President Trump is leveraging the full scope of American power to combat the threats our nation faces instead of simply relying on the military.
Since 9/11, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama focused most of their foreign policy efforts on terrorism and the Middle East, leaning heavily on the U.S. military to solve the nation’s problems in this realm. After 18 years of war, we have made little to no progress by overtasking the military and have neglected major threats to our national security.
While the U.S. was busy spending trillions in the Middle East, Russia and China have made major strides in expanding their influence via traditional military might by invading countries at Europe’s doorstep and asserting their dominance in the South China Sea. Additionally, during this time, both countries made major strides in the unconventional arenas of information and economic warfare.
Make no mistake – Trump has used military force when it mattered. He decisively used it to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but he is also using economic might. He rightly scrapped the Iran Deal that injected billions of dollars into the number one state sponsor of terrorism and is using sanctions to avoid a war with Iran while inhibiting their ability to fund their proxies in the Middle East. This blend of military and economic power is keeping us away from costly quagmires while ensuring our security.
Trump is using the same combination of military and economic pressure against our reemerging rival Russia. In Syria, he allowed our ground forces to fight back against Russian aggression. The result was a large number of dead Russian mercenaries. The message to Russia was clear: force will be met with force, not false red lines. But he is also calling out NATO members for buying Russian oil — a shrewd attack on Russia’s feeble economy.
Trump has smartly recognized the limits of military action. Once he enabled the U.S. military to defeat ISIS’s ability to hold any territory, significantly hindering its ability to plan attacks against the U.S., he sought to reduce the U.S. troop presence. Trump was very clear: We were there to defeat ISIS and get out. This was not about building partner forces, securing the country so elections could take place, or any other lofty goal.
Trump’s instincts, however, have been met with major bureaucratic resistance from the defense and diplomatic establishment, who argue that fighting for U.S. interests requires U.S. boots on the ground. “We need to stay the course” has become the battle cry of the left and right. The president has been called every name in the book for wanting to withdraw U.S. forces after completing their task.
But Trump sees there is no positive outcome for U.S. in Syria. He recognizes that U.S. troops in Syria serve as targets for Iranian proxies and Russian mercenaries who are backing Assad, while acting as an unwitting bargaining chip between the Kurds, Damascus, and Ankara.
Iran and Russia must be confronted, but landlocked northwestern Syria is not the right place, nor issue, for us to expend our resources. The Syrian Kurds are not tactically important enough to fight Turkey over. Turkey controls some of the most strategic land and ports in the region and is a nation we need in our fight against Russian aggression. Russia needs Turkey to connect its Black Sea Navy to the Mediterranean Sea and thereby southern Europe. The Russians would love nothing more than for us to stay on the ground in Syria, backing the Syrian Kurds, posing a threat to perceived Turkish sovereignty.
Those in the national defense establishment argue that we must stay on the ground, working with our partners (mostly Syrian Kurds) to ensure ISIS does not return. ISIS will return, regardless of our footprint in Syria. This is not a matter of “if” — unfortunately, it is “when.” To understand why, we need to look no further than a map. Sunnis living under Bashar Assad and an Iranian-backed Shia dominated Iraqi government between Fallujah in Iraq to Homs in Syria have no means of recourse but Sunni extremism. When the next manifestation of ISIS rears its head, we can quickly move to assist regional partners or to unilaterally crush it. In the meantime, let Shia Iran attempt to control this hotbed of extremism.
If the American people do want to go to war for human rights, then we need to reinstate the draft and double the size of the military. There are plenty of places in Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia that we would need to fight decades-long conflicts in to right the world’s wrongs.
Trump’s foreign policy is not retreat from the world — it is an engagement of every instrument of U.S. power to combat the threats facing us. A major tool in this arsenal is Title 50 intelligence activities and covert action. The Middle East, in particular the Syrian civil war, is a war of proxies and mercenaries, and we should focus on recruiting proxies to further entrap the Iranians and Russia in a brutal Sunni insurgency. This is what our intelligence services are trained and equipped to do.
Being a political outsider has liberated Trump from the prevailing foreign policy schools of thought that have dominated the post-9/11 years. Traditional Republican foreign policy sought to topple despotic regimes and remake foreign landscapes in our image.
Just as Republicans viewed the military as a way to quickly build new democracies, Democrats viewed the military as a tool to right the gravest of the world’s problems. The Obama administration argued that the United States has a responsibility to protect populations in danger, anywhere at any time, to stop mass killings. Its crowning achievement was the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the chaos that continues there to this day.
Obama’s desire for dialogue with Iran enabled it to exploit the chaos in the region and expand its influence across Iraq into Syria, giving it the ability to disrupt international commerce in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. While America’s ideological wars in the Middle East were keeping us busy, Russia and China got exponentially stronger.
Despite the differences in political parties, the results were similar: the Department of Defense was in charge and the main tool to address the Middle East and counterterrorism. Politicians from both sides of the aisle accepted this dynamic.
Trump’s lack of a political-ideological foundation is why he is the only president that we have had in recent history that has been able to objectively look at our foreign policy and seek the best course for our nation.
He has been mocked for saying that his policy is “winning” for our nation, but we must ask ourselves, “What else should our foreign policy be?” We have tried rebuilding the world’s worst nations and gotten nothing but debt and death in return. Trump should follow his gut and continue to do what will keep our country on its current winning trajectory.
Joe Kent is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Chief Warrant Officer Three. Joe spent over twenty years in Special Operations and completed eleven combat deployments. Joe is also a Gold Star husband; his wife Senior Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent was killed in 2019 conducting Special Operations against ISIS in Syria.