If President Donald Trump has some sort of grand policy plans in mind for the United States, he’s chosen not to share many specifics with his countrymen.
He wants some kind of wall, upgrades for aging infrastructure and new foreign trade agreements that so far don’t much differ from existing ones.
Despite all the options afforded by social media, he conducts no equivalent to the thoughtful fireside chats that President Franklin D. Roosevelt employed so effectively using that newfangled radio thing. What we get from Trump are announcement bursts on Twitter that typically catch aides and departments off-guard.
Such was the announcement late last year that he’d be withdrawing the 2,000 or so U.S. Special Operations forces from Syria, now that ISIS was defeated. “We are pulling back in Syria,” he said. “We’re going to be removing our troops.”
No one was surprised that Trump’s “America First” attitude involved less active foreign military involvement by U.S. forces. Yes, Trump was elected to do Washington differently.
But such seemingly impetuous decisions without the careful mulling of various outcomes and strategies often require walk backs and bring serious problems.
And the consequences go beyond the damaging departure of Defense Secretary James Mattis, a career Marine and combat veteran who was the wisest and most respected member of the handpicked Cabinet that Trump vowed would be the best in history.
There are allies, too, who joined the U.S. effort on the basis of trust, now left short. They may well think two or three times before committing to future Trump ideas.
And, of course, the Free Syrian and valiant Kurdish forces could have signed their own death warrants in that hostile neighborhood by siding with and fighting for the departing Americans.
Then there is the jihad reality that does not warrant a Trump “Mission Accomplished” banner.
Truth is, ISIS is not defeated. The terrorists have lost their territorial caliphate, a major achievement that President Barack Obama dodged, Trump promised and Mattis engineered. Trump hints he’ll officially pronounce ISIS doom soon.
But its murderous survivors will now melt into the warming sands of Iraq and Syria, only to emerge for ambushes and explosions at times and places of their choosing. That’s an ominous guerrilla strategy negating much of the Americans’ that biggest advantage: air power.
And it casts doubt on Trump’s assurances the U.S. can strike wherever ISIS pops up. Smart bombs are smart, but they’re counterproductive against a homicide bomber in a crowded market.
Trump’s strategy does match his widely-welcomed determination to extricate U.S. fighting forces from, well, fighting in so many places. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said in his State of the Union address.
Such a bold declaration is certainly debatable since great nations are constantly challenged and not on their own timetable. The 9/11 shock required retaliation. A perceived unwillingness to fight actually invites more challenges. See North Korea’s 1950 invasion of the South, a war that’s yet to officially end.
Trump’s emissary to craft an Afghanistan peace (i.e., a U.S. troop withdrawal) predicts a truce with the Taliban by July. Such public optimism never arrives on time, but it can feed an expectation that an end to our bloody 9/11 engagement nears.
Trump’s eagerness to disengage there tacitly acknowledges a hard truth: After almost 19 years of nonstop combat and casualties, multiple deployments and defense cuts, the U.S. military is battered.
It still may be the most effective and valiant fighting force. But morale is badly bruised, and equipment has been pushed to the limit. Some aircraft units must cannibalize spare planes to keep others flying.
What’s being called the small footprint-long arm approach could provide needed breathing space for retooling, retraining, refurbishing while the recent defense spending boost moves through the acquisition, construction and deployment pipeline.
One of those ubiquitous unidentified D.C. sources was recently quoted saying that Trump had wondered aloud about sending troops to Venezuela to overthrow the dictator Nicolas Maduro. Such a drastic mistake would fit the U.S. historical stereotype in Latin America but would go against Trump’s own developing trend.
Important to remember though that despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama was also in his third year in office when he fell for the temptation of intervening militarily to oust the dictator Moammar Gadhafi, leaving Libya today a crippled, lawless land.
Trump wisely maintains that all options are on the table, which is what he said before that one-night barrage of 59 Tomahawks against the Syrian airfield that launched a chemical weapons attack on civilians.
Foreign news is an American afterthought as usual. So, media pay little attention to the pattern of troop drawdown decisions abroad. More fascinating to them for the moment is the outbreak of Democratic presidential candidates for the 2020 election in 90 weeks.
But here’s another big picture that Trump is not sharing. Barring unforeseen events in the coming months, the president is positioning himself to credibly claim in 2020 several major achievements with a potential to expand his political base beyond the loyal but inadequate re-elect plurality:
That he squashed ISIS, ended the United States’ longest war, brought thousands safely home and oversaw record employment numbers, all while protecting the homeland with potent pockets of strategically-placed, little-noticed military power.
Even for an unpopular president, not a bad platform to contrast against an excited field of generally inexperienced newbies squabbling over how high to raise taxes and which free stuff to hand out.