The President appears to have decided that the US needs to leave Syria as soon as possible. This decision caught his national security and foreign policy team flatfooted. It really isn’t a change in US policy as I’m not sure anyone could actually articulate this administration’s policy in regard to Syria. When the President gave his campaign speech on foreign and national security policy in 2016, I wrote that he had articulated the Trump Doctrine, which is: “America will be treated fairly or else…”.
The President’s meandering remarks in his April 2016 speech touched on a number of his long standing national security and foreign policy beliefs: America’s allies are taking advantage of our treaty and other obligations in the national security space; America’s allies and peer competitors are ripping the US off through our trade agreements; the US should go it alone if it can’t renegotiate better deals; and only a President Trump could guarantee that the US would be treated fairly – or else. That only a President Trump could guarantee that the US would be treated fairly, whether in national security arrangements or global trade, was simply an extension of one of the major, if not the major theme of his campaign: Donald Trump would be treated fairly or else and only Donald Trump could guarantee that Americans, especially the forgotten men and women as he phrased it, would be treated fairly or else.
That the US will be treated fairly or else, and that only a President Trump could guarantee that happening became the central, unifying them of his national security and foreign policy approach was actually a stroke of strategic communication genius. A significant amount of the President’s initial strategic communication approach was through tying his primary opponents, the Republican National Committee, and the broadcast and cable news networks in knots about treating him fairly. This included trying to get Megyn Kelly removed from debate moderation after he felt she treated him badly, as well as actually dropping out of a GOP primary debate on Fox News and holding a competing charity event for veterans because he did not like that Fox wouldn’t comply with his demands. And if they failed to do so he’d deal with them harshly. Then candidate Trump threatened his fellow primary opponents and the RNC by making it clear that if he didn’t feel he was being treated fairly by them, then the or else would be his running as an independent candidate, thereby splitting the Republican vote for president, and handing the election to the then presumed Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton.
By making this the dominant theme of his national security and foreign policy approach, he was able to make a singular through line for his campaign – “I, Donald Trump, will be treated fairly or else by the GOP, the RNC, and the news media; only I, Donald Trump, can guarantee that you the forgotten men and women of America are treated fairly in regards to both domestic politics and foreign policy; and only I, Donald Trump, can guarantee that the US will be treated fairly or else there will be serious and severe repercussions for the GOP, the RNC, the news media, elected and appointed officials, and America’s allies, partners, and peer competitors”. Here was the simple through line to connect Make America Great Again both domestically and internationally by placing America first. It is also the essence of the real Trump Doctrine: President Trump and by extension the forgotten men and women of America, as well as America itself, will be treated fairly or else.
The President, and his preferences as enumerated in the Trump Doctrine, are now in conflict with the reality of the wicked problem that is the Syrian Civil War and the US led coalition fight against ISIS.
Trump’s words, both in public and private, describe a view that wars should be brutal and swift, waged with overwhelming firepower and, in some cases, with little regard for civilian casualties. Victory over America’s enemies for the president is often a matter of bombing “the s— out of them,” as he said on the campaign trail.
For America’s generals, more than 17 years of combat have served as a lesson in the limits of overwhelming force to end wars fueled by sectarian feuds, unreliable allies and persistent government corruption. “Victory is sort [of] an elusive concept in that part of the world,” said Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who led troops over five tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Anyone who goes in and tries to achieve a decisive victory is going to come away disappointed.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis echoed that point in late November when he outlined an expanded role for U.S. forces in preventing the return of the Islamic State or a group like it in Syria. “You need to do something about this mess now,” he told reporters. “Not just, you know, fight the military part of it and then say, ‘Good luck on the rest of it.’ ”
His remarks reflected a broader Pentagon consensus: In the absence of a clear outcome, winning for much of the U.S. military’s top brass has come to be synonymous with staying put. These days, senior officers talk about “infinite war.”
“It’s not losing,” explained Air Force Gen. Mike Holmes in a speech earlier this year. “It’s staying in the game and . . . pursuing your objectives.”
The Army recently rewrote its primary warfighting doctrine to account for the long stretch of fighting without victory since 9/11. “The win was too absolute,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Lundy of the old document. “We concluded winning is more of a continuum.”
