You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Trump’s Air War

Far from being an isolationist, the president is one of the country's most hawkish in modern history.

Illustration by Martin Elfman

When President Trump decided to commit additional troops to the war in Afghanistan—now entering its seventeenth year—he contradicted his own position on the conflict. After years of deriding the war as a “total disaster” and a “complete waste,” and insisting that it was high time to get out, Trump announced in August that he would instead be deepening America’s involvement. “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” the president told U.S. troops in his address on Afghanistan. “But all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”

Despite Trump’s seeming reluctance to engage in foreign conflicts, however, he has zealously embraced his role as a wartime president. Since taking office, Trump has dramatically ramped up the use of U.S. military force in a wide range of international hot spots, from Syria and Iraq to Somalia and Pakistan. Far from being an America First isolationist, Trump has already established himself as one of the most hawkish presidents in modern history.

Consider Trump’s dramatic increase in the use of air strikes. Through August, the United States dropped 2,487 bombs in Afghanistan—more than Barack Obama dropped in his last two years as president combined. In August, more bombs fell there than in any month since 2012. Trump also dropped the so-called “mother of all bombs,” the largest nonnuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, on an Islamic State cave complex—the first time the bomb has ever been used in combat.

Trump has accelerated the pace of air strikes in other conflicts as well. In Iraq and Syria, the American-led coalition has unleashed more bombs each month under Trump than Obama did in any month throughout the entire campaign against ISIS, which began in 2014. In Yemen, Trump has carried out 92 strikes or raids against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—just shy of the number of attacks that Obama oversaw in his entire second term. In Somalia, the United States is carrying out an average of one strike against the jihadist group Al Shabaab every 15 days—a sharp escalation compared to Obama. And in Pakistan, Trump ended a nine-month pause in drone strikes with four unmanned bombings—more than Obama conducted during his final year in office.

Trump is also putting more boots on the ground. In April, 300 Marines returned to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province to assist in the fight against the Taliban—their first deployment there since 2014. The following month, Trump championed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia—reversing the Obama administration’s decision to curb the sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh out of concern over civilian casualties resulting from the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. And hot on the heels of Trump’s vow to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea over its nuclear provocations, the Air Force is working to replace America’s aging stockpile of 400 Minuteman missiles and develop a new nuclear cruise missile—a project estimated to cost more than $1 trillion.

Even if Hillary Clinton—or nearly anyone else, for that matter—were commander-in-chief, America would likely be ramping up many of its military operations overseas. Expelling ISIS from its stronghold in Mosul, for example, would have required a significant commitment of airpower from any president. Likewise, by renewing America’s commitment in Afghanistan and overhauling the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Trump is following through on plans that his predecessors set in motion.

Yet what sets Trump apart, and what is most worrying about his hawkish foreign policy, is that he has put forward no coherent plan to guide his unprecedented use of military force. Far from looking to wind down conflicts, Trump seems to be acting on whatever tough-sounding phrase pops into his head, regardless of its effect in the real world. In Syria and Iraq, Trump has made good on his vow to “bomb the hell out of ISIS.” But with no plan to create security and stability in the region once ISIS is defeated, his military aggression could wind up rekindling sectarian conflict and opening up the United States to armed confrontation with Iran. Similarly, Trump has failed to spell out how many additional troops he will send to Afghanistan, or how long they will stay there. “In the end, we will win,” he declared in August—without offering any indication of what winning actually looks like. To make matters worse, Trump has failed to fill a raft of senior posts in the State Department, hamstringing America’s ability to exercise the diplomatic power necessary to broker peace and foster stability.

The consequences of Trump’s military aggression can be seen in the number of civilians killed by U.S. air strikes. Since taking office, Trump has overseen nearly 60 percent of all civilian casualties from air strikes in Iraq and Syria since the air war began. In Afghanistan, civilian casualties skyrocketed by 70 percent during the first six months of this year, compared to the same period last year. And in Yemen, Trump’s support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign has exacerbated what has become a staggering humanitarian crisis.

Trump has repeatedly made clear that his foreign policy is not motivated by a desire to enhance global security—it’s driven by his need to burnish his own image as a winner. “We aren’t winning. We are losing,” Trump reportedly complained to his generals in the weeks leading up to his Afghanistan announcement. It’s telling that his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, apparently helped persuade Trump to remain in Afghanistan by showing him a 1972 photograph of Afghan women in miniskirts—ridiculously suggesting that by sending more troops to fight the Taliban, Trump would be viewed as the hero who ushered in the return of Western norms to Kabul.

Trump’s emphasis on “winning” on the military front is especially dangerous for a president who has proved to be such a loser in Congress and the courts. With his legislative agenda in disarray and his administration mired in scandal, military action is the only arena where Trump can portray himself as a decisive, powerful leader. Presidents have often resorted to using military strikes overseas as a way of distracting the public from their failures at home: think Ronald Reagan in Grenada or Bill Clinton in the Balkans. But under Trump, these are not discrete, one-off attacks; instead, he has made bombing other countries a routine and defining element of his administration. The more he fails as president, the more Trump will deepen U.S. military involvement around the world—deploying more troops, wasting more tax dollars, and killing more civilians in the process.