After Crippling The State Dept, Trump Gave Himself Only Two Choices: Bomb Syria Or Do Nothing
Trump Administration’s Attitude Towards the State Department
Syrian forces bombed a town in a rebel controlled section of Syria this week, killing at least 86 people and injuring as many as 546 more. In the aftermath some of those injured and killed in the attack were taken to hospitals across the border in Turkey. There, Turkish doctors preformed autopsies and other tests which showed “patients were exposed to chemical material (Sarin).” This is not the first sarin attack by the Assad regime on its own people, an earlier attack in 2013 also used the gas and was the cause of significant diplomatic pressure from the U.S. State Department and others resulting in a UN Security Council resolution requiring disarmament. In response to the current attack, President Trump talked with reporters aboard Air Force one, saying:
“I think what Assad did is terrible. I think what happened in Syria is one of the truly egregious crimes. It shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen, I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. He’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen.”
President Trump was down at Mar-a-Lago over the weekend along with Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. They discussed potential US responses. Back in 2013 President Trump urged then President Obama not to attack Syria, but recent events appear to have changed his mind. With President Trump saying Thursday that the chemical attack had “crossed a lot of lines for me,” and adding, “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
The Obama administration considered launching cruise missiles as a response to the earlier gas attack in 2013, but instead decided to work with Russia to push for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and manufacturing equipment. This agreement was one of the many diplomatic missions undertaken by the US State department under Secretary John Kerry. With a sidelined State Department, President Trump had no diplomatic options available to him and so late Thursday launched approximately 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military target in the region. The decision to use such levels of force was previously debated and rejected in 2013 by Congress. The President’s unilateral action is a marked shift towards military intervention and has raised a whole host of domestic and international questions of legality.
President Trump had no diplomatic options because he does not have a functioning relationship with the State Department. True, what was once the diplomatic arm of the US government still exists on paper, for now, but it’s heart, soul, and mission have suffered over the last few months. In an article in The Atlantic over a month ago, one State staffer described the current situation.
“I used to love my job,” she said. “Now, it feels like coming to the hospital to take care of a terminally ill family member. You come in every day, you bring flowers, you brush their hair, paint their nails, even though you know there’s no point. But you do it out of love.”
There was a purge of senior State Department officials about a week after the election and President Trump’s federal hiring freeze has added to the holes in the State Department’s organizational chart and prevented the department from filling them. But the US State Department is a massive organization and these staff losses have not yet crippled it, far worse has been the neglect. Besides the appointment of Secretary Rex Tillerson, the Trump administration has had little to no public interaction with the State Department.
Government is a translation of policy into actions. Traditionally the President and Secretary of State conceive of a foreign policy centered around an idea of America’s role in the world or a specific region and then the State Department implements it. Secretary Tillerson has had little impact or direction to give to the department. He had not been allowed free reign in staffing, but more significantly he seems in agreement with President Trump’s idea of a diminished role for the State Department. The Atlantic interviewed several current and former State Department Staff concerning Secretary TIllerson’s first day.
“He only spoke of reform and accountability,” said one State Department staffer. “He offered no vision of America and its place in the world.”
Lack of a clear foreign policy and dialogue between the Trump administration and State means that no marching orders have been given to the multitude of State Department officers on the ground in countries all over the world. Other countries interact with these officials and it is from these interactions that the focus and direction of the US is understood. Without direction, said one mid-level State officer “we’re sending signals that are potentially damaging the relationship in ways we can’t anticipate.” Our State Department is slowly driving other countries insane as they attempt to find patterns and policy in actions where in fact none may exist.
To make matters worse are the proposed budget cuts to the State Department and the fact the Secretary Tillerson is not fighting them. For those of you who do not work in government I cannot stress enough the importance of budgets. Budgets are documents that express priorities, how much you fund a program directly relates to how important you think it is worth. President Trump has proposed a 37% cut to both State Department (State) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding. Such a proposed reduction is a clear signal of how much he and his administration value the mission of those agencies and the work they do.
Our Priorities in Budget Form
USAID and State, along with the Department of Defense (DoD) make up the three legs of the Foreign Policy triad and are often called ‘the three Ds’ by those in Washington. Defense, Development, and Diplomacy. Together these three branches are the parts of the Federal government that face outward into the wider world. The DoD budget falls under foreign policy because, while training occurs here, the DoD is not involved in any operations on US soil. According to the DoD, it’s mission requires
“fostering an international environment in which critical regions are stable, at peace, and free from domination by hostile powers; the global economy and free trade are growing; democratic norms and respect for human rights are widely accepted”
So how does the US international budget break down?
Quick fact: The average American thinks we spend 31% of the Federal budget on foreign aid and only 3% know the correct amount. The entire State Department and USAID budgets, what are traditionally thought of as foreign aid, total a mere 1% of spending. $5.8 billion of that is money we give to other countries like Taiwan and Israel so they can buy weapons. Foreign policy experts in Washington love to hold up these statistics and point out how poorly educated the majority of Americans are about how much money we spend overseas, but perhaps they miss the point.
