Why the “America First” president has escalated US wars abroad — and what he might say about it during his State of the Union speech.
Candidate Donald Trump promised not to intervene abroad unless it was in America’s direct interest. “War and aggression will not be my first instinct,” he said in his April 2016 foreign policy speech.
Yet President Donald Trump has proven himself much more willing to stay in costly interventions overseas — and in some cases, to escalate them significantly.
Take America’s counterterrorism campaigns. Trump followed through on his promise to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, dropping around 9,000 more bombs in 2017 than President Obama did in 2016. He increased America’s support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen while more than doubling troop levels in Somalia.
Trump also didn’t end America’s wars — he extended them. He sent thousands more troops into Afghanistan and Iraq and authorized an indefinite military presence in Syria to keep ISIS down and deter Iran.
And the president put confronting two of America’s biggest potential rivals in the world — China and Russia — at the center of his national security strategy. His administration continues to send more ships and planes into the Pacific region, and he has increased America’s military presence in Eastern Europe. And, of course, don’t forget Trump’s year-long standoff with North Korea.
Trump’s increased use of the military in part led to at least 33 US military deaths in war zones in 2017 — the first time US war zone casualties rose in six years.
The president’s more enhanced use of the military still converted some former Trump skeptics into vocal supporters. “What Trump is doing is empowering the United States to engage when we want and where we want on our own terms,” Rebeccah Heinrichs, a national security expert at the conservative Hudson Institute and previously a member of the “Never Trump” movement, told me.
But Trump entered the White House promising a more restrained, calculated foreign policy. In the Oval Office, Trump has chosen to more aggressively use the military around the world — making America’s forever wars last even longer.
Trump ramped up the anti-ISIS war
Three months into his presidency, Trump announced that he had given military commanders “total authorization” to fight terrorists as they saw fit.
“What I do is I authorize my military,” he told reporters on April 13, 2017. “We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done the job, as usual. We have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing — frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”
The Pentagon no longer required the president’s sign-off when military commanders believed an action was necessary — and that proved a major shift in the anti-ISIS fight. “It has freed us up a bit to prosecute the war in a more aggressive manner, I think,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of US-led anti-ISIS coalition until late 2017, told Time last September.
Here are just a few examples of how the more “aggressive” approach against ISIS has played out:
- The military dropped nearly 40,000 bombs in 2017 compared to the around 31,000 released during Obama’s last year.
- From the inauguration to August 9, 2017, the US-led coalition conducted 13,331 attacks on ISIS targets in Iraq and 11,235 strikes in Syria, for a grand total of 24,566. By about the same point in 2016, the US and its coalition partners completed more than 14,000 strikes in Iraq and Syria combined.
- A September 2017 Pentagon report showed that the US had 8,892 troops in Iraq and 1,720 of them in Syria. But in September 2016, the Pentagon reported there were 5,352 troops in Iraq and 94 troops — yes, 94 — in Syria.
The escalation may well have helped roll back ISIS’s gains. In December 2017, the US-led coalition announced it had retaken about 97 percent of ISIS’s territory in Iraq and Syria, including the so-called caliphate’s capital in Raqqa. Gen. Joseph Votel, America’s top military official with authority over the Middle East, said on Monday that ISIS’s military defeat is now within weeks.
Even some of Trump’s political opponents have praised his anti-ISIS campaign. “The [Trump] administration went about its counter-ISIS operation in a sober, professional, and systematic way,” Jake Sullivan, Hillary Clinton’s likely national security adviser had she won the election, told me.
But Sullivan also said he couldn’t overlook Trump’s disregard for mounting civilian casualties during the anti-ISIS fight. Here’s what he means: The New York Times reported in November that the US-led military coalition killed civilians in Iraq at a rate over 31 times higher than it admitted, after reporters reviewed the locations of nearly 150 airstrikes in 2016 and 2017. That would equal about one civilian death for every five airstrikes in the country.
Things weren’t much better in Syria. On May 26, 2017, for example, Al Jazeera reported that more than 106 civilians, including 42 children, died during two days of coalition bombing in al-Mayadeen, Syria. The coalition targeted buildings that housed families of ISIS fighters.
“The coalition goes through very significant and deliberate processes to make sure that we can mitigate the human suffering and the human casualties as we continue our fight to defeat [ISIL],” Col. Ryan Dillon, the spokesperson for the anti-ISIS military campaign, told Al Jazeera. ”The faster we can defeat [ISIS], the quicker human suffering can stop.”
Supporters of Trump’s escalation against ISIS claim that killing civilians during a brutal war is unfortunate but near impossible to avoid. “I do not think you can fight wars without civilian casualties,” Heinrichs said. “If you won’t accept there’s going to be civilian casualties, then you should not engage in the conflict.” It’s worth noting, though, that international law stipulates warring parties must avoid harming civilians during a fight.
Trump will likely claim success against ISIS during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, but it’s doubtful he’ll mention the thousands of civilians who died on the path to military victory.
