The Obama administration had been considering a commando raid on the al-Qaida compound in Yemen’s al-Bayda province for months. But with its potential success uncertain, the Pentagon’s proposed raid stalled in the administration’s byzantine interagency approval process, according to published reports. And so the decision to move forward was passed to President Donald Trump.
He took all of five days to give his generals the green light.
That decision, made during a dinner with Pentagon heads and senior White House advisers less than a week into Trump’s presidency, proved disastrous. A botched Jan. 29 raid resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens and at least 14 civilians, including women and children. It would also come to exemplify the first 100 days of military force under Trump: The new president has largely followed his predecessor’s agenda, but he’s taken a more aggressive approach, setting himself up for greater risk, military experts say.
Despite Trump’s promise of a “tremendous difference” between his military strategy and Obama’s (and a presidential memorandum vowing to compose a new plan within 30 days to defeat ISIS), military analysts familiar with current U.S. strategies say Trump has shown little to no variance from Obama when it comes to broader counterterrorism efforts.
“[Trump] has basically done what President Obama has done, maybe just a little bit more forcefully,” said Bill Roggio, editor of Long War Journal, a website dedicated to covering the U.S. war on terror.
Forcefully is the key word. In just the past few months under Trump, U.S. forces have launched 75 strikes on Yemen (more than in any entire year under Obama); launched 59 Tomahawk missiles on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces; dropped more bombs in Syria and Iraq in each of the last three months than in any of the prior 32 months of war against ISIS; and dropped a MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, on Afghanistan.
But none of those theaters of combat is new; the U.S. was active in all of them under Obama. Nor is the overarching counterterror strategy that continues to inform the military’s actions.
“Overall, I’m struck by how much continuity there is,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow specializing in defense and foreign policy issues at the Brookings Institution. “Some of the tactics have changed, but the strategy certainly has not.”
The shift in tactics is part of a larger, more significant change in the amount of freedom Trump has granted the Pentagon. Where the Obama administration was deliberate to the point of alleged micromanagement in approving tactical and personnel decisions, Trump has given military leaders latitude, often putting a premium on speed and force.
“He’s decided to run the two-minute drill,” Roggio said, referring to the hurry-up offense used by football teams attempting to score in the last two minutes of a game. “He’s sort of taken the reins off the military a little bit and has allowed them to launch more kinetic strikes.”
The Pentagon has long been powerful, and under Trump it has quietly expanded its footprint week by week, approving greater counterterror operations in Yemen and Somalia, deploying 400 troops to Syria and 300 more to Iraq, all the while weighing a marked increase in Afghanistan, and doing so with little disclosure or public discourse.
The Pentagon’s expanded leadership presence in foreign policy decisions has its risks, said Rebecca F. Lissner, a fellow specializing in national and nuclear security at the Council on Foreign Relations. So does favoring immediate tactical gains over a greater strategic vision, she said. “The concern is that the narrow military success of a mission can sometimes be at odds with broader political and strategic successes,” she said.
Trump’s clear preference for military leaders and military advice (he has more generals in his Cabinet than any president since World War II) even as he enacts enormous cuts at the civilian State Department, Lissner said, is one indication of a “real militarization of American foreign policy in a way that will have long-term damages and consequences.”
William Wechsler, a fellow at the Center for American Progress who was a senior counterterrorism official at the Pentagon under President Obama, said he generally supported Trump’s efforts to delegate greater authority to the Pentagon on tactical and operational decisions. But he expressed concern over the number of unfilled high-level civilian leadership positions in the current Pentagon tasked with overseeing such decisions.
“Such delegation doesn’t end civilian oversight of the military but pushes it to the civilians that are selected by the president and confirmed by the Senate in order to provide such oversight,” Wechsler said. “To date, the Trump administration has not filled any of those positions within the Pentagon’s policy office.”
Absent a clear long-term strategy, Trump’s rhetoric plays an outsized role in the Pentagon, Wechsler added. Military officials “look to public and private signals that identify their commander’s intent,” he explained. “President Trump will need to learn that when he uses certain rhetoric, it will be taken by the military as the commander’s intent. Quite frankly, Obama had to learn to appreciate this as well.”
Lissner was less generous regarding Trump’s decision to punt decision-making authority to commanders, and warned of a “narrower tactical risk calculus” that could ultimately undermine broader political and strategic objectives.
The results of such a tactical change are already revealing themselves in certain conflicts, nowhere more starkly than Iraq and Syria, where the U.S.-led coalition forces are engaged in pitched combat with ISIS. In March, the coalition was blamed for a staggering number of civilian deaths.
The Pentagon maintains its written rules of engagement haven’t changed, but independent human rights and military monitors aren’t convinced, pointing to recent incidents in Mosul and Raqqa that demonstrate a change in the speed and number of strikes over the last few months, as well as the quality of intelligence going into them.
“Whether coalition members consider these to be changes in the rules of engagement or merely procedural changes,” a Human Rights Watch report said in late March, “the net effect appears to be that coalition aircraft are now able to conduct strikes in densely populated areas with less information and time to ascertain the number of civilians who may be injured or killed.” The report concluded: “This increases the likelihood of civilian casualties in an attack.”
Trump’s most significant military action may also be the best example of this tension between rhetoric, tactics, and strategy. Trump quickly approved an April 6 strike on a Syrian air base in a show of force against Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons there. But in the following days, the Trump administration struggled to articulate a broader strategy regarding U.S interests and Assad’s future in Syria, and the strike, at first largely celebrated by D.C.’s foreign policy establishment as a proportionate response to Assad’s crimes, soon looked merely symbolic.
“If you are going to use military force to send signals in order to change the decision-making calculus of a foreign adversary, you should clearly communicate exactly what you want from that foreign adversary and define for yourself how that objective integrates into your wider strategy,” Wechsler said. “As far as I can tell, they haven’t articulated such a clear strategy.”
At the same time, analysts warned against reading too much into any one of Trump’s military decisions this early in his administration.
“If you try too hard to claim there is a perceptible Trump doctrine,” O’Hanlon said, “at some point you’re writing fiction.”