19% of the Federal budget (which does not include all anti-terrorist activities of other agencies) goes to international programs, these being Military spending (14%), Veterans’ Benefits (4%), and International Affairs (1%). The perception of average American turns out to be correct in that we do spend a significant portion of our budget on international actions, just not quite allocated in the way they think. President Trump’s new budget actually raises the amount of money we spend overseas. He proposes cutting ~$11 billion from State/USAID while adding $52 billion in military spending, an approximately 7% increase in total international spending.
Diplomacy and Development: The Art of The Deal
It does not appear as if President Trump, at least according to his budget, is planning on reducing the role America plays in the world. What the President’s attitude and budget have made crystal clear is that he does not approve of negotiation, economic stimulus or diplomacy as forms of US foreign action. Looking at the numbers for how the foreign policy triad is funded, defense currently gets 92%, diplomacy 4.5%, and development (including weapons sales) 3.5%. Under the President’s proposed budget, diplomacy and development would be rolled into one category with defense getting 96% and development/diplomacy the remaining 4%. Past administrations prioritized military spending over the other two legs of the triad as well, but this administration’s budget shows that it believes development and diplomacy play little to no role in America’s international presence or actions.
Returning to Syria, let us examine what effect the administration’s contempt for development and diplomacy has. Without a functioning State Department or USAID, the President had only two responses to the events in Syria: ignore ‘em or bomb ‘em. You can see this pattern play out in administration’s earlier response to the launching of yet another missile by North Korea in early April. “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.” This statement from Secretary Tillerson treats the situation as if there are only two options, do nothing, or implied military action. Is dialogue really not an option with North Korea? Reaching a point where action is necessary does not mean that diplomacy or dialogue ceases. In a way, this statement of Tillerson’s is as close to doing nothing as is possible. The gas attack is Syria required a response, so doing nothing was off the table and the only course available to the President was to respond militarily.
My point is not that launching missiles right or wrong, but that the current administration did not have any option of using development or diplomacy as possible solutions because their actions and budgets prove they do not see either as valuable tools. Each problem requires the proper tools, and the military is a poor and ineffectual answer to many, if not most, of the international incidents our country faces. In addition development and diplomacy are also essential for follow through after any military action. Having a robust and well funded State department gives the US an array of options when it comes to foreign policy, and allows us to respond more appropriately and effectively with a long term context in mind.
Our military responses are complicated by the fact that the DoD does not wage war anymore; not the way Clausewitz thought about it as “politics with other means”. Consider this paper of Major. Shephard published by the US Army War College in 1990.
War is an extraordinary undertaking designed to achieve an extraordinary political object. It usually ends in what passes for victory or defeat. On the other hand, a police force usually operates continuously — reactively and proactively — to respond to this or that disturbance and to reduce crime in its precincts to some acceptable level. Its victories are typically small and ephemeral-an arrest today on this beat, a crime tomorrow on that.
Shephard goes on to specify that the US military acts as an international police force especially when it wages war against drug cartels and terrorists. The tactical complexities of such operations put the modern politician at a disadvantage and require them to surround themselves with generals.
Thus, [statesmen] tend to rely more on military experts for advice, and there is a tendency to consider certain matters of war “purely military” and others “purely political.” This false dichotomy increases the difficulty modem statesmen face in integrating military with political objectives and ensuring that war is a true instrument of policy.
Our national experience with the opioid epidemic has shown us that police enforcement alone does not work to solve problems such as this at home, so how can the military — our international police — solve similar problems abroad by itself? The ability to perform precision strikes on drug cartels, tyrants, or terrorists is essential to waging the wars we currently fight, but most drug users are not cartel members, and most sufferers of tyranny and terrorism are not complicit in those actions. Non-police actors such as development and diplomacy are necessary to follow through after the precision strikes and build relationships that sustain the politically desired change with individuals and groups some of whom do not deserve to be on the receiving end of American weapons and others who will not respond to those weapons.
One of my friends once told me a story about how her dad disciplined her with a belt when she was a kid, just once. He then proceeded to hang that belt on a hook in her closet so she could see it every day. Her parents always tell me how well behaved she was after that. I take a pointed lesson from this story: the threat of force is far more effective than the application. People must believe you will follow through on your threat, but if you have to follow through and apply force you have failed. Police officers understand this intimately and militarily we know that simply bombing only produces further resistance and eats away at what little relationship existed.
We need a State Department because we need more options and the ability to work with these leaders, countries, and communities on a daily basis to address issues and implement policies far beyond the narrow scope of military action. Police actions are always directed by civilian authorities so as to restrain them from becoming acts of war. A robust State Department would provide the context and direction for military action, ensuring that the threat of force remains effective, and that any applications of force are in line with the stated political goals and ultimately in the best interest of all parties involved.