Trump further involved the US in Yemen and Somalia
Trump’s counterterrorism campaigns expanded in two countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Let’s start with Yemen. One of Trump’s first actions as president was to authorize a special operations raid in the country targeting an al-Qaeda leader on January 29. The SEALs killed 14 militants, but 23 civilians also died, including women and children. Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, a US Navy SEAL, was killed in the raid.
Trump also dramatically increased American support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen. Since March 2015, the conflict has claimed more than 13,500 civilian lives, with more than 900,000 suffering from the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. Roughly 20 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs — including food and water.
Though US support for the Saudi war in Yemen began under the Obama administration when it provided direct aerial support, the Trump administration has gone even further.
In 2017, the Pentagon more than doubled US refueling support — providing about 480,000 gallons of aviation fuel — for Saudi planes that have hit schools, hospitals, and other civilian targets across the country. That alone cost the US more than $1 million in the fiscal year that ended last September, a 140 percent increase over the previous year.
Though Trump has criticized some of Riyadh’s brutal actions in Yemen — especially its decision to block Yemeni ports, which made it near impossible to distribute humanitarian aid throughout the country — he has continued to provide military support to Saudi Arabia uninterrupted. Trump even told Saudi leadership last November that he’d like to sell more US weapons to the kingdom.
Trump also escalated America’s involvement in Somalia. The Pentagon says the US military is in Somalia to help stabilize the country by supporting Somali and other African forces.
The US now has 500 troops in the country in 2017 — more than twice the amount it had in 2016. Some of the new troops are special operators who advise local forces in their fight against the terrorist group al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate. The US also added two new military headquarters in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu.
But that’s not all. The US conducted 34 airstrikes during the last six months of 2017. That’s more than double the number of US airstrikes in Somalia for all of 2016 and a marked increase in America’s military involvement there.
The Somalia operation is just the biggest example of the US military’s expanding efforts in Africa. The US conducts around 10 missions per day on the continent, or around 3,500 per year.
“The huge increase in US military missions in Africa over the past few years represents nothing less than a shadow war being waged on the continent,” William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, told Vice last October.
It’s not without risk: Four US troops died in Niger last October during a mission, leading to a political firestorm here at home.
Trump didn’t just increase America’s counterterrorism missions around the world. He also expanded the other major wars he inherited.
Trump escalated wars the US was already in
As a candidate, Trump showed little appetite for sending more American sons and daughters into harm’s way.
“I will never send our finest into battle unless necessary, and I mean absolutely necessary, and will only do so if we have a plan for victory with a capital V,” Trump said in an April 2016 speech.
But as president, he’s showed a hunger to involve the US further in America’s existing wars.
On September 18, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced that the US would send more than 3,000 troops to Afghanistan in an effort to win America’s 16-year fight there — the longest in US history.
They added to the approximately 11,000 US troops serving in Afghanistan when Trump took office, bringing the total to at least 14,000. And the Washington Post reported last week that another 1,000 troops may also join the fight. These new service members will help Afghan forces in their effort to defeat the nearly 20 terrorist groups in the country — especially the Taliban, ISIS, and al-Qaeda — by advising them and providing artillery and air support.
It’s important to note that Trump’s escalation in Afghanistan happened while the situation worsened in the country.
The Pentagon said that from December 1, 2016, to May 31, 2017, enemies launched 4,806 attacks. In the same time period, there were more than 3,600 civilian casualties, about a third of them fatal. That casualty total was about a 33 percent increase compared with the same time frame a year earlier, the Defense Department reported.
To try to change the tide of the war, the Trump administration decided late last year that hundreds of US troops would embed with Afghan forces to help them on the front lines. American fighters will mostly call in airstrikes and not directly engage with enemy combatants.
Trump’s escalation in Afghanistan is at odds with his complaints about America’s presence in the country for years. “What are we doing there? These people hate us,” Trump said during a 2012 Fox News appearance.
As president, Trump noted during an August speech announcing his decision to increase US troops in Afghanistan that he originally didn’t want to add more Americans to the fight. But ultimately, he chose to involve the US more in the Afghanistan War.
Same goes for Syria. The Obama administration’s strategy for the Syrian civil war was to train local groups to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime but not intervene directly in the struggle. Obama didn’t even retaliate after Assad killed more than 1,400 people in an August 2013 sarin gas strike, even though he set a “red line” in 2012 that Assad couldn’t use chemical weapons against his own people.
Trump, however, ordered the US Navy in April 2017 to fire 59 missiles at a base Assad used to launch a chemical attack days earlier that killed more than 80 people. That was the first time the US intentionally bombed a Syrian regime target since the country’s civil war began in 2011.
And as discussed, the US ramped up its presence and bombing in Syria to defeat ISIS in the country. It looks like that will continue: On January 17, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the US would remain in Syria indefinitely in order to ensure ISIS’s defeat and counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East.
Which means that Trump has basically committed US troops to remain in both Afghanistan and Syria indefinitely — something candidate Trump likely would’ve thought was stupid.
Trump is pushing back against China and Russia too
The Trump administration spent much blood and treasure fighting terrorism in its first year, but now it wants to add even more to its plate: confronting China and Russia.
“Though we will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today,” Mattis said when he unveiled the Trump administration’s official defense strategy on January 19, 2018. “Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security.”
