When critics argue that Donald Trump is an exceptionally reckless commander in chief, they tend to highlight how the American president deviates from the norm.
By issuing “diplomatic pronouncements” on Twitter and pronouncing actual diplomats irrelevant, Hillary Clinton says, Trump poses “a clear and present danger to our country and to the world.” Trump, the Republican Senator Bob Corker warns, acts “like he’s on a reality show” and “doesn’t realize that we could be heading towards World War III with the kinds of comments that he’s making” about foreign policy, which should be left “to the professionals.” “We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear-weapons strike [against North Korea] that is wildly out of step with U.S. national-security interests,” Corker’s Democratic colleague Chris Murphy recently cautioned during a Senate hearing. In the same hearing, a former Defense Department official testified that he “would be very worried about a miscalculation based on the continuing use of [Trump’s] Twitter account with regard to North Korea.”
Trump, Murphy told me not long ago, “has shown an enthusiasm for military force against North Korea in his Twitter account that is extraordinary.”
But if danger is crudely measured by how many people die in military conflicts as the result of a president’s policies, the dangers posed by Trump’s atypical behavior remain hypothetical at the moment. Leaving aside his genuinely unprecedented moves in trade and diplomacy, the wars that Trump is currently commanding were initiated by his predecessors. He has not (yet) started new conflicts with foes like Iran or North Korea or radically transformed existing ones. When it comes to the real use of military force, rather than the tweeted kind, Trump has acted rather like a “normal” U.S. president—only more so, as he’s escalated some conflicts he inherited. And yet it’s his abnormal actions, which so far haven’t killed anyone, that seem to scare his detractors most.
This intense focus on the discontinuities in Trump’s handling of foreign policy has eclipsed debate over the continuities; ruptures in style often obscure the enduring substance of problematic policies. When, for instance, four U.S. special-operations soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger, the political circus surrounding Trump’s calls to the soldiers’ families sucked up most of the attention—not the wisdom of continuing the Obama-era policy of sustaining so many low-grade, far-flung counterterrorism campaigns that Congress can’t keep track of them all.
Likewise, in more aggressively prosecuting the Obama administration’s battle against jihadist groups, the Trump administration has helped uproot ISIS from its last strongholds in Syria and Iraq, crippling the world’s most notorious terrorist group and thereby saving an unknowable number of lives in the United States and around the world. As a consequence, however, civilians and U.S. troops in the region are dying in greater numbers. The political scientist Micah Zenko noted this summer that “in Iraq and Syria, at least 55 percent of all civilians killed by airstrikes since the air war began in August 2014 have died under Mr. Trump’s watch.” (U.S. military officials argue that they have taken great care to conduct the most “precise air campaign in the history of warfare” and that ultimately the best way to protect civilians is to defeat the terrorists holding them hostage.)
When The New York Times recently reported that the U.S.-led coalition’s airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq are inadvertently killing civilians at a much higher rate than the coalition claims, no one went on television or held hearings in Congress to denounce Donald Trump as dangerous. Nor was there much of an outcry in the United States this past summer when civilian casualties mounted as the United States and its allies went on the offensive against the Islamic State, or this past spring when more than 100 civilians perished as a result of a U.S. bombing in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The alarms that sounded after Trump’s threat to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea have largely stayed silent as innocent Syrians and Iraqis have fallen victim to American firepower.
In August, after Trump announced a plan to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, as Barack Obama and George W. Bush had done before him, Zenko pointed to a jump in Afghanistan of “70 percent more civilian casualties from American airstrikes in the first six months of 2017 than in the first half of 2016.” And he emphasized the risks of “standard operating procedure in Washington,” asserting that Trump was accelerating trends that predated his presidency. “Mr. Trump proudly proclaimed ... that ‘we are killing’ terrorists. He has certainly tried. Every country the United States was bombing when he entered office has seen a sharp increase in the number of bombs dropped since Inauguration Day. But he is also killing unacceptably high numbers of civilians,” Zenko wrote. “Rather than committing to block the pathways by which individuals adopt jihadist ideologies and become attracted to terrorist groups, policy makers of both parties try the same military policies over and over.”
Trump, of course, has been in office for less than a year. The consequences of what he’s done thus far haven’t yet come into focus. He is indeed taking big risks with his subversive approach to international affairs. His freewheeling war of words with Kim Jong Un could morph into an actual war on the Korean peninsula, whether by choice or by accident. The ways in which he has enfeebled the State Department, left vacant ambassadorships across Asia and the Middle East, and publicly humiliated his secretary of state—all while stressing America’s military power—could make conflict more likely in the world’s most volatile regions.
But it’s also worth keeping in mind that more traditional approaches to foreign policy carry their own grave hazards. Consider the worst foreign-policy blunders of the two men who preceded Trump.
Bush secured support from the government bureaucracy, the public, and Congress for the invasion of Iraq, which went on to spark a war that has killed an estimated 200,000-plus people to date (mostly civilians), contributed to the emergence of ISIS, and effectively dissolved a country.
Obama obtained the backing of U.S. allies and the UN Security Council for a NATO military mission to protect Libyan civilians from a threatened massacre by Muammar al-Qaddafi during the Arab Spring. Perhaps that move saved countless civilian lives—we don’t know. But we do know what happened next: Qaddafi was killed, the rebels and their NATO partners triumphed, and Libya collapsed in part because the United States and its UN and European allies neglected the land they had helped liberate. Today Libya stands in political and economic ruin, deprived of basic governance, riven by fighting between rival militias, and hospitable to human smugglers and jihadist groups. Obama has cited the lack of international follow-up to the Libya intervention as the worst mistake of his presidency. Privately, as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported, Obama labeled Libya a “shit show.”
If Trump’s aggressive dealings with Kim Jong Un are making war between two nuclear-weapons states significantly more likely, it’s hard to overstate the risks of that approach; millions could die in such a conflict. But in evaluating the Trump administration’s policy on North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, it’s also important to keep the aggression in perspective. While it’s astounding and unsettling to see the president of the United States call North Korea’s leader “short and fat,” no one died in the making of that tweet. Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea, recently told me that he thinks past American presidents were too “gentle” with North Korean leaders and Trump’s unpredictable tactics are actually keeping North Korea’s provocations in check. Han Sung Joo, a former South Korean foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, told me that Trump’s tough rhetoric, which he interpreted as the president “expressing his views at the moment” rather than the “result of serious strategic thinking,” has succeeded in pressuring China to do “a little more” to isolate North Korea.
The Trump administration “has handled things in a ... measured and firm way that will prevent North Korea from miscalculating,” Han argued. “I do not know if it is wise to push North Korea to the extent they feel they have to react in a non-peaceful way. But North Korea has shown some degree of restraint as far as deeds are concerned, although their rhetoric has also been quite blustery.”
“The most important thing is not to make the situation worse,” he continued. “We can’t expect to resolve the problem in a short period of time. But we have to patiently work on it while all the time maintaining deterrence and defense capabilities, and that the United States [under Trump] has done.”
“So far,” Han noted, “the present U.S. administration hasn’t really made any major mistakes.”