Trump’s doctrine in the Middle East

By Daniel DePetris

To the extent we can describe a Trump administration policy or doctrine in the Middle East, the U.S. Army's old recruitment motto, “Be all that you can be” is one of the best metaphors around. It seems no political problem, brewing crisis, or ethnic conflict is too complicated for the men and women of America’s military to solve. The White House has made so many troop deployments and launched so many airstrikes in so many countries that it’s difficult to keep track of all the movement going on and all of the decisions that are being made.  

Don’t get me wrong; the use of military force is a powerful tool in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal. In the past, even the threat of U.S. military action convinced adversaries to do something they wouldn’t normally want to do, but the Trump administration is running a high-risk of taking those recent examples in history to the extreme, in the process subjugating every other resource our country can wield.

Take Syria and Iraq. There are about 6,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq, most of whom are devoted to training, equipping, and assisting Iraqi regular army troops and counterterrorism forces responsible for clearing Iraq's second most populous city from Islamic State control. Working “by, with, and through” local forces and pushing them to do the hard ground fighting themselves appears to be working at a tactical level; the Islamic State’s finances, manpower, recruitment capability, attraction as a brand, and overall territory have declined consistently over the past two years.

And yet the Trump administration appears to believe the entire ISIS problem can be swept away simply by bombing enough positions, taking enough territory, and attacking enough of the organization’s revenue sources. When President Trump himself crowed that “[w]e’re doing very well in Iraq…our soldiers are fighting like never before,” he exposed what might be construed as his black-and-white view of the entire conflict. Our soldiers are indeed performing brilliantly, often at a cost to their own lives, but declaring victory in a highly complicated environment, in a war that is enormously complex, without planning for the day after is not a long-term winning strategy.

The American people have learned a lot about the military strategy against ISIS, and Pentagon officials have been transparent with the American people as to how expensive these operations have been over nearly three years. And yet it juxtaposes with the planning that the State Department and National Security Council staff may or may not be doing in a post-ISIS world. Notice that the American people haven't been given these same kinds of briefings from State Department officials? Are there even such plans available?

In Somalia, that large strife-stricken country in the Horn of Africa that hasn't had a stable political system for a quarter-century, the Trump administration has just recently loosened the rules of engagement for U.S. counterterrorism forces hunting for Al-Shabaab militants who may or may not view the United States as a prime target. "Under the new guidelines," the New York Times reports, "Africa Command may treat Somalia under less-restrictive battlefield rules: Without interagency vetting, commanders may strike people thought to be Shabab fighters based only on that status, without any reason to think that the individual target poses a particular and specific threat to Americans."

The U.S. military, in short, is now afforded with so much authority to conduct offensive bombing runs or ground raids on Shabaab positions that one could be forgiven for assuming that Somalia is now a fifth front, behind Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, in the war on terrorism. Bonnie Kristian said it best in Politico: the trend is fast becoming a continuation of “15-plus years of imprudent executive war-making,” where expanded military operations are taken with the most minimal discussion as to whether they will any positive strategic impact for the United States — or what the larger political strategy is..   The U.S. is close to the edge of making precisely that mistake in Somalia, a country that has been a failed or failing state for the past quarter-century, where corruption is a way of doing business and whose clan-based politics would make even the smartest academic twiddling her thumbs in befuddlement.

Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen are very different countries with their own histories, sense of place in the region, and ethnic and sectarian composition.  But in all of these nations, the Trump administration perceives the deployment of the U.S. military as a panacea — — as if preventive or conflict resolution diplomacy is a waste of taxpayer money.  

If we've learned anything about the Middle East over the last 16 years, it's that no amount of bombs and bullets can improve — — let alone solve — regional problems that at its heart are caused by the complete absence of bold and creative leadership from Arab politicians and stakeholders who have the most to gain from peace and stability. F-16's and special operations advisers operating along the Iraqi security forces won't convince Iraq's Shia sectarian lawmakers and ministers to accommodate the political and economic concerns of the minority Sunni population.  

Sending 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into a Syrian air force base won’t have one iota of impact on bringing the warning parties in Syria around the negotiating table. Navy Seals, however talented and fearless, don't have the capacity to stitch together a broken society in Somalia. And it doesn't matter how many drones are operating in Yemeni airspace, because the war will go on as long as Riyadh and Tehran finally decide to press their allies on the ground to end it.

The best the United States may be able to do is help the region’s players arrive at solutions that are intrinsically beneficial to the people who live there.  And if that proves to be too hard of a lift, prevent the region's worst effects from impacting Americans. These objectives may not be transformational, but in this part of the world, hatching plans to transform the Middle East in the inner confines of Washington isn’t a sustainable or realistic strategy.  

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on April 18, 2017. Read more HERE.