Divining Trump’s Military Strategies

A big question about President Trump is whether he will live up to promises to pull back from military interventionism or will find military adventures a way to boost his popularity, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Now that Donald Trump has assumed power, we will start to see demonstrations of how futile it was to have tried to project a direction of his policy, including foreign and security policy, on the basis of his tweets, blurts, and campaign speeches. Of course, such projection is what those of us in the commentariat normally do, but this is not a normal president.

Donald Trump and Governor Mike Pence of Indiana speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. August 31, 2016. (Flickr Gage Skidmore)

Anticipation of the direction of policy ordinarily can be discussed in terms of grand strategies and schools of thought, but not so with Trump. With most presidents, attracting crowds and support and votes in a campaign is a gauntlet that must be run to serve the nation in its highest office. With Trump, attracting the crowds and support is what it’s all about.

A good take on what makes the new president tick, and what this does or does not mean for protecting the nation’s interests during the next four years, is an interview with three Trump biographers (Gwenda Blair, Michael D’Antonio and Tim O’Brien) in Politico. The biographers agreed that there has been no indication Trump can separate the interests of the country from personal pique.

As O’Brien put it, “The whole thing has been a vanity show … He’s been unable to find a clean division between his own emotional needs and his own insecurities and simply being a healthy, strategically committed leader who wants to parse through good policy options and a wide series of public statements about the direction in which he’ll take the country.”

Whatever will be the Trump foreign policy will not be a function of liberalism, realism, neoconservatism, isolationism, or any of the other isms with which foreign policies customarily are associated. It will be a function of narcissism.

Lest there had been any idea that Trump finally would leave the campaign mode once he took office, he dispelled that idea in his first 20 minutes as president with his carnage-filled, it’s-midnight-in-America inaugural address.

And if any such idea persisted into his first full day in office, he further dispelled it with an appearance at CIA headquarters, in which he touched only briefly on the mission and contributions of the agency he was visiting and otherwise delivered a typical Trumpian stream-of-consciousness about the size of his support and how great his appointments were. Standing in front of the agency’s memorial wall that honors officers who have died in the line of duty, Trump did not focus on the significance of that place but instead was intent on criticizing the media for allegedly downplaying the size of the crowd at the inauguration event the previous day.

It evidently is a matter of special sensitivity for him — and more important to him than recognizing those who have made sacrifices in service to their country — that his crowd was smaller than for Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration and also much smaller than the women’s march in Washington that was taking place as he was speaking and that itself was only one of numerous parallel demonstrations across the country.

A Gruesome Picture

The grim and gruesome picture that President Trump painted in his inaugural speech is far removed from reality, not only regarding the economy but also regarding subjects such as crime, which is less of a problem now than in most previous decades. The economy is, of course, in far better shape than it was when Mr. Obama took office eight years ago.

A sign supporting Donald Trump at a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. June 18, 2016 (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

The false darkness of Mr. Trump’s picture of the state of the nation can play either of two different ways for him in the years ahead. One possibility is that even if reality stays more or less the same as it is now, he can contrast future reality with his own negative picture of today and claim credit for improvement regardless of whether any such improvement occurred or not.

But the other possibility is that his artificially dark picture of today raises all the more people’s expectations of improvement, and regardless of his claims it may be difficult for him to persuade people that things actually have improved. It is harder for statistics, on matters such as wages, to lie as easily as it is for politicians to do so. And individual Americans can feel directly whether their own lots have improved or not.

Such inflated expectations are one ingredient in possible big drops in Trump’s support. Another is the incongruity between his own promises and some of the policies he has suggested, involving such things as how a trade war would affect the cost of living and how upper-bracket tax reductions would see the working class fall farther behind. Yet another ingredient is the natural business cycle, bearing in mind that right now the stock market is near record highs and unemployment is as low as it has been in nearly a decade.

There is a long history of political leaders, especially demagogic ones, who face weakening domestic support looking to foreign adventures to divert attention from problems at home, to rally nationalist sentiment, and to reap the benefits of popularity for the leader who is doing the rallying. One thinks, for example, of Benito Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia. He was seen as making Italy great, and he enjoyed a big boost in popularity within Italy.

Containing Discontents

Similar dynamics could come into play with a domestically beleaguered Donald Trump. Trump’s comments during the campaign suggesting a less interventionist orientation than previous administrations were just like many other of his campaign comments in appealing to discontents of the moment. He was especially trying to capitalize on dissatisfaction with the disastrous Iraq War, going so far as to lie about his own purported opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

At the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. military to conduct a devastating aerial assault on Baghdad, known as “shock and awe.”

