belgium, and the battlefield shifts to Brussels and the Bataclan. Marine Le Pen’s recent presidential campaign got traction precisely because she raised concerns over her country’s response to this enemy. If Europe wants to stabilize itself, it can’t keep punting on its own defense.

The numbers, frankly, are startling. The U.S. covers 72 percent of all NATO defense spending, even though its debt-to-GDP ratio is bigger than Spain’s, France’s, Britain’s, and Germany’s. NATO’s requirement that member states devote at least 2 percent of their GDPs to their militaries is met by only four nations other than America: the United Kingdom, Poland, Estonia, and Greece.

Britain’s Royal Navy, once feared across the seas, is currently operating without an active aircraft carrier—that’s one fewer than Russia. The German military is better known for its generous pensions than its fighting force. And Belgian intelligence officers have been blasted by their American counterparts for practicing “sh**ty tradecraft.”

Remedying all that doesn’t mean transforming Europe into an Orwellian security state, but neither can our allies continue blithely funding their social programs while themselves benefitting from America’s defense welfare. The 2011 war in Libya comes to mind: After Britain and France talked Obama into militarily intervening there, the United States ended up dropping the vast majority of the bombs and deploying almost all of the personnel, resulting in a calamity that turned Libya into a haven for jihadists.

There’s a two-part lesson here: We need both fewer ill-considered wars and more burden sharing from our trans-Atlantic friends. That’s what Trump seems to be after.

It isn’t just the Europeans who deserve a little tough love. Our Arab allies have left the lion’s share of the fight against the Islamic State to us, dashing off instead to Yemen where they’re fueling a pointless civil war whose only victor has been al-Qaeda. The Saudis in particular must come in for criticism here, as they lead the Yemeni crusade while playing footsie with Syrian Islamist groups. Many Middle Eastern states—Iraq in particular—are on the frontlines against ISIS, and they deserve great credit. But Trump should make it clear to the rest of them, especially those in the Persian Gulf, that good counterterrorism starts locally, not in a U.S. federal department 6,000 miles away.

All this illustrates a truth that conservatives have long understood: If you offer people a handout, they will eventually become dependent on it. Likewise have our allies become reliant on Washington’s promises of security.

If Trump’s shock presidential campaign taught us anything, it should be that the United States cannot be so stretched trying to protect everyone else that it doesn’t have the leeway to focus on its own citizens. As Trump’s actions clash with his theory, as he mulls sending more troops into Syria and Afghanistan, he should bear that in mind.

Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities and the editor of Rare Politics.

This piece was originally published by The Federalist on May 17, 2017. Read HERE.