Trump delivers remarks aboard the pre-commissioned U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
A core tenet of the emerging Trump doctrine is that more military spending will translate into victory on the battlefield. According to the president, “We have to start winning wars again. I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war, remember? And now we never win a war.” In a speech earlier this month to sailors onboard the USS Gerald R. Ford, a newly built $13-billion aircraft carrier, Trump promised: “We will give our military the tools you need to prevent war and, if required, to fight war and only do one thing. You know what that is? Win. Win! We’re gonna start winning again.”
In a sense, the president’s vision of swift martial triumph is as American as apple pie. The traditional American way of war is based on using firepower and high technology to destroy enemy countries on the battlefield. General Douglas MacArthur—who Trump once praised as an ideal general to fight ISIS—famously declared, “there is no substitute for victory.” At the same time, the president’s fixation on collecting “wins” is pure Trumpism.
Will extra military capabilities allow the United States to march into what Winston Churchill once called the “broad sunlit uplands” of victory? It’s the $54 billion question.
To start, what does it even mean to “win” a war? Success is not about blowing things up, or conquering battlefields and seeing the enemy flee. Success is about achieving political goals. This means deciding who governs and how. It means attaining a consolidated victory, or a stronger peace where national interests will be protected in the long term. During the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States and its allies won the early battles. But in every case, the countries became destabilized and dueling militias and insurgents arose. As a result, Iraq was a grave debacle, Afghanistan is teetering on the brink of failure, and Barack Obama described the collapse of Libya as his worst mistake.
U.S. military strength was ineffective after World War II because global warfare shifted from interstate wars, or wars between countries, to civil wars. Today, about 90 percent of conflicts are internal, including in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked: “Think of where our forces have been sent and have been engaged over the last 40-plus years: Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and more. In fact, the first Gulf War stands alone in over two generations of constant military engagement as a more or less traditional conventional conflict from beginning to end.” In the last decade, little changed, as Washington sent forces to battle ISIS in civil wars in Syria and Iraq.
Greater defense expenditures can help the United States intervene more effectively in complex civil wars. For example, foreign advisory programs can improve the performance of allied soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere—which is critical because Trump is continuing Obama’s policy of relying on indigenous partners to do much of the fighting on the ground against extremist groups. Similarly, cultural and language training can help narrow the gulf of ignorance when U.S. soldiers enter politically and socially alien environments like Iraq. And Special Operations forces are central to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts in an era where there’s little appetite for deploying a large military footprint.
But Trump has shown little interest in enhancing capabilities at counterinsurgency or nation-building. Indeed, the proposed budget slashes spending on the State Department (by 28 percent), foreign aid, UN programs, and peacekeeping, which are central to stabilization missions. Instead, Trump wants more big ships and F-35 war planes. In other words, the White House intends to pour resources into capabilities designed for the least likely scenarios, like a naval showdown with China, rather than the most likely scenarios, like battling terrorists and insurgents.
Achieving more military wins is less about spending money, and more about tailoring U.S. capabilities to the current and future threat environment. Of course, Washington needs sufficient conventional strength to deter China, Russia, and Iran. But given that Trump’s proposed defense increase ($54 billion) is close to Russia’s entire annual military budget ($52 billion in 2015), this is not at risk. The danger is that Washington will abandon its capabilities for preventing war and stabilizing foreign societies, in favor of military might. Winning also means focusing on ultimate strategic success in wartime, and not being guided by the kind of overconfident illusions we saw in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. And most of all, winning means picking and choosing America’s wars more carefully, and using force as a last resort. In 2013, James Mattis told Congress: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”