His comments that sounded like an intention to retrench were no more part of a carefully constructed worldview or grand strategy than are any other things he has said. Other comments of his seem to go in a different direction, such as his promise to “bomb the s*** out of” ISIS.

If one is to hang larger conclusions on fragments of Trump’s speeches, one might also consider some other lines in the inaugural address. There was the one alleging “a very sad depletion of our military,” notwithstanding that the United States spends more on its military than the next six largest armed forces in the world combined. If President Trump and the Republican majority in Congress really were to devote still more resources to the military, voices both inside and outside the administration are bound to start asking the Madeleine Albright question, “What’s the point of having this superb military if we can’t use it?”

There also was the promise regarding “radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.” That is an impossible promise to fulfill, and so there always will be some target bearing that label to go after.

Right now all of this is speculation. But so has been projection of a less interventionist future based on the tweets and blurts and campaign speeches. What actually transpires will depend not only on the vicissitudes of presidential narcissism but also on interplay yet to develop between the President and his most influential subordinates.

Those commentators who have been repelled by the hegemonic inclinations of the Washington consensus or by the hawkishness of Mr. Trump’s general election opponent and who have hope for fewer foreign misadventures may be in for some unpleasant surprises.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

19 comments for “Divining Trump’s Military Strategies

  1. Guy
    February 4, 2017 at 02:01

    Great site. Plenty of useful information here.
    I’m sending it to several pals ans also sharing in delicious.
    And naturally, thank you on your sweat!

  2. Coldwind
    January 25, 2017 at 11:16

    When people say crime in America is “less now, than in previous decades”, we know they are speaking from protected, gated communities that the rest of us can’t afford to live in.

  3. Zachary Smith
    January 25, 2017 at 02:08

    Those commentators who have been repelled by the hegemonic inclinations of the Washington consensus or by the hawkishness of Mr. Trump’s general election opponent and who have hope for fewer foreign misadventures may be in for some unpleasant surprises.

    I’ve always known it was a chancy affair, and Trump might also get us into a war. And he is off to a bad start with China.

  4. Ragnar Ragnarsson
    January 24, 2017 at 22:44

    Very well said. I also didn’t find his speech grim and gruesome, or dark, or Hitlerite, or any other negative that has been thrown at it. For the first time in years I’m actually hopeful that things might begin to change for the better.

  5. elmysterio
    January 24, 2017 at 19:04

    A few of the points made by Mr. Pillar are following the “prevailing wisdom” but don’t really reflect the reality of the situation. Now please don’t mistake this as a blanket endorsement of Trump as I’m currently taking a “wait and see” approach before jumping to any conclusions.

    I personally did not find Trump’s speech to be “grim and gruesome” and divorced from reality. What did he say?

    Crumbling infrastructure: This one is obvious. The United States has grossly neglected it’s infrastructure resulting in a great deal of urban decay. It is also far behind the majority of industrialized nations in regards to transportation infrastructure. Reality.

    Policies that benefit “Washington”. Looking at the things the US Govt has done over the past two administrations (actually far more but that’s another story), the policies benefit the ruling class over the people. There is much information available online to back this up. When Mr. Pillar says that unemployment is “as low as it has been in decades” is based on the official BLS numbers, which are false. They claim the U3 is 4.7% and the U6 is 9.3%. Overall unemployment as calculated with ALL the factors (which the BLS does not do) is 22.7%. That is a far more realistic number. Regarding economic recovery since 2008, the recovery has been only felt by the upper class. The middle class continues to lose share real wealth. Job created have mostly been low-paying service jobs. The government claims that inflation is around 2% but since they manipulate the calculation methodology, this number is not accurate. Calculating inflation using the traditional (non-manipulated) method results in an inflation rate of approximately 6%. See for yourself at: http://www.shadowstats.com/

    Urban Decay and Rusted out factories: The manufacturing heart of the country has been decimated. Look around at Detroit, Camden, Flint and many other formally prosperous industrial towns where people could make a decent living. They are now completely impoverished. This is due to policies of globalization (neoliberalism). Trump talking about the ruling class shipping the jobs overseas is completely true. Without a vibrant middle class, a nation can not prosper. Globalization has been responsible for the loss of fair paying jobs that can support a family.

    Crime? While overall crime rates have dropped over the years, it’s by no means a non-issue. Though much of this could be handled by adopting sane drug policies.

    Underfunded military: Well this is one where Trump is wrong. The US military is over-funded if anything. If he truly embraces a policy of non-adventurism, then the US military has more than enough resources to defend the country.

    Supporting of law enforcement: This is another area where I disagree with Trump. The militarization of law enforcement is a disaster and should be undone as soon as possible.

    So while I believe that Trump has authoritarian tendencies, the US government by it’s very nature is authoritarian so nothing new here.

