Can the COINdinistas Save Iraq from Trump? By Zach Abels, Lawfare
“We have to start winning wars again,” President Donald J. Trump exhorted on February 27. Days later, aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford, he pledged to “give our military the tools you need to prevent war and, if required, to fight war and only do one thing. You know what that is? Win. Win! We’re gonna start winning again.” The irony is tragic and comedic, in equal measure. In mid-March, Trump released a 2018 budget blueprint that would deprive the military of the exact tools he promised them. He seeks to cripple the civilian agencies—the State Department, USAID, and the United States Institute of Peace—that consolidate combat success into political victory.
The president’s budget betrays alarming national-security parochialism: Military power divorced from diplomacy cannot win conventional wars. In “small wars,” killing is even less decisive.
America’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq laid bare the limits of the military instrument. Vicious, resilient insurgencies waged by the Taliban, Iran-backed Shia militias, al-Qaeda in Iraq and, later, the Islamic State have imprinted haunting images on the American psyche.
Trump rode those very waves of fear and angst into the White House. The public’s hunger for closure pales in comparison with its thirst for blood. Over and over again, Trump bewitched voters with promises of consigning the Islamic State to the fires of hell. “You gotta knock the hell out of them,” he said at an Iowa campaign rally in January 2016. “Boom! Boom! Boom!” But evicting insurgents from their strongholds will not suffice. At this rate, an embarrassing jihadist comeback looms inevitable. The president can’t afford for the next jihadi group to take root on his watch. Remember when candidate Trump accused Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of cofounding the Islamic State? The attack ads would write themselves.
If Trump were to succeed in budgetarily castrating the civilian agents of U.S. foreign policy, he would harm national security. In Iraq, where the administration has escalated the fight against the Islamic State, he would render the triumphs of servicemen and women fleeting. Killing bad guys is not enough. Without a concerted strategy of security, diplomacy and development, sectarian violence will once again engulf Iraq. Déjà vu of the worst kind—the kind that sucks U.S. soldiers and dollars right back in.
No White House official is more keenly attuned to this dystopian fate than National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. “H.R. knows firsthand the value of diplomacy in bringing conflict to a conclusion favorable to the United States, at the minimum possible cost in lives and dollars,” retired Lt. Col. John Nagl told me. “H.R. knows that in his bones.” A warrior-scholar of the highest repute, Nagl is unencumbered by chain of command. “It must gnaw at his innards,” he said of his friend, “that the administration he is serving is attempting to do this kind of damage to institutions that are so important to the security of our great nation.” He was uninterested in mincing words: “These ideas are asinine.”…