There was an unseemly glee on the part of some Trump supporters in the use of the MOAB — Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb — against a target in Afghanistan. A powerful nation may possess 21,600 pounds of precision-guided death. A great nation uses it only in a spirit of grim necessity.
Yet — considered along with 59 cruise missiles thrown at the Bashar Assad regime in Syria — a useful, kinetic statement has been made. America will no longer be constrained by President Barack Obama’s infinitely varied excuses for inaction (which a rational and determined mind can always find). Nor, apparently, will the nation follow Donald Trump’s incoherent campaign pledge to disengage itself into pre-eminence, to somehow retreat into greatness.
But a Trump Doctrine is still at the lumpy, unwhisked batter stage of intellectual baking. America acts when horrible images of murdered children catch the president’s eye, or when the ordnance employed sends a signal of toughness. This is hardly a turn toward neo-conservatism. But what is it? And how can we know if Trump, in all probability, does not yet know himself?
Uncertainty is not always a bad thing. There should be questions in the minds of foreign powers when they calculate the length of our chief executive’s fuse. (Deterring aggression against Europe during the Cold War, for example, depended on the credible belief that American presidents might be mad enough to use nuclear weapons first if the Soviet tanks began rolling in.)
The existence of real red lines — that North Korea will not have the capability to lob a nuclear missile into the Napa Valley, that the Taliban can’t control Kabul, that the Islamic State can’t be allowed a permanent, territorial home — are the essential guides to foreign policy. But a post-Iraq-invasion America better understands how expensive (in a variety of horrible ways) an invasion and occupation can be. So every American president — no matter how they campaign — will be faced with the necessity and challenge of degrading threats from a distance.
This is really the post-Cold War American doctrine: When possible, America will pre-empt and prevent emerging threats by strengthening proxies and projecting power from medium to long range.
The problem with the Trump administration’s foreign policy — as represented in its proposed budget — is that it does not fully understand our threats or the meaning of power.
American interests must be defined broadly enough to include things like the effective delivery of social services in Afghanistan, the surveillance for pandemic disease in rural Tanzania, the construction of classrooms in refugee-stressed Jordan, the settlement of conflict in Libya and the promotion of economic progress in northern Nigeria. Encouraging these outcomes represents another, very real type of American power, exercised from afar (apart from the irenic army of health, development and diplomatic professionals).
It is an absurd misnomer to call the exercise of power in these areas “soft.” The matter is simple: Will America merely respond to security threats? Or will it also try to shape the security environments in which threats emerge?
This is the context in which the Trump administration is proposing a 29 percent cut in funding for development and diplomacy, for peacebuilding and conflict prevention. “It is not a soft-power budget,” explains budget director Mick Mulvaney. “This is a hard-power budget.”
It is really a softheaded, hard-hearted budget. If passed in anything close to current form, no amount of explosive power could undo the stupidity or remedy the harm.