Here’s what he means: China and Russia are two major world powers that could potentially stymie America’s influence in Asia and Eastern Europe, respectively. The Trump administration feels it needs to counteract their growing power by building up its own military and political prowess in those areas. That means it has to prioritize fending off Beijing and Moscow while slightly minimizing the need to fight terrorists.
Focusing on both problems is vital, Jim Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a member of Trump’s presidential transition team, told me.
He explained his reasoning with an analogy: “A guy goes in to a doctor and the doctor says, ‘You have a bad heart, a brain embolism, and cancer. Which do you want me to cure?’ Well, the patient will say, ‘Doc, you have to cure all three or I’m going to die.’”
In other words, Trump doesn’t have the luxury of focusing on just terrorism or just great powers: He has to focus on all of the above.
There are reasons to worry about China and Russia’s growing power and possibly malicious intentions. For example, China has built islands in the South China Sea that include runways for big planes. That gives it an advantage in case war breaks out in its region. As for Russia, it’s destabilizing Western democracies with sophisticated online campaigns to tilt elections toward Moscow-friendly political parties. It’s also saber-rattling in Eastern Europe when it conducts large-scale military exercises near NATO territory.
Trump has already started to push back. He allowed for a military exercise to take place with three aircraft carrier groups in the Western Pacific last November. That’s very provocative: Aircraft carriers are effectively ocean-based airports the US would deploy in case of a war, allowing US fighter jets to park near China so they can reach Chinese targets quickly.
Meanwhile, the US continues to amass bomber planes on Guam — the US territory in the Pacific that hosts military bases. Three B-2 bombers — which can carry and drop nuclear weapons — are among those planes.
Whereas candidate Trump was favorable to Russia, the Trump administration has been more antagonistic. Last August, the US participated in a 10-day, 25,000-troop exercise with three countries in Eastern Europe. They practiced driving tanks, shooting artillery, and launching attacks with paratroopers. The US also sent more troops to Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states.
Finally, Trump increased funding for the US military in Europe, closed Russian consulates that hosted Russian spies, and agreed to give Ukraine “enhanced defensive weapons” to fend off Russian troops invading the country.
And while North Korea is not a great power, don’t forget Trump’s standoff with the country. Pyongyang now has a missile that could potentially hit all of the United States with a nuclear weapon. Trump promised to unleash “fire and fury” against Pyongyang if it continued to threaten the US or its allies. After all, on January 2 — weeks before becoming president — he promised that North Korea wouldn’t test an ICBM under his watch. But leader Kim Jong Un did on three separate occasions.
Kim responded by saying he would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.” The war of words led some lawmakers to warn that there was a growing risk of actual war. That’s in part because the US has started moving planes, ships, and troops closer to North Korea.
“We are far closer to actual conflict over North Korea than the American people realize,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient, told Vox’s Zack Beauchamp. However, the administration continues to say it wants to solve the North Korea crisis diplomatically.
But taken together, Trump has allowed the military to lead much of America’s foreign policy in his first year. It’s a sea change for the president who at first seemed to promise a much more restrained America: America is anything but restrained now.
Trump the hawk
Experts say Trump’s willingness to use America’s military is not out of the ordinary for a Republican president.
“The are some areas of conventional US foreign policy where Trump has changed things,” Matthew Kroenig, a national security expert at the Atlantic Council and a fan of Trump’s foreign policy, said. “But a lot of his approach is consistent with what other Republican presidents might have done in office.”
There’s some truth to that: Republican presidents — and Democratic ones — have not shied away from using the military once entering the White House, even if they originally resented the idea. That applies to Obama too, who, among other actions, sent more US troops to Syria and Afghanistan, helped a military campaign in Libya, authorized bombing raids in Somalia, and sent military advisers to Western Africa.
There’s no question Trump entered office during a dangerous time: ISIS persisted in the Middle East, terrorists took more control of Afghanistan and spread throughout Africa, and North Korea gained more nuclear capabilities.
So it’s perhaps understandable that a US president would use military force to push back against all these security challenges. But that this president — one who campaigned on an “America First” platform — would put his instincts aside and follow a more military-heavy path remains jarring.
His supporters don’t think he’ll continue this rampant pace forever, though. “If the guy is in power seven more years, the wheels will fall off,” Carafano told me, noting that Trump — or any president — couldn’t continue the current pace of US military operations without more defense spending. Carafano expects that Trump’s proclivity to spend more on defense can help with this problem.
Trump’s critics think differently. “In the past year, we have seen President Trump turn his back on diplomacy and raise the risk of unnecessary war,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who ran on the opposing ticket during the presidential election and is currently a member of the Senate’s Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, told me.
“The Trump administration’s decision to keep US troops in Syria indefinitely is another executive action that goes beyond the scope of the president’s authority and increases the demands on our service members without a clear strategy,” he continued.
In the end, what Trump’s first year tells us is that he will continue to use the military as the primary tool of his foreign policy, even though it goes against his own inclinations. He told as us as much himself when he ordered more troops to Afghanistan last August.
“My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts,” Trump said. “But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office; in other words, when you’re president of the United States.”
It seems the presidency has changed Donald Trump.