DENVER – Connecting the strategic dots between Afghanistan, Syria, and North Korea has become an unavoidable task. Only by doing so can the world begin to discern something resembling a coherent, if misguided, approach to US foreign policy by President Donald Trump’s administration.
Start with the military strike on the airfield in Syria from which a chemical attack was launched by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Was the barrage of Tomahawk missiles intended simply to send a message, as the Trump administration claims? Does it suggest a more interventionist approach to Syria’s seemingly intractable civil war?
One might wonder if that strike indicates a more muscular foreign policy in general. Shortly afterwards, the US military, having received “total authorization” for action from its commander-in-chief, dropped a massive ordinance air blast (MOAB) bomb – the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal – on Afghanistan. The immediate goal was to destroy a tunnel network being used by the Islamic State. The question is whether that is all the MOAB was meant for. North Korea’s penchant for burying its military installations deep underground is well known.
Already, Trump has ordered a US Navy aircraft carrier group to sail to waters off the Korean Peninsula, amid rising tensions over the North’s nuclear and missile tests. In this context, it seems that former President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea may be about to be replaced.
But while Trump is leaning on spectacular displays of hard power more than Obama did, he seems not to have settled on any overarching diplomatic approach. After eagerly sending Obama’s diplomatic appointees packing on Inauguration Day, Trump has yet to fill key posts, including US ambassadors to South Korea, Japan, and China.
Whatever modicum of diplomacy there is – such as Trump’s recent summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping – seems to exist only to support military solutions. It should be the other way around: military force should be used to support diplomacy. As the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz famously observed, war is a serious means to a serious end.
Consider the situation in Afghanistan. The late Richard Holbrooke, arguably America’s greatest diplomat at the turn of this century, sought to negotiate with Taliban insurgents. Though not all Afghan Taliban would be open to talks, he believed that enough of them could be engaged and pacified to weaken the most extreme factions. His was a smart strategic approach that goes back to the Roman Empire: “divide and conquer.”
The US military under Trump, by contrast, dropped the “mother of all bombs.” It may be that the Trump administration envisions a unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan, as the Obama administration once did. Under Trump, however, the US may drop a few more MOABs on the way out.
The Trump administration seems to be aligning with its predecessor on another strategic goal: the removal of Syria’s Assad from power. But what would come next? Would the Sunni Islamists who comprise the majority of the opposition on the ground really just turn in their weapons, shrug off all that pesky extremism, and embrace life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness under a democratic government?
In any case, we may never find out, because Assad is still winning. He has the support of powerful allies, including Russia and Iran, and the opposition is hopelessly divided. Even the Free Syrian Army is really several armies that have little prospect of unifying – and even less hope of toppling the regime. The most plausible option for ending the fighting in Syria is US engagement with global powers – including Assad’s allies – that agree on the need for a diplomatic settlement, based on power sharing and decentralization of government.
North Korea also suffers from an autocratic leader with no plans to go anywhere. But, unlike Assad, Kim Jong-un could detonate another nuclear device any day now.
Yet here, too, there are constraints on what a military approach can achieve, though that didn’t stop Vice President Mike Pence from saying recently that "all options are on the table.” For his part, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent all of his time on the ground in South Korea last month with the US military commander there, rather than visiting with his own employees: the diplomats posted at the US embassy.
Senator Lindsey Graham has gone so far as to recommend launching a strike against North Korea now – before the regime can develop the missiles needed to deliver nuclear weapons to the US. No matter, apparently, that the North can deliver them to its southern neighbor. Graham considers himself a pragmatist; but there is nothing pragmatic about destroying the trust that underpins the US-South Korea alliance.
Few in the US seem to have Graham’s stomach for military action that would put 20 million South Koreans in imminent danger. Some advocate making a deal with the Kim regime: a moratorium on weapons tests, in exchange for curtailment of US-South Korea military exercises. But that approach would also weaken America’s critical alliance with the South – albeit less severely – while doing nothing to suppress the North’s appetite for nuclear weapons.
The circumstances in Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea vary widely, but they have some things in common. All represent serious foreign-policy challenges for the Trump administration. And none can be resolved without comprehensive diplomatic strategies.
It is often said that 80% of life is just showing up. In diplomacy, however, the key is following up, in order to transform senior policymakers’ overarching vision into a coherent strategy that gives structure to the day-to-day work of protecting the interests of the US and its allies around the world. That is not something that the military can do alone.