In 2016, candidate Trump promised to “Make America Great Again.” Part of that promise was to strengthen the US military and give them additional support, while withdrawing them from needless battles without a clear goal.
How has Trump done in the last four years? The fact is that it is a mixed bag. Trump is drawing down US forces in the Middle East despite serious opposition in the US military bureaucracy, including senior military officials lying to Trump about force levels in the Middle East. It appears that by January 20th, 2021, there will only be token forces remaining in the Middle East. Biden can decide to increase forces in the region, but at his own political risk.
But there is more to the current role of the US military than deployment levels in the Middle East. There has been a push to engage them in domestic politics. Several months ago, Democrats leaders asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff if they would help in removing Trump, if necessary. The answer was that the US military had no constitutional role in domestic politics. Likewise, Trump attempted to get the military intervene against protests in many US cities.
But there is more. The character of the military has changed dramatically for a career soldier in the past 30 years. It is frequently said today that someone like General George S. Patton, one of America’s most honored soldiers, would never made General – or possibly even field officer grade (major to colonel).
60 years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the “Military Industrial Complex.” And his warning has come true. A large part of the “Swamp” that Trump talks about is found in the Pentagon, which has a massive budget. Trump has discovered that there is a big difference between the soldier patrolling Kabul and a general sitting in the Pentagon. The egalitarian military where officers and the enlisted hold the same values is long gone.
Although the US military is strong thanks to technology and the large American economy, it is quite different today than it was a few decades ago.
Leadership begins with the officer corps and that has changed dramatically.
While the enlisted may have common American type values, officers have learned that being politically correct is more important than military skills. This attitude led to several sloppy collisions at sea by US naval vessels. People who did not have adequate training were allowed to command and “drive” the ships because they met political goals.
Consequently, skilled officers who are capable of fighting are likely to leave the military after their original obligation is up. They are in great demand in the private sector, especially with companies with defense contracts.
Those who remain are less capable, but more politically correct and better able to direct the bureaucracy. The result is a military that is better capable of fighting the White House than a Russian armored corps.
This bureaucracy of military officers who received their promotions to flag rank under previous Presidents were the ones that dealt with Trump. And Trump soon learned that these bureaucrats were masters in delaying, misinterpreting, and ignoring his orders. As a result, Trump was eager to fire or force out a number of senior military officers who failed his loyalty test or follow his orders even though, according to the Constitution, the president is the Commander in Chief.
Recently, Ambassador Jim Jeffery admitted that they lied to Trump about force levels in Syria. “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey admitted in an interview. It was “a lot more,” than the 200 that Trump agreed to.
The Pentagon advisors say keeping US forces in the region will limit Iranian influence from growing – even though it was the Bush invasion of Iraq, that was most responsible for increased Iranian influence in Iraq
The unwillingness to withdraw the troops per Trump’s order led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Mattis.
Another change that has impacted the use of the military was Obama’s decision to focus more on Special Forces. The increased use of Special Forces kept deployments of US forces secret (which benefited that hiding information from Trump) and avoided the public announcements of the deaths of American soldiers. Special Forces also seemed to accomplish more with less manpower and “fewer boots” on the ground in foreign countries.
The problem is that US Special Forces are not a special as they once were. During the Vietnam War, when the US military was vastly larger than it is now, Special Forces numbered a couple of thousand. Today, Special Forces number about 70,000, even though the size of the military is much smaller.
To increase the number of Special Forces, shortcuts were made in training. People who would have failed to make it into the Special Forces in past years were given more chances to pass. The result is a diluted force that costs more to train and support. It also has a higher risk of failing to successfully complete a critical mission in the future.
Another problem is that these trained soldiers frequently leave the military after their enlistment is up and then sign on with a private contractor to provide some of the same services as they did in the Army, but for much higher pay.
Meanwhile, training for regular Army and Marine combat forces suffers; just as poor training led to ship collisions a few years ago.
The Trump Military in 2020
Although Trump wanted to increase the military’s capabilities, he has fought a bureaucracy that focuses on “toys” instead of combat capability. For instance, the Marine Corps has announced that they will be eliminating their tank force and start focusing on high tech and lighter weapons – this at a time when the role of a main battle tank has become more important as friction and the possibility of conflict between NATO and Russia has increased.
One reason is the “Industrial” part of the “Military Industrial Complex,” that Eisenhower warned about, includes some of America’s largest companies, does not focus on soldiers, but equipment. This equipment is made more attractive because these companies hire retiring senior officers, who lobby their former colleagues to buy the latest high-tech weapon.
The result is that the US military has incredible capability to launch high tech weapons for highly visible, quick strikes. Cruise missiles, aircraft strikes, and Special Forces operations are the mark of an American attack. However, as seen in Iraq today, the regular forces ability to stop low tech rocket attacks by Iraqi anti-American forces supported by Iran is limited.
This is what is limiting Trump’s response towards Iran. Trump appears to be willing to carry out a strike against Iran to limit its ability to quickly develop nuclear weapons. But can the military withstand the Iranian response?
Although the New York Times said that the Pentagon had to talk Trump out of a more aggressive option against Iran, the truth is more mundane.
Trump had asked for a list of options that he could take after international inspectors had reported a significant increase in Iran’s stockpile of nuclear materials.
Trump had thought about a preemptive attack against the Iranian facilities because it could take place before January 20, 2021 and such an attack would make it harder for Biden to reenter into the Iranian nuclear agreement.
This was not the only option for Trump. Some of the options included the aforementioned cruise missile attack on the nuclear facilities, attacks on Iranian “assets” in Iraq, and large-scale cyber-attacks on facilities like Natanz.
The problem with launching large scale cyber-attacks is that they take time to set up (more than the few weeks until January 20th) and they could be cancelled by Biden after he takes office.
There are reports that the missile attacks have been taken off the table. Iranian leaders had threatened a “crushing response” to any such attack.
There is also the possibility that Israel will be given a free hand to respond – something that Biden may be willing to accept.
If not, Israel has warned it could act on its own should Biden move to restore conditions of the Iranian nuclear deal. Tel Aviv has warned that Iran will continue to advance its nuclear weapons program.
So, what are the likely options? It appears that US military leadership is not eager for a strong response towards Iran.
Actions against Iranian supported forces in Iraq like missile, drone, or aircraft attacks seem to be the likely option. There is also the possibility of a covert Israeli cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, with US assistance front-loaded so a Biden administration cannot pull back.
Meanwhile, expect continued American military withdrawals from the region. These include Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria. This is one area where Trump has kept his campaign promises - except for some small numbers in the region that remain because Pentagon officials disobeyed orders. Compared to the numbers of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan when Trump came to office, 2,500 men is a minor number.
Biden should be careful in listening to Pentagon advice in the future. Unless he keeps a careful eye on Syria, his generals could put him in a position where he is confronting Turkey or Russia.
Americans have grown tired of the perpetual war in the Middle East that began in 1991. Biden must be just as careful, as Trump, that the “Military Industrial Complex” does not take charge of Biden’s Middle East policy.