Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Letter to the Editor: Trump’s Comments on Strategy Make No Sense to This Army Officer

Donald Trump has captured the country’s attention for the better part of the last year.

TOPSHOT - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a press conference following his  victory in the Florida state primary on March 15, 2016 in West Palm Beach, Florida. 
The win in Florida for Trump sent rival Marco Rubio, the US senator from the Sunshine State, crashing out of the campaign. The 69-year-old billionaire also won in Illinois and North Carolina. / AFP / RHONA WISE        (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a press conference following his victory in the Florida state primary on March 15, 2016 in West Palm Beach, Florida. The win in Florida for Trump sent rival Marco Rubio, the US senator from the Sunshine State, crashing out of the campaign. The 69-year-old billionaire also won in Illinois and North Carolina. / AFP / RHONA WISE (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a press conference following his victory in the Florida state primary on March 15, 2016 in West Palm Beach, Florida. The win in Florida for Trump sent rival Marco Rubio, the US senator from the Sunshine State, crashing out of the campaign. The 69-year-old billionaire also won in Illinois and North Carolina. / AFP / RHONA WISE (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)

 

By John Q. Bolton
Best Defense guest columnist

Donald Trump has captured the country’s attention for the better part of the last year. He is energetic and has correctly diagnosed many sources of angst and worry in America. However, correct diagnosis does not necessarily translate into effective prognosis. As a veteran and student of history, I am worried about his potential effect on American foreign policy and civilian military relations.

 

By John Q. Bolton
Best Defense guest columnist

Donald Trump has captured the country’s attention for the better part of the last year. He is energetic and has correctly diagnosed many sources of angst and worry in America. However, correct diagnosis does not necessarily translate into effective prognosis. As a veteran and student of history, I am worried about his potential effect on American foreign policy and civilian military relations.

Many people love Trump for his “tough talk,” and promises to go after the nation’s enemies. However, how he plans to do so is not stated or even clearly implied. Trump’s meandering harangues are a combination of inch-deep policy combined with never-ending narcissism. Trump misses the point that the nation’s military is not so much “fighting with our hands tied behind our back” as it is placed in impossible situations. The military has become our primary tool of foreign policy, when it should be only one part of well-rounded strategy. Rather than examine the scope of our global commitments and the militarized nature of our foreign policy, Trump promises, like many others, to simply throw more money at our “weak” military.

Like other candidates, Trump declares our military “hurting,” “devastated,” or otherwise incapacitated. This is a gross exaggeration. Yes, sequestration cuts were arbitrary and sudden, but our Defense Department still spends more than the next six nations combined. Each American military service has an internal air force that rivals major powers. Annual military spending still remains at historic highs, double its pre-9/11 amount. Additionally, he offers no solutions to reduce the military’s sunk costs into hugely expensive weapons such as the F-35.

What has all this money gotten us? Trump’s bluster ignores the fact that the American military possesses unquestioned superiority over enemies, both actual and potential. Everyone agrees victory hasn’t occurred, but money is not the problem; a solid basis in strategy is what is missing, and Trump does not offer this. Instead he proposes a road to Hell with blatant disrespect for norms of behavior and ethics of combat, proudly boasting torture as a solution to our ills.

I know from personal experience that firepower is not the problem. In Iraq during 2006-2007, at no point during 15 months of near-daily combat patrols did I think, “I need more firepower,” or “If only I could torture this detainee.” Trump would seek to overturn our forbearance and replaced with the worst of humanity. Rather than viewing our restraint as a virtue, he views it as folly.

As a retired general recently commented, “The military is not his palace guards,” and won’t execute illegal orders. More importantly, it can’t win when following impossible orders ungrounded in strategic realities. This and the changing nature of modern war goes further to explain our lack of “winning” since 1991. Trump would not improve this failing of American policy, he would exacerbate it with his penchant for hyperbole and substitution of rhetoric for reality. He would further erode the tenuous bond between American society and its military.

Likewise, he does not understand the role of the NSC, the Joint Chiefs, or even the nuclear triad as they relate to developing sound national strategy.  Trump would upend over 60 years of American reliance on free trade and international norms — backed up by credible military power — in favor of what? Strong words centered around an anti-trade agenda? Here, Trump again confuses diagnosis with prognosis. Ironically, two of the greatest American foreign policy successes since WWII, the defeat of Communism and the opening of China, were essentially economic and diplomatic successes.

Tough talk is fine and often necessary. When it lacks substance or credible will — or is issued like so many Trumpisms, only to be immediately denied — it is form without substance. In this manner, Trump sounds more like a third-world despot rather than a man aspiring to lead the free world. Trump has issued no substantial policy prognostications and lacks an ideological or historical basis for his statements. As a result, he is impossible to predict; in the last debate he proclaimed his “flexibility” as a virtue. I say he holds no principles. This makes for entertaining television, but will create havoc for American credibility, as well as our standing with allies and enemies alike. When your statements of principle revolve around a stream-of-consciousness narrative, it is hard to plan for the long-term.

At a time when the country so desperately needs a clear foreign policy and attainable strategy, particularly in the Middle East and Pacific, Trump would replace American policy with his personal Twitter feed. He is the antithesis what the nation needs. He is a caricature of American jingoism and know-nothingness, wrapped in the cleansing veneer of patriotism. His possible ascension to the nation’s highest office should frighten mature Americans, who hold any esteem for their country’s place in the world and its military’s role as law-abiding.

John Q. Bolton is a officer in the Army and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. The views presented here are his alone and not representative of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government. This article represents his personal views, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, nor the U.S. government.

Photo credit: Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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