    For all the speculation and fear surrounding the new Trump administration, we really don’t know for sure what he’s going to do. If he does something that benefits the people, support him! If he does something that is bad for the people, oppose him! Let’s see what he’s going to do before we pass judgement. Anything else is purely speculation.

    • backwardsevolution
      January 25, 2017 at 00:04

      elmysterio – good post.

  6. Brad Benson
    January 24, 2017 at 18:47

    I don’t regret having voted against the WAR CRIMINAL for a minute. Trump can do no worse that Bush, Clinton, Bush or Obama.

  7. Bill Bodden
    January 24, 2017 at 15:22

    If one is to hang larger conclusions on fragments of Trump’s speeches, one might also consider some other lines in the inaugural address. There was the one alleging “a very sad depletion of our military,” notwithstanding that the United States spends more on its military than the next six largest armed forces in the world combined.

    There has been a serious depletion in our military for decades that continues to this day. It is in intelligence. Not the intelligence analysts and spooks give the leaders in the Pentagon but in the intelligence that is a product of their brains. They lost to the North Vietnamese army that had a budget that was a small fraction of the Pentagon’s. Along with NATO they have been bogged down in a quagmire in Afghanistan for 15 years. After shock and awe in Iraq the game changed and their position in Iraq was untenable heading for another quagmire. The troops filling the boots on the ground did their job, but they were let down by several generals and civilians in Washington.

  8. Steve
    January 24, 2017 at 15:20

    Thank you Mr. Pillar and you other commenters for some sense. I’ve been unhappy with some of the commentary here at Consortium alluding to some sort of pie in the sky view that Trump has a positive outcome regarding foreign policy. My take…HE HAS NO POLICY other that selling more weapons or pandering to Zion. Nothing but more war filth and hate from this embarrassing P.O.S.

    Not that the Hillary option was a positive note ( never trust anyone trying so hard to be “tough” ) but I had hoped that there would be forces against her many misguided foreign policies. Now, just about everything will need active opposition and this clown will not respond in a positive manner.

    Not a big fan of Putin and I am sure he’s enjoying watching the rest of the world squirm. Certainly he’s smarter and more experienced in geopolitics than Trump and I wouldn’t be surprised if he uses that to a big advantage. The danger would be in Trumps response. We’ll see.

  9. Sammy TT
    January 24, 2017 at 13:58

    Really? No mention of “Keep the oil.” And “Maybe you’ll get another chance.”

  10. Ragnar Ragnarsson
    January 24, 2017 at 13:01

    “Those commentators who have been repelled by the hegemonic inclinations of the Washington consensus or by the hawkishness of Mr. Trump’s general election opponent and who have hope for fewer foreign misadventures may be in for some unpleasant surprises.”

    “Right now all of this is speculation.”

  11. Peter Loeb
    January 24, 2017 at 12:26

    TO JOE TEDESKY…

    My sentiments entirely. I contacted my Senators on some cabinet nominations in
    one case receiving a “no” in committee together with one other “no”. The
    Senate committee approved however. In another case (Jeff Sessions) there
    has been a postponement.

    I urge all to contact his/her own Senators or Representative. I advise that
    you seek reasons that will persuade. Attacking all at once is counter-
    productive. Choose those issues which affect you personally helps. Write
    the lawmaker who can decide (Senator or Congressman–Congress
    does not decide on nominations!). Make your case brief and to the point.

    Like many, I have a hundred objections I could make but my advocacy
    experience informs me that that is almost never effective. The
    “resistance” strategies are interesting as so-called “news” but
    rarely effective in achieving change.

    PS If you are worried about your telephone bill, an email costs NOTHING.
    Everyone from a Senator’s state can contact. Only those from a
    Congressperson’s own district can email. Other emails are not sent. All
    lawmakers can be contacted by a stamped letter to his/her
    office. I recommend email.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 24, 2017 at 15:02

      Good advice Peter, and I will be sure to use it thank you Joe

  12. Joe Tedesky
    January 24, 2017 at 12:08

    After dealing with the disappointments of our most positive president to date, namely President Barack Obama, I quit having high expectations. What I’m hoping for, is that President Trump will surprise us with more good than bad, but I kind of roll that way by my nature. I will tell you this though, I’ve already called my congressional representative requesting that my congressional representative vote against the confirmation of Betty DeVos. Also there has never been an American president ever, that I have totally agreed with. So there is nothing new here to report coming from me. My advice to all Americans, is to speak up, and make them do it.

