The Trump Administration Dealing with Multiple Crises

Sam Gardiner, Colonel, USAF (retired)


The Administration does not have a strategy.  That’s a common refrain, but it misses the mark.  The more fundamental problem is that the Administration does not have good objectives.


Strategy is about how you achieve objectives.  When you don’t have good objectives, you can’t have a good strategy.


North Korea is the most striking example.  What is the President’s objective?  Both in his tweets and in his public statements, he refers to North Korea as a “problem.”  He says he will solve the problem.  He says he wants help from China to solve the problem.  What does that mean?  The closest we have gotten to a statement of objective came from the General McMaster on one of the recent Sunday news programs.  He said that the President’s objective is to make the Korean Peninsula non-nuclear.


Saying the United States is working eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons is saying that our objective is to eliminate the regime.  It is a fantasy to believe that the regime there would give up its ultimate regime protecting weapons.  We would have to take them by force.  The consequence would be a war with the fifth largest military in the world.  The consequence would be a war in which chemical artillery shells would be fired into Seoul with over a million casualties.  It would mean a war in which forces would have to move into the north taking control of the country.


We have seen some other indications of objectives, reporting that the United States has preemptive options for a new North Korean nuclear weapons test or a launch of one of its long-range missiles.  The options suggest the United States is after stopping nuclear tests or missile tests.  Does this indicate the objective?  Is this the problem we are looking to China for help?


What is the U.S. objective for NATO?  From the speeches of cabinet members and from the Presidents statements, there seem to be two objectives. To get the nations of the Alliance to get their defense spending to 2% of GDP and to get a commitment to dealing with terrorism.


President Trump is now saying that NATO is not obsolete because it does terrorism, despite the fact that terrorism has been on the NATO agenda for decades.


When the President had meetings the NATO Secretary General, he made no references to the growing threat of Russia to the countries of the Baltic States or Poland.  In the speeches given by the Voce President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense they talked about general support for NATO and underlined the need for countries meeting the 2% objective, but there was no mention of the threat of the growing conventional capabilities of Russia.


There has been no mention of the Russian violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces nuclear agreement.  There has been no mention of the conversion of the forces facing NATO from brigades to divisions.  There has been no mention of the Iskander missile system in Kaliningrad.


So, the United States objective in Europe is to get more funding and to get NATO into dealing with terrorism?  Others in NATO see other important objectives, such as deterring a conventional attack by Russia, as important.  It’s an objective mismatch.


Turning to Syria, what are our objectives there?  One of them is fairly clear and a path can even be seen to achieve it.  We want to eliminate ISIS.  So far, so good.


What about regime change in Syria?  Here a lack of clarity stands out.  Earlier, statements indicated that the United States had no immediate objective of getting rid of Assad.  More recently after the chemical attack, we have heard there can be no peace in Syria as long as Assad is in power.


The Secretary of State went to Moscow after the G-7 meeting saying that the objective was to get Russia and Iran to give up support of the Assad regime and align with the West. 


As with the North Korean objective, this is fantasy.  Although it is only one component Moscow and Damascus have signed an agreement that gives the Russian a major port at Tartu.  The port agreement provides for handling nuclear powered Russian ships, gives permissions for a repair facility and allows the stationing of offensive weapons there.  Russia is not going to walk away from this major achievement,


In the first semester of a strategy course, one learns that strategy flows from objectives.  In the second semester one learns that objectives also stem from capabilities.  You shouldn’t have objectives that are beyond your capabilities.  In the second semester one learns that you don’t have an alliance or coalitions without shared objectives.


Yes, the Administration does not have a strategy or strategies for the major crises, but my own sense is that it first must be clear with objectives.  It needs to get that right soon.