We certainly live in far more interesting, if not astonishing, news times now that a Manhattan real estate developer occupies the White House. We wake up each day wondering what was the latest personal whim Donald Trump chose to exercise while we slept.
One was when he signed an executive order to his military chiefs to provide him with a report within 30 days of a strategy to destroy ISIS. Trump held up the document for the cameras like a child showing off his homework. Indeed his actions reminded me of a child toying with the levers of a mechanical device to see what happens.
One must have sympathy for the Pentagon admirals and generals in having to come up with a plan which will have even the faintest hint of plausibility as well as chances of success. Their track record in Trump’s own lifetime will not provide an example of how to go about it. Look at Vietnam which at one stage had half a million Americans on the ground trying to crush communism. Then there was the Gulf War followed by involvement in Afghanistan where the Americans naively thought they could get rid of the Taliban and flush out Osama bin Laden. Next came the 2003 invasion of Iraq with its catastrophic consequences, including provoking the birth of ISIS. Now the Americans are giving Syria a touch-up with bombs and missiles which have made little difference to the tragic chaos of that country.
According to the Washington Post, military officials have already been developing ‘potential actions’ for Trump to consider. It reported: ‘Those include potentially deploying additional advisers to Iraq and Syria, allowing U.S. military personnel to accompany local forces closer to the front lines, and delegating greater decision-making power to field commanders’. This is hardly original thinking. Have they forgotten that it was the introduction of military advisers, including by Australia, which set the Vietnam war in train? Has no one told him that America still has teams of military advisers in Iraq and Afghanistan without being able to resolve the reason they are there?
But Trump – surrounded by eager hawks brand new to exercising Washington power – was not to be dissuaded. As he signed his directive at his desk in the Oval Office, Trump said, ‘I think it’s going to be very successful. That’s big stuff’. It is the sort of response you might expect from Kim Jong-un. There is something alarming when the leader of the most powerful country reduces a complex issue to simply ‘big stuff’. You cannot treat a movement like ISIS as if it were a few targets to be dealt with by bombs and missiles which has been the traditional US military strategy. Even Trump’s most impressionable supporters would not tolerate another ground war involving US troops and thus more tragedy and grief and even worse for Trump himself, loss of face.
It is not surprising that Trump looked to the military to deal with the terrorist network when during the election campaign his simplistic solution was ‘to bomb the shit out of them’. But it does seem odd that he did not involve the CIA, the other intelligence agencies or America’s propaganda machinery to contribute to the downfall of ISIS. After all, it is a movement like a cult with members now in many different countries outside the Middle East, including even in Australia. Many have blended into the local populace as sleepers. Even if you cut off the head of the snake, there will still be life. For years, the Chinese with their omnipresent security apparatus have been trying to eliminate another cult, Falun Gong, without success, though not through military means, of course.
If anything, Trump should beware of the repercussions of widening US involvement in an unpredictable and fraught region like the Middle East as America should long ago have discovered to its cost.
Trump excused Saudi Arabia from his inflammatory new immigration rules despite it being accused of helping to fund ISIS. The fact that it is America’s biggest arms buyer may have helped. But he might insist in return that the kingdom as the keeper of Islam’s holiest sites concentrate on deploying its religious influence to rein in ISIS rather than bombard Yemen because some Shiites have asserted themselves.
One can only hope that whatever strategy the Pentagon recommends will take into account the protection of innocent civilians. No one knows the exact number of civilians killed in Iraq alone since the invasion in 2003 because estimates vary widely. But they all agree it is well into six figures, never mind the hundreds of thousands displaced and the disastrous seepage into Syria. The fear is that if ISIS is not destroyed, a leader like Trump who views the world as good guys and bad guys might demand drastic action we dare not think about.
Given another of his mantras, America First, it might be better for the benefit of all innocents if the report recommends Uncle Sam stops interfering for once, stays at home and confines his role to domestic security. This means leaving other countries to look after themselves just as he expects NATO members, Japan and South Korea to take greater responsibility for their own defences.
The report should be brief. Time reports that Trump has made it clear that he, like Ronald Reagan before him, would rather not have to read any memo longer than a page if it can be helped. Keep it simple.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.