The Republican presidential nominee is a fan of military interventions — as long as they don’t cost anything.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
Despite his best efforts, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump occasionally reveals hints about his real policy views. A televised interview on Sunday was a case in point. Caught in a lie about Libya, Trump was forced to concede both that he’s not nearly as skeptical about U.S. military intervention as he likes to suggest and that he holds magical beliefs about what force can achieve.
Back in February, BuzzFeed reporters unearthed a September 2002 recording of Howard Stern asking Trump directly if he supported invading Iraq, to which he replied: “Yeah, I guess so. I wish the first time it was done correctly.” Around the same time, Andrew Kaczynski of BuzzFeed also reported on a Feb. 28, 2011, video blog, where Trump enthusiastically supported an American military intervention — including a unilateral one — in Libya.
The clip was shot in Trump’s own office and released on his YouTube page. In it, Trump proclaims: “Now, we should go in. We should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick. We could do it surgically. Stop him from doing it and save these lives.”
Trump volunteered these views without any prompting. Back in 2011, nobody was asking Trump for his foreign-policy views; the purpose of Trump’s weekly YouTube videos was to endorse his recent TV appearances.
You should watch the full two-minute clip, which was recorded more than three weeks before the U.S.-led intervention in Libya commenced. In its entirety, the clip clearly shows that Trump was calling for a large-scale U.S. humanitarian intervention: “We’re sitting around, we have soldiers all over the Middle East, and we’re not bringing them in to stop this horrible carnage. And that’s what it is: It’s a carnage.”
On Sunday, John Dickerson, host of CBS’s Face the Nation, presented Trump with this recording. Twice, Dickerson attempted to get Trump to acknowledge that he was actually for the intervention before it occurred, despite his contrary claims long after Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was toppled. Trump gamely tried to obfuscate. But his scramble to find safe rhetorical ground could not entirely conceal his true views on the use of military force.
DICKERSON: But you were for intervention, just to clear that up?
TRUMP: I was for doing something, but I wasn’t for what you have right now…
DICKERSON: This is one of the things that confuses some people about your positions, though. You said you weren’t for intervention, but you were for intervention in Libya.
TRUMP: I didn’t mind surgical. And I said surgical. You do a surgical shot, and you take them out. But I wasn’t for what happened.
Trump’s entire defense turns on the term “surgical” — and it’s a defense that, by any measure, doesn’t hold up. It’s true that he did endorse a “surgical” mission in February 2011. But he also endorsed sending in U.S. soldiers to stop “horrible carnage” and “save [Libyan civilians’] lives” — a military mission that is impossible to conduct “surgically.”
Trump is apparently also unaware there was indeed a surgical shot that attempted to “take them out.” On March 20, 2011, just hours after the first French airstrikes began, British submarines launched Tomahawk cruise missiles into Qaddafi’s Bab al-Azizia compound, which failed to kill the Libyan leader or any of his senior advisors. (This was roughly 100 yards away from where Ronald Reagan had comparably attempted to kill Qaddafi in April 1986 with an F-111 airstrike.)
Trump’s wavering positions about whether and how to intervene in Libya recall a September 1992 exchange between Gen. Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and New York Times reporter Michael Gordon about intervening in the Yugoslavian civil war. Powell stated: “As soon as they tell me it is limited, it means they do not care whether you achieve a result or not. As soon as they me tell me ‘surgical,’ I head for the bunker.” Powell later expanded on this exchange in an op-ed titled “Why Generals Get Nervous.” Calling for the use of decisive force for clear political objectives — principles later dubbed the “Powell Doctrine” — the Joint Chiefs chairman wrote: “So you bet I get nervous when so-called experts suggest that all we need is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the desired result isn’t obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of a little escalation.”
Trump seems to believe he can have it both ways with Libya. Calling for surgical force to achieve a maximalist objective — that of stopping and halting a “horrible carnage.”
This wholly improbable vision is consistent with his current positions on Syria, where he has endorsed a “big, beautiful safe zone,” simultaneously bombing and stealing oil in Iraq and Syria, and deploying an unspecified number of U.S. ground troops to “knock [the Islamic State] out.” Never does Trump articulate what sort of Syria he would like to see or what political-military strategy would realize it. He says he prefers to keep these details secret lest they tip off the Islamic State, but it seems safe to assume they simply don’t exist.
What’s unusual about Trump is not that his isolationist rhetoric is paired with an array of foreign-policy positions that would require intensive U.S. military interventions. The distressing thing is he seems unable, or unwilling, to realize there might be some contradiction between the two.
Trump seems to believe the military can take a “surgical shot” against a leader of a foreign country (and easily succeed at doing so) while controlling the political and security environment of that foreign nation after the fact so it doesn’t pose any further threats to U.S. national security. Americans have sadly learned over and over and over that such beliefs about the use of force are delusional. But they routinely find their way into the mind of whoever sits in the Oval Office.
Indeed, every president since Ronald Reagan has tried to discover a recipe for using limited military force to achieve expansive military and political objectives, but none has succeeded. And it’s safe to assume that the winner of the election in November, whether it’s Trump or Hillary Clinton, will attempt to pursue military strategies that fail in the same ways.
Photo credit: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images