Every U.S. president since the beginning of the last century has
waged wars. Little suggests that Donald Trump will be the exception.
On the contrary, right from the start of his time in office, his core
message has been he is "a winner" and will lead America to new
victories, combined with war and building up the military. Two weeks
ago, Mr. Trump explained what has to happen to make America great
again. "When I was young, in high school and in college, everybody
used to say we never lost a war. America never lost. And now we never
win a war," he said. "We have to win. We have to start
winning wars again."
Win wars? Didn’t Mr. Trump take every opportunity to criticize his predecessors’ failed wars in the Middle East, claiming they had only made everything worse there? What does it mean that he now wants to "win" wars himself? This week, Mr. Trump gave substance to his military ambitions with a radical re-allocation of the national budget. Defense spending is to be ramped up by ten percent ($54 billion) to "rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America." Mr. Trump plans to pay for the new tanks, aircraft carriers and nuclear bombs by slashing spending on diplomacy, international organizations, foreign aid and climate protection by up to 40 percent. Despite the fact a lot of blood was shed, before anybody realized that a lack of conflict prevention can bring about the need for intervention.
Angela Merkel will be meeting with this man, who is spending so much on the U.S. military, this coming Friday on her first official visit, originally postponed. In Washington, the German chancellor and the president will make an attempt at trans-Atlantic normalcy. It will go something like this:. Merkel will affirm that going forward Germany will spend more on its military and Trump will, in turn, perhaps say something nice about NATO.
But there is something more basic at stake here. For Mr. Trump, strength is an end unto itself. The military must be given the tools to win wars. The most expensive and cutting-edge weapons systems are an expression of national strength. Strength, in turn, translates into power and power into winning. That is a departure from strategic thinking since the Vietnam War. In fact, most generals see the causes of conflict coming from unresolved political discords, problems that can seldom be solved by force.
Among America’s wars this last century were heroic engagements to save civilization, like the two world wars, "humanitarian" missions as in Kosovo and in Libya, ideological wars against the spread of much-feared Communism in Vietnam, or against Islamist terrorism in Afghanistan – and, time and time again, blatant imperialistic interventions, such as those in Latin America. It is not only the justification for war but also the methods used to wage them, that have changed: From wars between nations to covert special operations, from asymmetrical, anti-guerrilla wars to Mr. Obama’s secret drone war, waged remotely across continents.
When Donald Trump says America used to win wars when he was young, his memory is deceiving him. The last big war America won with glory and fanfare was World War II against Germany, and it ended a year before Mr. Trump was born. War changed after that and with it, winning and losing. France found that out in the First Indochina War, from which the colonial power withdrew, humiliated, in 1954. The USA floundered and failed twenty years later in the same place, in Vietnam. It was a war against a guerrilla organization that fought without declaring war or capitulating. In the end, the Americans gave up.
The asymmetrical war became a pattern for many conflicts: Major powers waged war against small, less powerful states, but had to give up in despair. The Soviets had an experience like that in Afghanistan. The Americans in the very same place, and in Iraq after 2003. The new variety of war isn’t aimed at a decision but at exhaustion, in an endless loop. The war in Syria has now been going on as long as World War II, the conflict in Afghanistan twice as long. Such conflicts cannot be ended by military means. As Henry Kissinger, who was the U.S. secretary of state for many years, observed during the Vietnam War, "The conventional army loses, if it does not win. The guerrilla wins, if he does not lose."
Mr. Trump’s pronouncement of wanting to win again could be put to the test in three possible areas. The conflict over North Korea’s nuclear program is facing a possible escalation; in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism, Mr. Trump has vowed he will "eradicate completely" the Islamic State "from the face of the earth"; and against Iran, he has threatened to revoke the nuclear agreement; the consequence could be an attack on the enrichment plants.