David Ignatius echoes a lot of what we’re hearing these days when he writes that Donald Trump has tasted some foreign policy successes lately. But he’s really saying that the president is embracing what Obama called the Washington playbook.
There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses.
When a president begins to use that playbook, apparently the word “success” takes on a whole different meaning. Merely the use of military force gets defined as success, whether or not any tangible progress has been made.
For example, the case most often cited as a success for Trump is his bombing of an airfield in Syria after Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. To judge whether or not that was a success, we need to know what the goals were. At this point Assad still has his chemical weapons (or the ability to manufacture them) and the airfield that was targeted was used the next day to continue bombing civilians.
Perhaps the goal was to send a message to Assad. If so, those who are calling it a success have completely ignored the fact that up until a couple of days prior to the Syrian president’s use of chemical weapons, the Trump administration had been sending the message that he was free to do whatever he wanted. Calling that a success stretches the meaning of the word beyond recognition.
Ignatius credits Trump’s successes to the fact that he has developed a competent national security team and is listening to their advice. While it might be true that they have convinced him of the importance of NATO and of the need to work with China to deal with North Korea, let’s take a look at what else they’ve been up to in just three months:
- the botched raid in Yemen where “almost everything that could go wrong did,”
- the bombing in Mosul that is said to have killed up to 200 civilians,
- the accidental bombing of Syrian allies, and
- increasing the number of drone attacks, even if it means more civilian casualties.
Those can hardly be called successes and, instead, indicate a very dangerous trend. The counterterrorism approach of the Obama administration (especially following his speech on the topic in May 2013) was to do everything possible to limit civilian casualties so as not to provide recruitment fodder for groups like ISIS. We saw the results with the imposition of more oversight of the use of drones and the slow, steady approach to the re-taking of Mosul from ISIS.
Perhaps because that strategy didn’t involve the use of things like the “mother of all bombs,” it didn’t garner a lot of attention. But it was working. There were even those who were predicting that, because these efforts were so successful, Trump would wind up getting credit for defeating ISIS simply because it would happen in his watch. Rather than build on that success, the president and his national security team seem intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
If talking tough and indiscriminate bombing is all it takes to convince Washington that Trump has a successful foreign policy, we are headed for exactly the kind of “dumb wars” we’ve seen in the past – the kind we were supposed to have learned from. Rather than putting a check on this kind of thing from Trump, the media seems to be cheering him on. Once again, they are heading towards making themselves culpable for the needless death and destruction that is sure to come.