  13. Sam F
    January 24, 2017 at 11:16

    Trump is unlikely to “find military adventures a way to boost his popularity” after the defeat of warmonger Clinton. The Trumpers I have spoken with wanted an end to the Mideast wars for Israel, an end to corruption, and an end to economic insecurity. While I would expect a President to cultivate good relations with the military prior to their downsizing, using the advice of Kissinger and others is a prescription for confrontation. Trump’s appointees suggest a careless betrayal of his supporters, which will send them fleeing left, where we need new parties to form new coalitions to restore democracy.

    • Peter Loeb
      January 24, 2017 at 12:08

      WHAT “THEY” WANT

      There are many things those who supported the election of Donald Trump
      want and many are things with which many of us are agreement.

      A more profound way of looking at these “wants” is the fact that few to none
      of them are in fact realizeable.

      Manufacturing will not return. (See Louis Uchitelle, THE INDISPOSABLE
      AMERICAN). There are other sources regarding the state of the
      economy from various analysts in Consortium and other
      electronic newsletters (See Jack Rasmus, Mike Whitney, Nicolas Davies and
      others).

      Withdrawal from international wars and associated neoconservative policies
      would be a great advance but one must wait until we see the results.
      Neoconservatism as championed by Hillary Clinton and others was not
      been her invention alone.

      President Trump’s commitment to the expansion of our military would be
      difficult without markets for its killing products. Israel is one of many
      such markets. Saudi Arabia is another. And so on. William Grieder
      has described this system well in his book FORTRESS AMERICA.

      It is one thing to worry about what the “trumpers” would like .Except for
      show, it is doubtful that many of these wants will be fulfilled. This is
      almost always a problem for presidents —irregardless of party—
      who are unable to deliver on promises they have made. An
      prime example is Barack Obama’s promises about social justice
      and equality and equal opportunity for people of color. He did
      well to talk the talk which satisfied many of
      his (mostly white) backers. He never walked the walk.

      It is to put it all too bluntly more than unlikely that any “new
      party to form new coalitions to restore democracy” will
      form. As a supporter of the Green Party in 2016, its
      record in terms of success was abyssmal.

      Many of the above points require more in-depth analysis
      which they have often received. Rather than a whole
      new coalition which will produce magic, one should
      instead work toward improvement and at least holding
      the (already inadequate) line over the following
      years.

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • Sam F
      January 24, 2017 at 14:42

      Peter, much depends upon definitions of what is possible. I noted that it is doubtful that many Trumper wants will be fulfilled, but it is more than possible to withdraw from wars and achieve economic security. It is easier to prevent adventurist wars than to pursue them, and partial socialism provides economic security (although of course Trump won’t take that route). So I think that the Trumpers goals can be met, and we quite agree that he probably has no such plan except for the wars.

      As for the value of new parties, I would not dismiss that. They should and may form, and they should express specific platforms that appeal to their members, so that the electorate is understood and they can form coalitions understood by their members. This is meaningful democracy, much harder for big money to control. The great question is whether new parties will prevent disaffected Trumpers from fleeing back to the corrupted Dems.

      Regarding “holding the line,” the Dems are not the ones to do that, as their corruption by money, foreign influence, and faction promoters is now clear to everyone. I will never trust them again, and soon none but extremists will trust the Repubs again. So despite the recent misfortune of the Greens with a platform mostly of vague environmentalism, I see a great future for progressive/liberal/socialist parties, as a counterweight to the oligarchy duopoly.

      The secret is having the courage to state the truth despite mass media attacks, and to fight where most battles are lost but coalitions may win.

    • Bill Bodden
      January 24, 2017 at 17:28

      It is to put it all too bluntly more than unlikely that any “new party to form new coalitions to restore democracy” will form. As a supporter of the Green Party in 2016, its record in terms of success was abyssmal.

      Unlikely for a new party but not impossible. Bernie Sanders helped to demonstrate there is a core of people strongly opposed to our duopoly. Unfortunately, Sanders folded. In doing so he may have contributed to disillusionment among many of his followers; however, if someone comes along with sufficient charisma and who is capable of inspiring trust he or she might reactivate the Sandersnistas and independents to someday form a third party. It doesn’t have to be a majority in Congress to be effective if it is sufficiently aggressive as was the Tea Party. Increased revulsion of the Democrats and Republicans will help.

      Jill Stein and Ajamu Barracka have admirable qualities, but they don’t inspire the grass roots nor, as far as I’m aware, does anyone else from the Green Party. We need someone with charisma and a message similar to Bernie Sanders without any connection to the Democratic or Republican parties. To the contrary we need someone who is hostile to these deplorable organizations.

    • Bill Bodden
      January 24, 2017 at 21:17

      We might also consider the hundreds of thousands of people who turned out for the Women’s March/Anti-Trump protests as possible sympathisers and recruits for a third party. This is probably the only means by which these protests will have any lasting effects.

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