Giving the Military More Money Won't Make It Win More

The fallacy at the heart of the new defense budget

Trump delivers remarks aboard the pre-commissioned U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford.
Trump delivers remarks aboard the pre-commissioned U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Donald Trump’s military policy is a win-win proposition: The United States will win, and then it will win some more. Last week, the White House released its proposed budget, which calls for $639 billion in defense spending—a $54 billion increase from 2017 levels—along with massive cuts for diplomacy and foreign aid. Congress is likely to amend these plans, but they nevertheless signal how the administration views defense policy.

A core tenet of the emerging Trump doctrine is that more military spending will translate into victory on the battlefield. According to the president, “We have to start winning wars again. I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war, remember? And now we never win a war.” In a speech earlier this month to sailors onboard the USS Gerald R. Ford, a newly built $13-billion aircraft carrier, Trump promised: “We will give our military the tools you need to prevent war and, if required, to fight war and only do one thing. You know what that is? Win. Win! We’re gonna start winning again.”

To sum up: more big-ticket hardware like the Gerald R. Ford—in Trump’s words, “a monument to American might”—means more winning. We might term this philosophy: Tweet loudly and carry a big stick.

In a sense, the president’s vision of swift martial triumph is as American as apple pie. The traditional American way of war is based on using firepower and high technology to destroy enemy countries on the battlefield. General Douglas MacArthur—who Trump once praised as an ideal general to fight ISIS—famously declared, “there is no substitute for victory.” At the same time, the president’s fixation on collecting “wins” is pure Trumpism.

Will extra military capabilities allow the United States to march into what Winston Churchill once called the “broad sunlit uplands” of victory? It’s the $54 billion question.

To start, what does it even mean to “win” a war? Success is not about blowing things up, or conquering battlefields and seeing the enemy flee. Success is about achieving political goals. This means deciding who governs and how. It means attaining a consolidated victory, or a stronger peace where national interests will be protected in the long term. During the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States and its allies won the early battles. But in every case, the countries became destabilized and dueling militias and insurgents arose. As a result, Iraq was a grave debacle, Afghanistan is teetering on the brink of failure, and Barack Obama described the collapse of Libya as his worst mistake.

Will the new budget give the U.S. military the tools to win? The story of the last 70 years is that American military power doesn’t translate into victory. Up until World War II, the United States had a tiny peacetime army (in 1939, the U.S. Army was ranked 19th in the world in terms of size, just after Portugal’s), but it won almost every major war. After 1945, Washington became a military colossus and it endured a string of failures and stalemates in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. During the height of the Vietnam War, for example, Washington estimated that it spent $9.60 to cause just one dollar of damage to the enemy.

U.S. military strength was ineffective after World War II because global warfare shifted from interstate wars, or wars between countries, to civil wars. Today, about 90 percent of conflicts are internal, including in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked: “Think of where our forces have been sent and have been engaged over the last 40-plus years: Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and more. In fact, the first Gulf War stands alone in over two generations of constant military engagement as a more or less traditional conventional conflict from beginning to end.” In the last decade, little changed, as Washington sent forces to battle ISIS in civil wars in Syria and Iraq.

In the new era of internal conflict, victory wasn’t about who had the biggest guns, or even who killed the most troops. What mattered in the fight between regimes and rebels was legitimacy and commitment. Successful counterinsurgency required a multifaceted approach, and a range of military, economic, and diplomatic tools. At the same time, the very nature of a “win” became much murkier. Forget about surrender ceremonies in Tokyo Bay. Instead, defeated insurgencies would fade away over years and decades.

Greater defense expenditures can help the United States intervene more effectively in complex civil wars. For example, foreign advisory programs can improve the performance of allied soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere—which is critical because Trump is continuing Obama’s policy of relying on indigenous partners to do much of the fighting on the ground against extremist groups. Similarly, cultural and language training can help narrow the gulf of ignorance when U.S. soldiers enter politically and socially alien environments like Iraq. And Special Operations forces are central to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts in an era where there’s little appetite for deploying a large military footprint.

But Trump has shown little interest in enhancing capabilities at counterinsurgency or nation-building. Indeed, the proposed budget slashes spending on the State Department (by 28 percent), foreign aid, UN programs, and peacekeeping, which are central to stabilization missions. Instead, Trump wants more big ships and F-35 war planes. In other words, the White House intends to pour resources into capabilities designed for the least likely scenarios, like a naval showdown with China, rather than the most likely scenarios, like battling terrorists and insurgents.

Greater U.S. military spending could even produce more American defeats if it tempts Washington into unwise interventions. Power can trigger hubris and lure the United States into distant lands. At the height of America’s post-Cold War strength, a senior adviser to George W. Bush remarked to a reporter: “We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Achieving more military wins is less about spending money, and more about tailoring U.S. capabilities to the current and future threat environment. Of course, Washington needs sufficient conventional strength to deter China, Russia, and Iran. But given that Trump’s proposed defense increase ($54 billion) is close to Russia’s entire annual military budget ($52 billion in 2015), this is not at risk. The danger is that Washington will abandon its capabilities for preventing war and stabilizing foreign societies, in favor of military might. Winning also means focusing on ultimate strategic success in wartime, and not being guided by the kind of overconfident illusions we saw in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. And most of all, winning means picking and choosing America’s wars more carefully, and using force as a last resort. In 2013, James Mattis told Congress: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”