Trump will be a hawk (probably)

Over at War on the Rocks, Benjamin Friedman of the CATO institute has presented a very good argument for why we should expect Trump to be a hawk. Among other good points he writes

I bet that the power of the status quo will make Trump into more of an establishment hawk. Keep in mind that something similar occurred with Presidents Bush and Obama. As a candidate, George W. Bush was skeptical about nation-building. After the September 11 attacks generated broad support for wars and subsequent nation-building efforts, he became their champion. Obama campaigned on his opposition to the Iraq War before retaining most of Bush’s security policies, including the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, while expanding the war in Afghanistan and drone strikes. Though Obama became a critic of the foreign policy establishment’s “playbook,” he struggled to escape its conventions.

I agree with everything he says but want to add that the most convincing reason I expect Trump to be a hawk is because of the “power problem“. This is the irony that the more military hardware a country has at it disposal, the more tempted the leadership will be to use it, including for non-strategic reasons. This can paradoxically result in less security. As Benjamin notes, both President Bush and Obama entered office skeptics of nation building. Yet both ended up doing just that. The power problem is especially problematic if the one given the options to use hard power has no clear foreign policy orientation prior to office. This included both President Bush and Obama. This would also include Trump.

Madeline Albright demonstrated the power problem succinctly when she asked Colin Powell “What’s the point of you saving  this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?”

To answer the former Secretary of State I would suggest Iraq.

But we didn’t learn our lessons in Iraq, apparently. The United States had no strategic reason to invest in the Libyan uprising yet still engaged in one of the most juvenile uses of force since 2003. In an attempt to prevent war crimes against civilians, the United States and its NATO allies ended up creating a failed state. Not only does this create typical security problems associated with a failed state, it also erodes any credibility the United States will have when dealing with future hostile regimes and their weapon programs.

So we have a President-elect who is famous for his thinskin assuming command of a military tool box that is both quantitatively and qualitatively superior to anything else. For example, the United States has roughly 13,000 military aircraft. China and Russia have 2 to 3 thousand each.  The US 7th fleet’s principle aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, was christened in 2001. The only Chinese aircraft carrier is a refurbished former Soviet vessel. These sorts of lopsided comparisons could continue all day, and even those who lament the reduction in military spending acknowledge

The United States has the best military in the world today, by far. U.S. forces have few, if any, weaknesses, and in many areas—from naval warfare to precision-strike capabilities, to airpower, to intelligence and reconnaissance, to special operations—they play in a totally different league from the militaries of other countries.

Donald Trump campaigned, at times, as someone skeptical of foreign adventurism. But I would expect that after he has been instructed on the vast array of military tools at his command, he will be tempted to use them in ways that are not clearly linked to defending American sovereignty. Keep in mind that the use of force in Libya wasn’t our first choice. It was unfortunately a situation without any real good response from the United States so when all other tools failed and the opportunity presented itself, the United States resorted to employing hard power to address internal governing problems of a foreign state with a tribal culture.

In 1966, Abraham Maslow observed that “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”  I don’t want to suggest that the only tool the President has is a hammer. But I do think that when problems with no good solutions arise, like 2011 Libya, and other options fail, like diplomacy, sanctions, or soft power, the easy access to so much military power makes resisting it too difficult.