In just the last week, the rookie commander-in-chief has presided over the use of some of the most powerful weaponry in the US arsenal, sending a signal that he is one President who relishes ordering the use of deadly force. It’s clear that he believes Washington and the rest of the world are watching.
First, Trump dispatched Tomahawk cruise missiles to slam into an airfield belonging to President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government forces, to punish what the US says is their use of chemical weapons. On Thursday, the military dropped one of its most powerful non-nuclear bombs — a 21,600-pound behemoth — over a warren of ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan.
Both actions can be justified by solid military rationales and fall into the context of mainstream foreign policy goals — namely deterring the further use of some of the world’s most heinous weapons in Syria and a desire to halt the spread of ISIS into another failed state, even as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria.
But the White House also knows that the use of such eye-catching force has a political impact: Both in the United States, where Trump is politically beleaguered; and overseas, where foreign governments are trying to work out how Trump will wield US power and military might.
The President described the use of a device dubbed the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan as “another successful event,” basking in his role as commander in chief — though preserving some mystique about the strike by declining to say whether he had personally signed off on the operation. He left open the question of whether it was conducted under widened authorizations that have freed up the Pentagon’s room for maneuver since he took over from President Barack Obama.
But he appeared to be quite content if his willingness to deploy some of the most powerful ordinance in the US military’s inventory was interpreted by some US enemies as evidence that he was ready to to use force to carry out his threats — toward North Korea especially, which is apparently making final preparations for a new nuclear test.
“It doesn’t make any difference if it does or not. North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of,” Trump said, referring to the Stalinist state.
The President pointedly noted that the expanded authority that he has given the military since taking office had led to an escalation in the pace of operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere.
“What I do is authorize my military,” Trump said at the White House, before comparing the proactive use of force by his own White House with the way the military was handled under Obama.
“Frankly, that is why they have been so successful lately, if you look at what has happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what has happened over the last eight years, you will see there has been a tremendous difference,” he said.
Sources told CNN that Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, actually signed off on the use of the bomb and that the White House was informed before the bomb was rolled out of a MC-130 aircraft high over Afghanistan.
But that distinction is unimportant for political purposes, as the White House seeks to position Trump as a strong commander-in-chief to satisfy the yearnings of supporters who viewed the Obama administration’s public arguments and self examinations over the use of force as effete. A sense that Trump is an activist President keen to deploy military force could alter the calculations of other great powers — for instance China, as it works out how to respond to Trump’s demands to do more to rein in its ally North Korea.
But supporters of the former President will likely chafe at Trump’s stagecraft, given that Obama was also a war leader, who presided over a ruthless drone war against al Qaeda, and ordered the high-risk raid that killed Osama bin Laden and deployed the US military in an air war in Libya.
Democrats also however find themselves walking a fine line between seeking not to criticize their commander-in-chief over military action but questioning the rationale for his decision to do so.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, accused the White House of staging military operations overseas to alleviate the President’s poor domestic political standing.
“What concerns me most is the fact that what is driving foreign policy is actually our domestic policy,” Speier told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”
The California lawmaker also questioned whether Trump was clearly thinking through the use of force and explaining his rationale to Americans.
“I am very concerned that the President is basically taking little responsibility, offering it up to his military when he is the commander in chief,” she said. “He isn’t necessarily front and center evaluating it then speaking to the American people and what his plans are.”
Another top Democrat also suggested Trump was letting the military intensify wars abroad on autopilot.
“I, too, want to know if the President authorized this — now he doesn’t have to authorize everything the military does, but he should certainly be involved when we escalate the weapons used,” said Eric Swalwell, a Democratic congressman from California who serves on the House intelligence committee.
“We can’t just bomb our way to national security,” Swalwell told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead,” calling for details on whether any civilians were killed in the airstrike and whether the Afghan government was involved.
There was no such reticence from Republicans as the sight of a GOP president flexing military power offered a rallying point with a White House that has often had tense relations with its own party on Capitol Hill.
“I hope America’s adversaries are watching & now understand there’s a new sheriff in town,” wrote Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham on Twitter.
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe also praised the detonation of the MOAB, saying it “sends a clear message that the United States is committed and determined to defeating ISIS and other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan.”
First 100 days
Trump’s active posture may also help to solidify his parlous political standing, which has wobbled during his erratic first 100 days in power.
Deploying fearsome military firepower against ISIS is one way of living up to his election promise to intensify the battle against the terror group. Much of the military action currently under way in Syria and Iraq against ISIS closely follows a blueprint laid down by the Obama administration, making it difficult for Trump to distinguish his own efforts.
Furthermore, the President’s missile strikes in Syria turned out to be possibly the most popular action he has yet taken.
The political payoff Trump is reaping from the last week of military action comes at a low risk. Dropping bombs and firing off cruise missiles creates huge media coverage but does not put American troops in danger on foreign battlefields.
At a time when he is tacking away from some positions that he took on the campaign trail — on NATO and China, for example — it also does Trump no harm to look tough in front of his supporters. In general, the image of an American president wielding a big stick plays well with voters who bought into Trump’s “Make America Great Again” conceit.
His week of military action may also have a more global effect if it stiffens the President’s warnings and tweets notably directed at North Korea, with the credible threat of force.
“I think this sends a message,” said Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a retired military intelligence analyst who is now a CNN military expert.
He said the Afghan operation was a sign that the new White House was happy to be seen as proactive in the use of military force and was likely to offer the Pentagon more leeway than the more hands on Obama administration.
“(The military) has been wanting to use this weapon for some time — they couldn’t get approval,” said Francona, referring to the MOAB. “The timing couldn’t be better, we see what is happening in Korea, we see what is happening in Syria, this is not lost on everybody that is watching the United States right now.”
In the longer term, however, Trump is likely to face decisions on military force that are far more consequential than those he has taken in the last week.
He has already had a lesson in the higher stakes when US troops are directly deployed, after facing criticism over the planning and execution of a Navy SEAL raid against al Qaeda in Yemen in January, in which an American soldier died.
The increasing pace of military action will also increase pressure for the White House to outline a detailed strategy for its actions in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and to secure congressional buy-in for its actions.
And it is far from clear that the American public would back a more prolonged venture back into the Middle East, meaning that the political and international impact of eye-catching military operations, like those of the last week, could soon suffer from the value of diminishing returns.