- Trump launched cruise missiles in Syria
- And the military dropped a “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan
In just the last week, the rookie commander in chief has presided over the use of some of the most powerful weaponry in the US arsenal, sending a signal that he is one President who relishes ordering the use of deadly force. It’s clear that he believes Washington and the rest of the world are watching.
First, Trump dispatched Tomahawk cruise missiles to slam into an airfield belonging to President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government forces, to punish what the US says is their use of chemical weapons. On Thursday, the military dropped one of its most powerful non-nuclear bombs — a 21,600-pound behemoth — over a warren of ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan. Afghan officials said 36 militants were killed in the strike.
Both actions can be justified by solid military rationales and fall into the context of mainstream foreign policy goals — namely deterring the further use of some of the world’s most heinous weapons in Syria and a desire to halt the spread of ISIS into another failed state, even as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria.
But the White House also knows that the use of such eye-catching force has a political impact: Both in the United States, where Trump is politically beleaguered; and overseas, where foreign governments are trying to work out how Trump will wield US power and military might.
The President described the use of a device dubbed the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan as “another successful event,” basking in his role as commander in chief — though preserving some mystique about the strike by declining to say whether he had personally signed off on the operation. He left open the question of whether it was conducted under widened authorizations that have freed up the Pentagon’s room for maneuver since he took over from President Barack Obama.
But he appeared to be quite content if his willingness to deploy some of the most powerful ordinance in the US military’s inventory was interpreted by some US enemies as evidence that he was ready to use force to carry out his threats — toward North Korea especially, which is apparently making final preparations for a new nuclear test.
“It doesn’t make any difference if it does or not. North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of,” Trump said, referring to the Stalinist state.
The President pointedly noted that the expanded authority that he has given the military since taking office had led to an escalation in the pace of operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere.
“What I do is authorize my military,” Trump said at the White House, before comparing the proactive use of force by his own White House with the way the military was handled under Obama.
“Frankly, that is why they have been so successful lately, if you look at what has happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what has happened over the last eight years, you will see there has been a tremendous difference,” he said.
Sources told CNN that Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, actually signed off on the use of the bomb and that the White House was informed before the bomb was rolled out of a MC-130 aircraft high over Afghanistan.
But that distinction is unimportant for political purposes, as the White House seeks to position Trump as a strong commander in chief to satisfy the yearnings of supporters who viewed the Obama administration’s public arguments and self examinations over the use of force as effete. A sense that Trump is an activist President keen to deploy military force could alter the calculations of other great powers — for instance China, as it works out how to respond to Trump’s demands to do more to rein in its ally North Korea.
But supporters of the former President will likely chafe at Trump’s stagecraft, given that Obama was also a war leader, who presided over a ruthless drone war against al Qaeda, and ordered the high-risk raid that killed Osama bin Laden and deployed the US military in an air war in Libya.
Democrats also however find themselves walking a fine line between seeking not to criticize their commander-in-chief over military action but questioning the rationale for his decision to do so.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, accused the White House of staging military operations overseas to alleviate the President’s poor domestic political standing.
“What concerns me most is the fact that what is driving foreign policy is actually our domestic policy,” Speier told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”
The California lawmaker also questioned whether Trump was clearly thinking through the use of force and explaining his rationale to Americans.
“I am very concerned that the President is basically taking little responsibility, offering it up to his military when he is the commander in chief,” she said. “He isn’t necessarily front and center evaluating it then speaking to the American people and what his plans are.”
Another top Democrat also suggested Trump was letting the military intensify wars abroad on autopilot.
“I, too, want to know if the President authorized this — now he doesn’t have to authorize everything the military does, but he should certainly be involved when we escalate the weapons used,” said Eric Swalwell, a Democratic congressman from California who serves on the House intelligence committee.
“We can’t just bomb our way to national security,” Swalwell told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead,” calling for details on whether any civilians were killed in the airstrike and whether the Afghan government was involved.
There was no such reticence from Republicans as the sight of a GOP president flexing military power offered a rallying point with a White House that has often had tense relations with its own party on Capitol Hill.
“I hope America’s adversaries are watching & now understand there’s a new sheriff in town,” wrote Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham on Twitter.
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe also praised the detonation of the MOAB, saying it “sends a clear message that the United States is committed and determined to defeating ISIS and other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan.”