Paul Pillar

Trump's Muddled Military Messaging

What is most important in the end is not only the message and the risk of escalation but a belief in the minds of the leaders of the other state that our own leaders consider the issue at stake to be so important that they are willing to fight a bigger war over it.  But that is not true of the civil war in Syria.  The United States simply does not have that kind of stake in its outcome, which is why the Obama administration wisely did not immerse the United States in that civil war.

With North Korea, the prospect of nuclear weapons atop long-range missiles represents high stakes, but so do all the other dimensions of that problem, including the danger of sparking a new Korean War, that have made the issue a difficult puzzle for all the U.S. administrations that have had to deal with it.  Once the Vinson finally gets to the vicinity of Korea, as we are told that it will, what exactly could its aircraft do that would make sense given this panoply of U.S. interests and hazards to those interests?  It is hard to answer that question, and it is hard also for Kim Jong-un to answer it.

Underlying not just the Trump administration’s attitudes but also a larger discourse in the United States about military message-sending is the recurrent tendency, especially among those cheering neocons, to believe that lashing out militarily anywhere in the world buys the United States some kind of leverage or influence with regard to issues anywhere else in the world.  It doesn’t.  That is simply not how international reputations and credibility work.  What matters is the strength of interest that the United States has in any one issue, along with its ability to communicate to others how strong that interest is.

Donald Trump may not be a neocon, but he clearly is inclined toward the lashing-out-wins-points approach rather than careful issue-by-issue consideration of where U.S. interests do and do not lie.  And the lashing out also satisfies whatever internal demons sustain his eruptive nature.  He already had Twitter for sending out angry messages.  Now he also has cruise missiles and other military hardware for sending such messages.  His use of the latter may show some of the impulsiveness he habitually shows with the former.

Image: The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the Pacific Ocean in May 2015.