In a recent interview with Shadowproof, Professor Joshua Landis noted that President Donald Trump basically handed the war in Syria over to the military. Landis argued that, other than mentioning a few platitudes about “winning,” Trump was seemingly disinterested in actually managing the war.
That attitude has manifested itself as essentially a policy of outsourcing what are traditionally commander-in-chief presidential responsibilities to the Department of Defense.
During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said he would “listen to the generals” and empower the military to “win”—a talking point which plays into a long-held (albeit thinly sourced) claim by the Right that the United States’ military failures have primarily been the result of weak-willed civilian interference with military officials. It was and is a particularly common explanation for why the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam.
Much like his predecessor, Trump has no personal experience with the military or with military strategy. So it is prudent for him to respect advice from the Department of Defense.
But Trump’s policies go beyond showing deference to U.S. military officials’ expertise. President Trump is increasingly giving more and more power for command military decisions to the Pentagon.
As the Associated Press reported, “Week by week, country by country, the Pentagon is quietly seizing more control over war-fighting decisions, sending hundreds more troops to war with little public debate and seeking greater authority to battle extremists across the Middle East and Africa.”
The defense department is defending the power grab by saying military officials, including lower-level commanders, need more “flexibility” and, on paper, it would appear the department is complying with caps on the number of U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq (503 and 5,262, respectively).
Yet the Pentagon is extremely adept at playing games with numbers, which they are reportedly already doing by labeling increased forces that come into the MENA region as “temporary” and, therefore, not counted under the caps. Hundreds or thousands more U.S. troops could be in Syria and Iraq than the cap allows under the temporary designation.
Not that the public would know in any case, as the Trump Administration will no longer be disclosing troop deployments.
Though the appeal of “leaving the war to the generals” is understandable, it is actually a lot riskier than Trump and friends may believe. There is a reason countries, especially democracies, have political officials in control of the military. The reasons go beyond civic principles about letting the people rule. The military is focused primarily on destroying the enemy, and less concerned with the political fallout of civilian and U.S. casualties.
A recent U.S. bombing in Mosul, Iraq provides an illustrative example of the risks of unrestrained military action. U.S. airstrikes reportedly killed up to 200 Iraqi civilians who are trapped in the crossfire between U.S.-led coalition and ISIS forces.
While ISIS may have also suffered losses from the attacks, the large loss of civilian life will erode support for the mission and possibly create sympathy for U.S. enemies. It is that political dimension to the conflict that military commanders are typically not fully considering when engaging in military operations.
In that same vein, it is worth remembering that ISIS came to power in Iraq and Syria partly because of the political failures of the government in Baghdad, which left the Sunni population feeling angry and insecure. The military ultimately cannot solve political problems.
So President Trump may soon learn to regret giving so much unchecked power to the Pentagon. It’s one thing to win battles; it’s another to win a war.