LTG Lundy is the Commanding General of the US Army Combined Arms Center (CAC) at FT Leavenworth. As the CAC Commander he oversees doctrine for the US Army. Unfortunately US Army doctrine is pretty silent on what winning or victory means. So is joint doctrine. I spent all morning going through the DOD Dictionary, Joint Publication 3-0/Joint Operations, TRADOC Pamphlet (PAM) 525-3-6/The US Army Functional Concept for Movement and Maneuver, TRADOC Pamphlet (PAM) 525-3-1/The US Army Operational Concept: Win in a Complex World, and the 2015 National Military Strategy in an attempt to find a definition of win, winning, and/or victory. The only two documents that included a definition, or something close, where in the endnotes of PAM 525-3-1/The US Army Operational Concept: Win in a Complex World and in the body of the previous administration’s National Military Strategy.
The dictionary defines “win” as: to be successful or victorious in (a contest or conflict). Winning in this concept is meeting the policy objectives of the Commander in Chief. It refers to more than simply defeating threat forces; it means meeting national goals and objectives that are unique for each operation. The joint commander must define success for each operation (or campaign) based upon the national goals and objectives, which may change, based on conditions during the operation
We are prepared to project power across all domains to stop aggression and win our Nation’s wars by decisively defeating adversaries.
The President’s senior military and national security advisors don’t have much to work with in trying to help the President, or any president, define successful termination of hostilities, especially for the ambiguous low intensity, irregular, asymmetric, and unconventional wars that the US has been involved in over the past seventeen years or so. We’re not talking about an interstate war, with two or more state combatants fighting in identifiable uniforms, where victory is achieved when one side in the conflict has either been rendered incapable of continuing to fight or has made the decision that it cannot endure any more pain as a result of a continuation of hostilities. Whether the US and its allies ever participate in that type of war again is an interesting question that is discussed in military and civilian classrooms, as well as in other forums, but it is not the reality we are in and expect to be in any time soon.
This ambiguity regarding what successful combat operations, let alone victory, looks like in the early 21st Century Operating Environment (OE), and the US military’s acceptance of it, is running head first into the President’s preferences, specifically the Trump Doctrine. The President has made it clear he wants the US out as soon as we finish reducing ISIS’s physical foot print. And he wants the Saudis and the Gulf states to pay for reconstruction and reconciliation efforts in the US led Coalition liberated areas within Syria.
Unfortunately, ISIS’s actual center of gravity isn’t the amount of physical terrain it holds. Rather, it is its extreme theology and doctrine of tawheed – the radical unity of the Deity. The US, its coalition partners and allies, including the Syrian Kurdish militias we are training, equipping, and assisting in our by, with, and through strategy against ISIS, aren’t really fighting for terrain. Or to kill or capture as many ISIS fighters and officials and supporters as possible. What they are really fighting is ISIS’s theology and doctrine. This is the strategic target. Trying to decisively measure success in combatting the spread and acceptance of ideas is very, very difficult. As is killing them. It is very hard to stop the signal. This creates a very unpleasant reality: the inability to create actual strategic measures of effectiveness in the fight against ISIS, which is really the fight against ISIS’s doctrine.
Finally, simply taking our personnel and equipment and going home once the physical caliphate has been reduced is only going to help reset the conditions for either ISIS to make a comeback or for something new and likely equally dangerous to rise from its ashes. Defeating ISIS means defeating the conditions that led to its creation – the economic despair, the social inequality, the despotic rule of the Assads, the sectarian divisions – which can only be done through reconciliation and reconstruction. There isn’t a lot of room in here for the US to be treated well in exchange for doing this. It is largely thankless. It is not a mission to achieve decisive victory on the battlefield. These operations are much more similar to the Marshall Plan, which is how we secured the peace in Europe after World War II. It is a longer term, ambiguous mission to work by, with, and through our local partners to manage and mitigate significant social, political, economic, and religious problems and disputes in an attempt to prevent ISIS’s reemergence or the emergence of something even worse. Failure to do so will simply see the US and its Coalition allies and partners back in the Levant once again conducting kinetic operations as refugees stream out of a region that becomes more unstable leading to more loss of life on all sides. The US’s actions in Iraq from 2003 through 2011 helped to set the conditions for the rise of ISIS. Taking responsibility for that reality and working by, with, and through our local partners in Syria and Iraq to manage and mitigate it is a moral responsibility. It is not, however, a matter of being treated fairly or an opportunity for turning a profit.