It’s often said that the Trump administration is ‘isolationist’. This is not true. In fact, we are now witnessing a dramatic escalation in the militarisation of US foreign policy in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan. This has not been announced but it is happening, and much of it without consultation with Nato or other key allies, or any debate in Congress or the media.
A few weeks ago, US aircraft carried out over 30 air strikes against Islamic militants in Yemen — almost the same as the number carried out there all last year. In Iraq and Syria there have been many reports of civilian casualties in US raids. As many as 200 are thought to have been killed in air strikes on Mosul, although Iraqi authorities dispute that.
Andrew J. Bacevich, General Sir Richard Barrons and Heather Williams discuss Trump’s wars:
Meanwhile, some 400 US troops are going to Syria to set up an artillery base to retake Raqqa. Another 1,000 may soon be sent to Kuwait as a reserve force. Another 400 have gone to Iraq and some 8,000 will go to Afghanistan.
Quite an active policy, for someone with no interest in it. A closer look at Trump’s senior aides helps to explain — they’re often from the military. The State Department may be downgraded but the military has never had a stronger influence on a president.
Trump’s emphasis on war isn’t balanced by any interest in peace-keeping. There is no hint of US diplomatic initiatives in conflict zones. There’s no talk of any strategy to woo Muslim hearts and minds. The only considerations appear to revolve around who to bomb and how hard. There’s no thought about the very serious and far-reaching consequences of this for the future role and image of the United States in the Middle East.
The Yemeni government, backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, is fighting Houthi rebels — Shia Muslims supported by Iran. Now Yemen is facing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the UN — two thirds of its 27 million people need aid.
What exactly is the Trump strategy for stopping the war? How does his administration plan to deal with escalating regional rivalry? Who is in charge of Yemen policy? None of these questions is even being addressed, while we learn that the Pentagon wants the White House to remove restrictions on providing military aid to Gulf allies, the better to pound Shia rebels.
Once, the US might have tried to create no-fly zones to shelter civilians. The Trump regime is more interested in free-fire zones where US forces can bomb potential enemies and not worry about casualties. So far three provinces in Yemen have been declared ‘areas of active hostilities’ — in other words free-fire zones. A policy of encouraging indiscriminate strikes will undoubtedly produce more Muslim radicals and undermine relief efforts.
Yet Yemen seems child’s play compared to Syria. We know that 33 people were killed last month when US-led coalition bombers hit a school in Raqqa. Yet we still have no idea what Trump’s diplomatic or political strategy is. Will he support the Russian-dominated, UN-led peace process? Is the US interested in trying to broker a political solution? Is it willing to let President Assad stay in power? Who will pay for the flood of refugees? None of these questions is being addressed.
Instead, Trump has reverted to a dangerous dependence on the military. He has proposed cutting the State Department and foreign aid budgets by a third to fund a $54 billion increase in the military budget.
There has been widespread opposition from Congress, aid groups, and the media to these proposals. Such cuts would undermine the State Department’s ability to launch diplomatic initiatives or even influence future US foreign policy.
The boomerang effect will be immediate. The US will be unable to persuade autocratic governments to respect human rights, press freedoms, and civil society. Much of USAID’s funding supports civil society and NGOs abroad — something Trump appears to have no interest in. Meanwhile Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has failed to staff his department, leaving hundreds of diplomatic posts vacant. He has been silent on major foreign policy issues.
Trump’s military-first strategy will reduce US influence around the world. Allies and regional partners will be less likely to join what he hopes will be a crusade against Isis. Autocrats will follow suit, encouraged to abandon diplomacy and politics, and use force to get their way. His foreign policy seems ruthlessly simple — cut down on the talking, the détente, the summits and peace processes. Give war a chance.
Ahmed Rashid is based in Lahore and is the author of several books including Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Disaster in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.