“When I was young, in high school and college,” Donald Trump recalled today while meeting with governors from around the country, “everybody used to say, ‘We never lost a war’. You remember.” Now, Trump says, “we never win a war. We either got to win, or don’t fight it at all.”
That philosophy, Trump argued in his remarks, is why he’s proposing a $54 billion increase in defense and security spending in the FY2018 budget. That reverses several years of “sequestered” defense spending, amounting to a 10% boost:
— Fox News (@FoxNews) February 27, 2017
We don’t win wars any more? That’s not really the problem; we win wars, but lose the peace, from a lack of commitment on follow-through. We defeated Iraq in 1991 handily, despite Saddam Hussein having the fourth-largest military in the world, but then let him off the hook and allowed Hussein to stay in power, betraying the Shi’ites who trusted us to remove him. We defeated Hussein again twelve years later and captured him, but didn’t commit enough forces to pacify the country. We won the “surge,” thanks to the development of the counter-insurgency doctrine of David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster, but retreated too soon and too fully before we ensured pacification, betraying the Sunnis and Kurds in the process. We’re on the same trajectory in Afghanistan, thanks to an unwillingness to admit to the scope of the effort needed to keep the Taliban out of power after our initial victory over them. George Bush made reference to those retreats, all during the Obama administration, in his interview with Matt Lauer on Today, although the national media missed it.
The issues with military budgets are both acute and long term. The acute issue is that we have exhausted our reserves in both manpower and materiel over the last fifteen years. We need fresh supplies of both if we are to wage an effective war at all, let alone the one in front of us from radical Islamist terror networks, including ISIS. We also need to reverse a decline in Navy resources to face the potential threat of a rising China. We have been on a “peace dividend” footing ever since Bill Clinton took office, and it’s time to recognize once and for all that history didn’t end with the Soviet Union’s collapse.
That’s the long-term strategic issue for military budgets, though: just what is our mission after the Cold War? Do we want to stay caught up in the 100 Years War over the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Versailles settlement of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse? (There are good reasons to do so, as long as we understand that’s what we’re doing; Colin Dueck’s defense of Seb Gorka offers a tangential defense of that strategy at NRO.) If so, we’ll need a bigger military, and we’ll have to start sacrificing other priorities to fund it. If not, we need to find a way to get out of the Middle East for good while protecting global trade, a responsibility that has largely fallen to the US over the last several decades. Trump campaigned while signaling more a trend to the latter, but wants to crush ISIS, too. At some point, the US has to make a choice between the two long-term missions — but for now, the acute issues matter most.
“We either got to win,” Trump says, “or don’t fight it at all.” The latter may not be the worst choice, but it will require a large paradigm shift from policies supported by both political parties since World War II. Perhaps after this budget cycle, we’ll see the Trump administration take that long-term doctrine up.