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Trump Owns These Quagmires: Despite Being Skeptical about Foreign Entanglements, He’s Getting America Bogged down Overseas

A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner

As North Korea’s nuclear weapons continue to dominate the
headlines, President Trump has quietly sunk the United States ever
more deeply into a series of foreign policy quagmires. In Syria,
Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, the United States is trying
to influence the course of civil conflicts that have nothing to do
with the United States and little to no impact on America’s
national security.

None of these situations will end soon, nor will any of them end
well for the United States. That this is happening with a new
commander-in-chief who as a candidate urged America to get smart
about foreign engagements is ironic but hardly surprising.

The “quagmire strategy,” as we’ll call it, has
four main elements.

First, the White House embroils the United States in a civil
conflict with no end in sight and often without any “good
guys” to support.

Second, leaders define success in political terms that America
has neither the power nor the willpower to achieve.

Third, the U.S. uses military force and military aid which
destabilizes the nation, amplifies the conflict, and fuels higher
levels of terrorism.

Finally, political leaders complain that America cannot leave
because the conflict has not ended and other intractable problems,
like terrorism, have grown.

The occupations of Iraq
and Afghanistan have failed to prevent the rise of the Islamic
State or the resurgence of the Taliban, and both nations suffer
from more terrorism and political conflict than ever.

The administration’s announcement that it will keep troops
in Syria in order to influence future political settlements
represents the most recent evidence of Trump’s pursuit of the
quagmire strategy. This strategy makes little sense given the fact
that Bashar Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, has only grown
stronger. It makes even less sense now that the Islamic State
— the initial reason for being there at all — has been
sent fleeing.

Afghanistan provides another example. Despite his initial
qualms, Trump decided to surge 5,000 more troops into Afghanistan,
bringing the total to 14,000 alongside 25,000 or so civilian
contractors.

Ostensibly designed to increase pressure on the Taliban, there
is little hope for success in light of Obama’s failed (and
much larger) surge in 2009. Instead, Trump’s surge will
result in U.S. casualties and billions of dollars added to the
debt, while doing nothing to move Afghanistan closer to a political
resolution.

The quagmire strategy has spread across the Middle East, where
Trump has increased the number of troops and civilians by 33%. The
United States supports Saudi Arabia and their murderous
intervention in Yemen’s civil war, bombs the militant group
al-Shabab in Somalia, while in Iraq there is still no end in sight
to the U.S. commitment that began in 2003.

Nor are those nations likely to be the last quagmires the United
States jumps into: Libya remains at war with itself ever since the
NATO intervention in 2012, with three rival factions seeking
control, one of which is allied with Islamist fighters.

The quagmire strategy leaves much to be desired. Most obviously,
it does not work. Research shows that foreign-imposed regime change
rarely produces positive results, while studies of civil war show
that external intervention often simply prolongs conflicts.

America’s experiences over the past 16 years confirm the
research. The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to
prevent the rise of the Islamic State or the resurgence of the
Taliban, and both nations suffer from more terrorism and political
conflict than ever.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the quagmire strategy
is how Trump has managed to entangle the United States ever more
deeply without any real public debate. Not only has the Pentagon
shied away from revealing the complete numbers of troops serving
abroad, Congress has also abdicated its role as a counterbalance to
the White House.

Trump’s strategy rests on the same 2001 Authorization to
Use Military Force that President Bush used after 9/11.

Legally, the existing AUMF does not provide anything close to
the authority assumed by President Trump and President Obama before
him. Politically, the fact that the United States is waging war
around the world without full transparency or Congressional debate
and authorization is a stain on our democracy.

In a tragic irony, it seems that the President does not
understand the path he has charted. In a recent tweet, he spoke of
“bringing peace to the mess I inherited in the Middle East. I
will get it all done, but what a mistake, in lives and dollars (6
trillion), to be there in the first place!”

If Trump indeed believes it was a mistake to engage in all of
that military intervention and nation building as part of the war
on terror, someone might want to tell him how much further down
that road he is taking the country.

A. Trevor
Thrall
is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Defense and
Foreign Policy Department and associate professor at George Mason
University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Erik Goepner, a
retired colonel from the U.S. Air Force, is now a visiting research
fellow at the Cato Institute.