What might President Trump’s defense policy look like? We have few solid facts to go on. But one is of overriding importance: because Trump is anti-establishment, military reform would at least be a possibility. So long as the establishment is in power, it is not. In defense as in everything else, establishment leadership means more of the same.
In the case of Hillary Clinton, not only does that mean more wasted money, it means more wars, wars we will lose. Hillary is a wild-eyed interventionist. She gave us the Libyan fiasco, and had Obama been fool enough to listen to her again, we would now be at war on the ground in Syria. The establishment refuses to see the limits of American power, and it also refuses to compel our military to focus on war against non-state opponents, or Fourth Generation war. The Pentagon pretends its future is war against other states. The political and foreign-policy establishments pretend the Pentagon knows how to win. They waltz together happily, unaware theirs is a Totentanz.
Under Trump it is likely the dance would be interrupted. He has repeatedly questioned American interventionism. He roundly condemned the idiotic and disastrous Iraq War, which suggests he would rather not repeat the experience.
Of equal importance, he has called for repairing our relationship with Russia. Were he to do the same with China, what states could the establishment and the Pentagon puff as threats? North Korea? Trump has said he would sit down and talk with them as well. Might he be able to make a deal? Of course. Few dictatorships want to commit suicide.
This leads to the most important grand strategic question: might a Trump administration see the need for an alliance of all states against non-state forces? Here we have a clue: Trump has chosen as a defense advisor—the rumor mill says shadow secretary of defense—retired Army general Michael Flynn. It was an excellent choice. Flynn was forced out for attempting to reform the Defense Intelligence Agency, which has been dysfunctional for decades, in part because the Pentagon insists that it inflate threats. (I recall a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in the 1970s where the DIA testified; Sen. Sam Nunn turned to Sen. Gary Hart and said, “Well, now that we’ve heard from the DIA, we know what isn’t the case.”)
Not only is Flynn oriented toward reform, he has written about Fourth Generation war, using the term. Among senior U.S. officers, that is both rare and heretical. 4GW does not justify big-ticket programs such as the F-35 fighter/bomber and its trillion-dollar price tag.
This points to another likely aspect of a Trump administration’s defense policy. Trump is a businessman. Businessmen do not like wasting money. They want efficiency. They cut bloated staffs, fire incompetent executives, and get rid of unnecessary contractors. Capitalists do not care much for Soviet-style planned economies, and the Pentagon now runs the largest planned economy in the world.
Quite apart from grand strategy, a businessman-led housecleaning of the U.S. military could save hundreds of billions, money Trump might want to put into a national infrastructure-repair program, which would generate more jobs than does defense spending. Cutting our bloated mid- and senior-grade officer corps at least in half, firing most of the contractors, showing the door to major generals who cannot tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin: all these would be signature Donald Trump moves.
Above all, President Trump would want a military that can win. At present, against Fourth Generation enemies, ours cannot. It has been beaten four times: Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. That sort of losing record is not likely to make Donald Trump an admirer. On the contrary, it suggests he would arrive at the Pentagon broom in hand. Secretary of Defense Flynn could take that broom and sweep out the trash that must go if we are to win: the outdated doctrine (except the Marine Corps’), the dysfunctional personnel system that rewards courtiers and careerists and forces out officers with strong character, the programs that fund weapons for yesterday’s wars.
In the end, it may be this simple. Trump wants to win. Winning requires military reform. If that is all President Trump understands about the Pentagon, it will be enough.
William S. Lind is the author, with Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, of the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook.