The Lesson I Hope Trump Has Not Learned
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is how wars get started.
By Jennifer Psaki
Jennifer Psaki is a former White House communications director who served under President Barack Obama.
Yesterday, Donald Trump’s encore to last week’s Syria strikes came in the form of a MOAB — often referred to as the “Mother of All Bombs” — falling on Afghanistan.
The move was met with plenty of applause that Trump had once again flexed his military muscle on the international stage, this time against the mother of all targets: ISIS. It also sparked speculation that the American president was taking a smart and strategic step in warning North Korea to cool its jets. The message? That the United States has the biggest, baddest weapons system in the world … and isn’t afraid to use them.
If you were Trump, why wouldn’t you think you could continue acting alone without legal justification?
But that’s not exactly right. On the technical front, national security experts were quick to make clear that this type of weapons system is more suited for attacking ISIS tunnels than targets in the Hermit Kingdom. Also, Trump left the impression that he may not have known about plans for the MOAB’s use in Afghanistan beforehand, and the Pentagon put out a detailed statement noting that the CENTCOM Commander signed off on the MOAB’s use within the past week and that the military had the authority “in this administration” to get the job done. Translation? Military leaders knew the U.S. commander-in-chief would approve.
Under normal presidencies, we would be secure in the knowledge that this resulted from a well-thought-out, heavily debated strategy by the president and his team — and to the typically flawless execution by our men and women in uniform. But these are not normal times. What we do know is that Trump loves good press coverage — something his scrapbook has been thin on since Inauguration Day, until recently. Media coverage following his air strikes in Syria, which earned him praise for being “decisive” and “presidential,” was even more glowing than coverage of operation MOAB.
It feels almost unpatriotic to oppose U.S. military strikes. In fact, the initial stages of military action are often met with broad support and national pride. President Bush got a bump after 9/11, for example, when the war in Afghanistan was launched. When the U.S. takes action, that sense of power makes it feels like something important is happening that we, as Americans, should support. Believe me, my jobs at the State Department and the White House would have been easier in selling the Syria strategy had we taken early military action against Assad. And, let’s face it, a MOAB sounds pretty badass.
So why should we be worried?
Uncertain Trump Doctrine
Because we have no clue what Trump’s doctrine is; one strike may be “decisive,” while the next may be a knee-jerk reaction — a recipe for disaster. Unpredictable is not a good strategy for dealing with the likes of North Korea.
Trump is a political newbie
Trump has given new meaning to learning on the job. Yes, every president settles into the realities of the challenges they face and the limitations of our options. But he has been acting more like a freshman on a Model UN team, learning that the world is complicated — a daunting prospect given that he has control of so many weapons.
So far there have been no consequences. Trump acted without any legal authority in Syria, and with barely a blip of response. Compare that to just four years ago, when more than 100 members of Congress, including 98 Republicans, signed a letter stating that Obama acting without congressional authority would be unconstitutional. If you were Trump, why wouldn’t you think you could continue acting alone without legal justification?
It’s not a popularity contest
We should be most worried by the Donald’s love for being popular. He will inevitably enjoy a bump in the polls, and analysts are still breathlessly giving him the benefit of the doubt on whether or not he has a strategy for global engagement. Even that I can handle — for now.
But if go-it-alone military action is equated with scrapbook-worthy press coverage and a rise in popularity by Trump, we have a bigger problem. Let’s just hope he doesn’t read between the lines.