Want to Win Wars? Fund Soft Power, Trump’s Generals Say

President Donald Trump with Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Joint Chiefs chairman; Army Gen. Joseph Votel, CentCom commander; and Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas, SOCOM commander; at USCENTCOM headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base Feb. 6, 2017.

Photo by Marine Corps Sgt. Alan Belser

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President Donald Trump with Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Joint Chiefs chairman; Army Gen. Joseph Votel, CentCom commander; and Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas, SOCOM commander; at USCENTCOM headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base Feb. 6, 2017.

The president’s proposal to boost military spending at the expense of diplomacy and foreign aid won't lead to victory.

“We never win, and we don’t fight to win,” President Trump said this week, unveiling a budget that would boost defense spending by double-digits while cutting the State Department by 37 percent.

But those leading America’s military effort have never been more vocal about the need for development dollars and the indispensability of diplomatic efforts working in tandem with kinetic ones.

Take the new plan to to bring the fight to ISIS, delivered to the president this week. “This plan is a political-military plan; it is not a military plan,” said Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “In the development of the plan, we have been completely engaged at every level with the State Department…Not only will it be a whole-of-government approach,” Dunford said, it’s “about a trans-regional threat.”

“Winning” cannot be simply about the military campaign. It is also about the “and then what?” It is about a solid answer to the question of to whom the military should hand off its stability responsibilities once the fight ends. Right now, the military’s leaders seem to be alone in asking the crucial question of what comes next.

“The grievances of the civil war have to be addressed, the safety and humanitarian assistance that needs to be provided to people have to be addressed, and the multiple divergent stakeholders’ views need to be addressed,” Dunford said. “We do need to have a vision of how our military actions set conditions on the ground that actually then become the platform from which Secretary Tillerson goes to Geneva to come up with a political solution.”

But the State Department will face a shrunken wallet and eroding capabilities, if the Trump budget goes from proposal to reality. This budget threat comes at precisely the moment when the military most needs a diplomacy, development, and stabilization partner to get it out of the “nation-building” business and let it focus on fighting, and even “winning,” wars.

For no matter how good America’s military is, some kind of a political solution is required to keep those wars ended. Otherwise, what you end up with is what we have now: a whack-a-mole cycle of endless special operations deployments aimed at slowing a constantly morphing and decidedly nimble enemy with no stability partner to hand off to once the battle ends.

Some of the military’s biggest champions on the Republican side are already calling the budget folly.

“It’s dead on arrival. It’s not going to happen. It would be a disaster,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, of the Trump budget plan.  “If you take soft power off the table, then you’re never going to win the war.”

Senate Foreign Relations committee and former GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio agreed.

“Foreign Aid is not charity,” Rubio tweeted. “We must make sure it is well spent, but it is less than 1% of budget & critical to our national security.”

And those charged with leading the battle against ISIS have been among the first and the loudest to talk about this need for kinetic-plus in the fight.

“Many policymakers, intelligence analysts, and academics believe expelling the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from Mosul and Raqqah is the key to the terrorist group’s defeat and the destruction of its self-declared caliphate. This is only partially correct,” said Gen. Joseph Votel in a paper he co-wrote for the Center for New American Security.  “The United States must develop a long-term strategy that focuses on both the top-down and bottom-up pressures that have created this unique threat. This strategy must include unprecedented intergovernmental cooperation and coordination as well as close collaboration with foreign partners, nongovernmental organizations, and private industry…Regionally-led and U.S.-backed reconstruction efforts and initiatives to strengthen government institutions are a critical component of this strategy. Reconstruction also may contribute to increased opportunities for employment and education.”

So while nation-building is the 14-letter-word that has now become a four-letter-word, the reality is that the U.S. military needs a partner to take the baton and assist in the rebuilding once the clearing is done. And to assist with the “virtual” fight as well as the on-the-ground real one.

In 2011, President Obama said the “tide of war is receding” and told America that the “time has come for nation-building here at home.” Six years later, Trump is echoing that theme, telling Congress on Tuesday that “the time has come for a new program of national rebuilding.”

“America has spent approximately $6 trillion in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling,” Trump said. “With this $6 trillion we could have rebuilt our country –- twice.”

But without a realistic expectation for what “winning” America’s current wars looks like and what enduring stability actually costs, another American president will end up making the same speech six years from now. It is up to the president to listen to the generals with whom he has filled his cabinet about the importance of not forcing an “either-or” on the continuum between the kinetic and the diplomatic, but on creating an “and” that will one day allow America’s armed forces to declare a successful — and lasting — end to the fight.

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