President Trump could have looked at some of these conflicts and said they were a misuse of American power. But instead he is looking to find bigger upsides. More dramatic raids were launched under Trump in Yemen with the stated goal of obtaining better intelligence. U.S. operations in Iraq have recently become more deadly, too. A series of strikes in Mosul against the Islamic State resulted in as many as 200 civilians killed. That number of civilian deaths is more reflective of the kind of strikes taken during the height of the Iraq War than anything since the Bush administration’s surge wound down. Looking at the number of air strikes versus the number of reported fatalities, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald concluded that the Trump administration is liberating the military from already loose rules of engagement in these conflicts.
Top national security advisers are going to urge Trump to expand U.S. involvement in Somalia, and give greater discretion to local military personnel in choosing and carrying out missions. Defense Secretary James Mattis will advise the administration to increase its military involvement in Yemen in a war against the Houthis, a Shia Muslim group that revolted against a Sunni-dominated Yemeni government that had been in the pocket of neighboring Saudi Arabia. The administration and the press both portray this as a move that would “signal” a more aggressive intention toward Iran, a country whose involvement in Yemen is barely substantiated.
President Trump could reject this advice and pursue an updated version of his America First foreign policy. But the nature of the presidency seems to militate against that. Trump’s two predecessors each campaigned on having a humbler, more peaceful foreign policy and became more hawkish in office. And presidents naturally start to drift toward finding accomplishments in foreign affairs as Congress blocks or botches their agenda at home.