Speaking at a casual campaign event mid-July, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Tim Scott takes in .3 million in third quarter MORE (R-S.C.) shared a story about President Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis, which he said he heard from Trump himself.
Per Graham, Mattis called Trump early one morning “asking permission to send 50 of our soldiers into a village outside Raqqa,” the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria. “Why are you calling me? I don’t know where this village is at,” Trump responded, according to Graham. “Well,” Mattis said, “that’s what we’ve done for the last 8 years.”
In Graham’s telling, this anecdote is evidence of how Trump “is gonna win this war” by deferring to the military on points of strategy. The South Carolina senator is correct that this is Trump’s intention: The president has consistently favored military advisers; delegated tactical decisions to Mattis, a retired general; solicited the input of active-duty troops on foreign policy; and given commanders expanded authority to launch operations and airstrikes without his specific approval.
There is some wisdom in this. Trump’s business background makes him a foreign policy novice, and soldiers who have personally participated in the United States’ seven active wars may be able to offer insight foreign to those with no such on-the-ground experience. Perhaps most valuable in that unique perspective is a certain prudence, an intimate understanding of the high cost reckless foreign policy can exact. Former President Eisenhower, himself a five-star general, tapped into this reservoir when he condemned “war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
But there is a danger in this “Trumpian” reliance on military advice, too.
When you have a hammer, as the old canard says, everything begins to look like a nail — and the United States military is the largest, most capable, and most expensive hammer in the world. If Trump continues to prioritize and indeed defer the military as the guidepost of his foreign policy, he will tend to receive military answers to problems that demand more varied solutions. Herein lies real danger to American security interests.
This dynamic was on display last week in comments from Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who on Saturday publicly pushed for serious consideration of U.S. military intervention in North Korea. “Many people have talked about military options with words like ‘unimaginable,’” Dunford said. "I would probably shift that slightly and say it would be horrific, and it would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes, and I mean anyone who's been alive since World War II has never seen the loss of life that could occur if there's a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.”
"But as I've told my counterparts, both friend and foe," he continued, "it is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korean nuclear capability. What's unimaginable to me is allowing a capability that would allow a nuclear weapon to land in Denver, Colorado. That's unimaginable to me. So my job will be to develop military options to make sure that doesn't happen.”
It is important to realize what Dunford is saying here. He is not describing military readiness to defend the United States in the event Pyongyang shoots a nuke at Denver. He is talking about preventive war, a military intervention of the United States’ initiation.
The only wisdom in these remarks is Dunford’s admission that such a war would be “horrific.” Mattis has rightly predicted a "catastrophic" outcome in a preventive attack on North Korea with "the worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes." These descriptions are, if anything, an understatement of the risks — nuclear strikes, chemical and biological warfare, major power conflict with China, and more — associated with following Dunford’s advice.
And North Korea is far from the only foreign policy question that has for too long been considered through a military-first lens. The United States is overdue for a grand strategy rethink, one that moves away from policing the world and elevates diplomacy and mutually beneficial trade to develop sustainable, stable relationships abroad. As Mattis and a host of other retired generals have argued, neglecting these fundamentals of statecraft to default to military intervention does not effectively defend vital U.S. interests.
For too long, Washington has relied on force over conversation, recklessness over restraint. It has misused American economic leverage and run roughshod into regional conflicts that are not our concern. If the last 16 years of foreign policy missteps and morass have shown us anything, it is that the hammer cannot be our favorite tool.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.