Concern about the perilous state of American national security and, in particular, the situation in the Persian Gulf has been exacerbated by the alleged Iranian attacks on international shipping and, more recently, the destruction of an American drone. News that President Donald Trump approved and then, at the last minute cancelled, airstrikes against Iran has done little to calm nerves both at home and abroad.
There are many factors contributing to this feeling of instability and danger, not least of which is the perception, properly conceived, that we actually have no strategy to achieve our objectives in the important yet still volatile region. It isn’t clear if our actions are designed to bring Iran back to the table to forge a better nuclear deal; or to force Iran to stop supporting forces like the Houthis and Hezbollah, who are inimical to our and our allies’ interest; or to drive the mullahs out of the leadership of Iran altogether.
There are many factors contributing to this feeling of instability and danger, not least of which is the perception, properly conceived, that we have no strategy.
From time to time, Trump talks about all these factors and potential goals, but it seems almost certain that there is no strategic plan to accomplish them. Instead, this is an administration of tactics, not strategy. It has not helped that the president’s national security team is fragmented and often at odds with each other. Following the departure of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a new permanent secretary has yet to be confirmed. While there is an acting secretary, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has really been acting like the head of the Defense Department for some time. Occasionally, it seems that national security advisor John Bolton is driving the train, but his views also at times seem at odds with both the president and Pompeo.
We are left with the conclusion, formed early in Trump’s campaign and reinforced by his time in office, that the commander-in-chief is ill-informed, voluble and quixotic. His 11th-hour halt of a retaliatory strike on Iran, while likely the right decision given the circumstances, remains a serious cause for concern. Trump claims he called the strike off when informed at the last minute of potential casualties, but this explanation — if true — raises a whole other series of questions, including why he only became aware of this vital information minutes before launch.
When any instrument of national power is employed, there are costs. No matter the political efficacy of tariffs, for example, economists know they will also have a deleterious effect the sectors of the economy that are targeted, if not the national economy more generally. The use of the military, however, is fraught with particularly costly consequences. The initial objective is never the end of the mission, and indeed the aftermath of military force often requires far more assets than the initial action. And because of the many moving parts, it is always impossible to predict with any confidence how the use of military force will affect the actions of others, both allies and adversaries.
But the most painful cost incurred is the loss of life. It is rarely a good idea to gamble that the loss of life will be justified by a possible positive outcome. Furthermore, squandering human capital typically results in a drastic change in the national mood. We don’t become inured to the loss; instead it steels us against it in the future, particularly if the loss seems to be the result of a cavalier outlook. That is a dangerous attitude indeed.
Those who understand the stakes and benefits of military action best are of course those who actually fight our wars. They understand better than anyone the risk-adjusted return of employing force. But in the current environment, in which there is a paucity of clear thinking about what and how and when to involve the armed forces, the dangers are numerous. We may risk lives when we don’t have to. We may needlessly inflame a situation that could be mollified via other more peaceful means. And we may create a societal backlash and fuel a kind of cynicism that will make it harder to use force — whatever the cost — when it is truly imperative that we do so.