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Going Off the Rails?

Trump risks a big backlash if he reneges on his campaign promises.
train wreck

Four issues got Donald Trump elected president: immigration, free trade, political correctness, and the quest for American world hegemony along with the wars that it spawned. If he is to be reelected, he must deliver on all four.

Unfortunately, on the fourth issue, wars of hegemony, it appears his young administration is already going off the rails. Instead of an innovative foreign and defense policy, what we have seen so far is more of the same. Soon after his first appointments in these areas, we saw his officials race around the world to assure our allies that nothing would change. Those allies are holdovers from the Cold War, and their value is now questionable—especially if, as President Trump promised, we are going to seek better relations with Russia.

During his campaign, the president also said that most of our allies are freeloaders, which they are. We have committed to go to war for them, but they offer little in return. Most of their militaries are suited only to the parade ground, and a small parade ground at that; the entire German Army now has only 225 tanks. It would have trouble taking Luxembourg.

President Trump was the antiwar candidate, but we hear nothing from his White House about ending the wars in Afghanistan or, more broadly, the Middle East. Go ahead and defeat ISIS, at least in the sense of preventing it from holding territory. But what then? Wiser Fourth Generation entities, or non-state forces, such as Hezbollah, will operate within hollowed-out states rather than attempt to become a state. And ISIS, like al-Qaeda, is merely one head of the Fourth Generation hydra. How do we preserve the state system itself in the face of the challenge Fourth Generation War poses?

The key to answering that question is first Russia, then China. Alliances with both are necessary to present an effective front against Fourth Generation War. Unlike our current allies, both have large and capable armed forces. The unique element of candidate Donald Trump’s foreign policy was its promise to reach out to Russia, seeking good relations at the least and perhaps even a formal accommodation. Where is that idea now? The Trump administration has taken anti-Russian positions at the UN and elsewhere. The absurd sanctions on Russia over retaking Crimea, historically a part of Russia, continue.

None of this adds up to the new foreign and defense policies we were promised but rather to the old counterproductive policies of the Republican establishment. We are to continue the Cold War, regarding Russia and China as rivals; keep on spending and dying in the Middle East, apparently until doomsday; and lay out a trillion dollars a year on a military that usually loses. Both military reform and a new grand strategy aimed at the Fourth Generation threat have died aborning.

Why? What has led President Trump to surrender to the establishment on foreign policy without even a fight? Several theories are in circulation. One is that the president is less comfortable with foreign-policy and defense issues than with domestic policy, knows he can’t do everything, and is tired of media screams that he is going to blow up the world. He has therefore turned foreign and defense policy over to Vice President Pence, who is an establishment thinker, likely under the influence of neoconservatives. One would think that that bunch’s spectacular failures under President George W. Bush would have forced them out of town. But that isn’t how Washington works. Repeated policy failure is no bar to political success, especially if someone has access to gobs of money, as the neocons do.

Another theory is that the White House has determined that the so-called deep state makes any real policy change impossible. All the Trump people think they can do is try to expose the deep state in a long-term effort to delegitimize it. If this is true, there are some facts behind it. The deep state—a conglomeration of federal employees, contractors, business allies on Wall Street, and essentially anyone who benefits from the status quo—is powerful in both foreign and defense policy circles. To talk about military reform is to threaten the single largest honey pot on earth. The status quo in foreign policy—which is to say a quest for world hegemony, for Jacobin ideas of democracy and “human rights”—has tremendous ideological backing within the State Department and much of the rest of the government, the media, and academia. Even for a president who enjoys saying, “You’re fired,” these are hard nuts to crack. 

But if Mr. Trump is to have a successful presidency, he must find a vise for cracking them. Turning foreign and defense policy over to the Republican establishment guarantees more failures of the kind we know all too well. We will start new wars, then lose them. If those wars are with either Russia or China, the scope of the defeats could be historic. We will pour more trillions of dollars into the sand. And the non-state forces of the Fourth Generation will grow, spread, and win.

At home, by failing to deliver on one of his four most important campaign pledges, President Trump will weaken himself. He won the election because enough people voted against the establishment, both its Republican and Democratic wings, and those voters will not turn out again if he merely puts the Republican establishment in power. To the contrary, those voters will again seek someone who is anti-establishment, this time with the seriousness and persistence to fight the establishment and win. President Trump’s success in the 2016 primaries will bring such people into the fray. And the president will, in the end, get trumped.

William S. Lind is the author, with Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, of the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook.



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