Trump’s Defence Policy

What Next in US Defence Activity?

Most commentators, including Turnbull, welcomed or approved Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airport from where chemical bombs are alleged to have been dumped onthe rebel held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun. Although some claim there is no proof that Syrian President Assad made the decision to bomb, the only alternative deliverer must have been his Russian ally. Hence, one way or another the Assad government of Syria implemented or approved the bombing of the Syrian town.

This doesn’t mean that the US should have undertaken to bomb the airport: many acts of oppression against their citizens are made by governments which are not subjected to retaliations by the US or other major countries. Trump  justified the action publicly because “banned” chemicals were used. It could also be seen as a rebuttal to Obama’s failure to respond to Assad’s previous use of chemicals. Trump undoubtedly saw it as an opportunity to win praise for a government that is finding it difficult to implement policies advocated during the presidential election campaign, such as reducing the extent of health insurance and immigrantsfrom Muslim countries.

The question now posed is whether any further US action will be taken against Assad or in Syria more generally. And whether other countries might become involved.

During the election campaign Trump opposed any such action but his bombing has since reversed that view. The Trump-appointed representative at the UN has also indicated a readiness to act and (amongst others) Turnbull has said that Assad will have to go if the Syrian “war” is to be stopped. Turnbull has however given no indication that he is following official US policy or that he has spoken to Trump about it.

Today’s Australian reports that the US’s national security adviser (McMaster) has said that the US will not act on its own to remove Assad (see US is not taking Assad on its own).  It also reports that the US’s Secretary of State (Tillerson) has indicated the removal “would be part of an international diplomatic effort but less of a priority for the US than the defeat of Islamic State in Syria”. In another item The Australian reports that Trump has  ordered a naval strike group to move to near the Korean peninsula (see Trump on N Korea) and Tillerson has indicated that a response will be made to “rogue regimes” (such as N Korea) which pose a threat to the US.

Presumably these statements are now part of official US policy, at least for the present.

Tillerson is now in Russia, whose government has opposed any move against ally Assad, is presenting an aggressive front by sending a warship offshore to Syria and is claiming that the US action is actually encouraging terrorists. This presumably refers to the terrorist groups in Syria which oppose the Assad regime and which must be assumed to control the town of Khan Skeikhun. The Russians are unlikely to readily reduce the increased role they obtained in Syria/Lebanon when Obama decided not to attack Assad and to play only a limited role in Iraq/Syria against IS, notably through the no troops on the ground strategy. But the military capacity of the Russians is limited and the US under Trump will not be easily deterred from asserting itself more actively.

Meantime, with some help from the US (including limited “special forces”) the Iraqi forces appear to be slowly pushing IS out of its apparent HQ at Mosul. And former Australian army officer, David Kilcullen, who served as a senior counter-insurgency advisor to US General Petraeus in 2007 and 2008 in Iraq and later to US Secretary of State Rice (but who was highly critical of the decision to intervene), told 7.30 last night that he thought the conflict in Syria has already spread more widely viz

You now have a more or less permanent Kurdistan that covers most of northern Iraq and north-eastern Syria.  You’ve got a vacuum from the western border of Iraq through to about the middle of Syria.  As Islamic State is under pressure in Raqqa and Mosul and Iraq, it is striking out in other places like in Egypt just yesterday or today.  And you’ve got the war going on in Yemen. And an expanding conflict in Libya. Most of those things are linked to the same set of causes that are driving the war in Syria…  and it’s lashing out elsewhere in the region, in Libya, Egypt and Europe. Sweden and London just in the last two weeks, as a way of maintaining some initiative and trying to relieve pressure. And then it’s also a whole series of regional groups from South-East Asia all the way across to western Europe. As we see the caliphate, so-called collapsing in Iraq and Syria, we’re likely to see a spike rather than a reduction in terrorist activity outside that region” (see Kilcullen on 7.30).

This suggests that the already extended Islamic extremist activity is likely to continue whether or not the US adopts a more aggressive policy in Syria/Iraq. But it would seem from the comments above by McMaster and Tillerson in particular, and from the reduced military activity under Obama, that the US is not ready to involve itself to a greater extent in the Middle East. By contrast, Trump’s order to move a naval force to the Korean peninsula indicates he remains active internationally.

It would be wrong to expect that Trump could quickly restore the US’s traditional international role after the setbacks under Obama and in the light of the difficulties he is having in forming a new government, not to mention the media hostility he faces and his own personality defects. But it appears his major appointments in foreign and defence policy are adopting a sensible initial approach to the many problems the US faces. Trump himself is also showing signs of adopting a more balanced approach and of recognising that international relations involves more than “making a deal”. Fingers crossed.

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