Fourteen months ago President Trump took office. During his campaign he ran on a platform that suggested a considerably more aggressive stance on national security, while at the same time insisting on a narrower focus on American interests. The days of nation building, it seemed were at an end. The days of squandering blood and treasure abroad were gone.
Beyond that exactly what this new approach to national security would be was unclear. As we slide into the second year of the Trump Administration it remains just as murky. While there is certainly a considerably more aggressive tone to the rhetoric coming from the White House than there was under President Obama, how actual policy differs often remains unknown.
The announcement of the selection of Ambassador Bolton, a noted neocon, as the new National Security Advisor only adds to the level of confusion. Aggressive, nationalistic rhetoric aside there appears to be a tremendous amount of space between the positions espoused by Candidate Trump and the policies with which Ambassador Bolton has been identified. Meanwhile, across the globe, we continue to stumble forward, following generally the same trajectory we have for the last decade, without a coherent, unified explanation of our objectives and strategy.
In the years after our invasion of Afghanistan we transformed what had originally been a narrowly focused military and intelligence operation tied to regime change into a poorly conceived, ruinously expensive exercise in nation building. Seventeen years on we appear to have lost enthusiasm for that mad undertaking and elected not to continue to dedicate the resources necessary to sustain it.
What exactly has replaced this original plan, however, remains unclear. The US military has been given long overdue latitude to prosecute combat actions against the Taliban. We have made noises about demanding more cooperation from the Pakistanis in exerting pressure on fighters using their territory as a safe haven. These may well be necessary actions, but they are tactics only. The broader questions of why we are in Afghanistan, what we hope to achieve and how we intend to achieve it remain unaddressed. There is, in short, no coherent strategy, and this applies around the world in a host of locations.
In Iraq we have for many years now remained blind to the central truth that Iran was transforming the nation into a client state. Focused purely on the military objective of defeating ISIS, we ignored the explosive growth of Iranian funded and controlled Shia militia. Those militia now number in excess of 120,000 men. Formed originally on the pretext that they existed only to fight Sunni extremism, those militia are not disbanding or going away. On the contrary, their leaders are now demanding that US forces leave Iraq and threatening to attack our troops if we do not comply.
What our plan is for preventing the transformation of Iraq into a province of Iran remains unknown. Whether or not there is any such plan, beyond simply hoping that it does not happen, is just as mysterious. How our policy in Iraq fits with any overarching national security strategy, assuming there is such a thing, is unstated. We drift forward, focused on tactical goals, while the overall objective and the plan for achieving it are nowhere in sight.
Syria is perhaps the most perplexing situation of all. We have found ourselves to a place wherein we do not appear to be acting to achieve regime change, but we do not appear to be standing aside either. We have thousands of troops inside Syria, assigned to isolated and exposed positions and in close proximity to a bewildering array of hostile or potentially hostile forces, Syrian,Hezbollah, Russian and even Turkish.
That we will act aggressively to defend these troops is unquestioned. Russian mercenary forces learned that the hard way earlier this year when they rashly decided to move against American forces in Syria.
What our forces are in Syria to achieve is unknown. Their mission is typically described as being a counterterrorist one, but it has clearly expanded well beyond that to the support of Syrian and Kurdish elements that remain focused on toppling Assad. As elsewhere, we make tactical decisions daily and rotate forces regularly, but nowhere is there a clear statement of an end game or the plan for achieving it.
After eight years of the weak-kneed foreign policy of Barack Obama and his spineless Secretaries of State, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, a more assertive tone from the White House is most welcome. Loud rhetoric and aggressive military action on the ground, however, do not substitute for a coherent national security strategy. Nor do they answer the fundamental questions about how a Trump Administration differs in its approach from that of George W. Bush, who so catastrophically entangled the United States abroad without any clear articulation of our goals or our plans for achieving those goals.
Ambassador Bolton's wide experience and intellect are certainly welcome additions to the White House team. What exactly his selection means for our policy going forward, remains, like so many other things unclear at this stage. We can hope that it will result in the articulation of a well conceived national security policy and an explanation of how that strategy fits with the idea of a narrower focus on America's national interest. In the meantime, however, we continue to search for clarity in an increasingly murky world.