By the standards of recent American presidencies, two very normal-seeming things happened in the Trump administration this past week. On Wednesday, Steve Bannon, the president’s not particularly effective strategist and ideologist, was demoted out of the National Security Council’s principals’ committee. And on Thursday, the president rained cruise missiles onto Syria.
The demotion suggested that Trump’s foreign policy might be losing some of its promised “America First” distinctiveness; the bombing seemed to confirm it. Allowing for a few Trumpian flourishes, the strikes could have happened under Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, and so could the response: Politicians of both parties offered support, liberal hawks and neoconservatives were suddenly happy, TV pundits talked up Trump’s newfound stature … and critics of American warmaking were back to crying in the wilderness, the taste of betrayal in their mouths.
So has the ideological revolution in U.S. foreign policy been canceled? In one sense, yes: If you were expecting Trump to actually govern as a paleoconservative, to eschew the use of force absent some immediate threat to the American homeland, to pull U.S. troops out of all their far-flung bases and leave entangling alliances behind, then the strikes against Bashar Assad are the latest evidence that you got played.
But that doesn’t mean that Trump is just going to return to the same grooves as his predecessors. Most recent presidencies have been distinguished by tugs of war between different groups of foreign policy hands – neoconservatives and Kissingerians and Jacksonians under Republicans, liberal interventionists and liberal realists and the anti-war left under Democrats.
The Trump administration, though, doesn’t really have many normal foreign policy experts among its civilian officials. Rex Tillerson may have a realist streak and Nikki Haley a moralistic style, but neither one has been part of these debates before. Mike Pence has nothing like the experience of a Dick Cheney or a Joe Biden. If Bannon’s vision is getting sidelined, it’s not like Jared Kushner is ready with a deeply thought-out alternative.
What Trump has instead are generals — James Mattis and H.R. McMaster and the other military men in his Cabinet, plus, of course, the actual professional military itself. And it’s this team of generals, not any of the usual foreign policy schools, that seems increasingly likely to steer his statecraft going forward.
The professional military always influences U.S. foreign policy, and military minds are hardly monolithic in their views. (Just ask Gen. Michael Flynn.) But for U.S. policy to be effectively military-directed, as opposed to just military-influenced, would be a new thing in recent U.S. history, with strong implications for how the weakening Pax Americana gets defended in the age of Trump.
First, in certain ways a military-directed foreign policy promises to be more stability-oriented than other approaches to international affairs. It would be less prone to grand ideological ambitions than either liberal hawkishness or neoconservatism — less inclined to imagine the U.S. as an agent of democratic revolution or a humanitarian avenging angel. But it would also be skeptical of the shifts in our strategic posture and retreats from existing commitments that realists and anti-interventionists sometimes entertain.
Thus, had the U.S. military been running George W. Bush’s White House, it’s unlikely that we would have attempted to plant democracy in Iraq. Had it been running the Obama administration, it’s unlikely that we would have abandoned Hosni Mubarak or sought a region-reshaping détente with Tehran. And so far, the Trump White House’s re-emphasis on long-standing military relationships (with the Sunni Arab states, especially), its quieter line on human rights and its backpedaling from promised big-deal shifts in our posture toward Russia and China all fit with what you might expect from a brass-led presidency.
But even as it prizes stability, the military has a strong bias toward, well, military solutions whenever crises or challenges emerge. These solutions are not usually huge invasions or expensive nation-building exercises. But they treat bombs and missiles and drone strikes and (in limited, extractable numbers) boots on the ground as first-resort tools of statecraft.
Thus, you would expect a military-guided foreign policy to be leery of massive involvement in Syria’s civil war … but when something like Assad’s use of chemical weapons happens, its first and strongest impulse would be a punitive strike. A similar logic would apply around the world’s trouble spots. A generals’ foreign policy wouldn’t seek out a land war in Asia, but it would be open to many limited interventions that might take us, by increments, deeper and deeper into conflict.
Overall, the armed forces’ worldview — a status-quo bias plus doses of hard power — is hardly the worst imaginable vision for Trump to adopt. But where the president’s inability to back down from a big fight meets the military’s willingness to start a lot of small ones lies the great peril of his presidency: not deliberate warmongering, but an accidental escalation that his generals encourage, and that the ultimate decider has no idea how to stop.