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Doug Macgregor asks what happened to “America First” in national security?

Summary: Doug Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired) asks what happened to Trump’s promises to reform America’s national security. Instead of reform we get the same people implementing the same policies that have accomplished so little at such great cost since 9/11.

What Happened to ‘America First’?

By Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired).
From The National Interest, 17 June 2017.
Posted with their generous permission.

If you hire the same architects behind past foreign-policy misadventures, you are are going to get the same results.

Millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump because he promised a new national military strategy that would diverge sharply from the ideologically driven interventionism of the past twenty years. “We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya,” Trump told voters. “It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy.”  {From Trump’s first major speech about foreign policy, 27 April 2016. Transcript here; video here.}

Barely six months into the president’s first term, Trump supporters are seeing familiar trends — a threatening Turkish military buildup on the border with Syria, the American shoot down of a Syrian Jet and rising tensions with Russia, Iran and North Korea. They sense that a true “America First” strategy is not going to happen with the president’s current national security team. They want to know why.

Part of the answer is that changing the Washington status quo is never easy, especially for a president whose life has revolved around business, not politics. The rest is easier to understand: personnel is policy.

Imagine for a moment that you are a highly successful businessman with a global reputation. Fate makes you the director of surgery at a major metropolitan hospital. You know little about medicine and nothing about surgery, but you are a prudent person. You consult with the surgeons on the staff and with the hospital’s board of trustees. You select those surgeons that you are told are “the best and the brightest.” Problem solved, right? Wrong.

What if it turns out that the doctors you appointed to run the Department of Surgery have never performed complex surgeries? What if their experience is limited to treating cuts, bruises and performing the occasional appendectomy? What if the few truly major surgeries they performed resulted in fatalities and even led to malpractice lawsuits?

A warning from Alcoholics Anonymous.

In that case you’d be mistaken to rely on the error-prone experts. And the same is true when it comes to assembling a foreign policy team. Rather than risk repeating mistakes, you’d reach down past the retreads and choose a new leadership team that is divorced from previous foreign policy misadventures. After all, that’s what President Trump promised.

Yet when it came to selecting people to advise the president on national defense and military strategy, the Trump team picked men for jobs in the Department of Defense and the White House on the basis of high media profiles, medals and uniforms — as well as advice from former secretaries of defense and four-star generals who were leading figures in the three trillion dollar debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan.

That’s why no one should be surprised that the “best military advice” President Trump’s senior national security leaders can offer is to reinforce the strategic disaster in Afghanistan and expand the slow, ponderous fight against ISIS in Raqqa into a broader American military intervention into the regional snake pit called the Syrian Civil War. People do what they know.

Like their predecessors in the last two administrations, the current national security team is not pursuing a coherent national military strategy tied to concrete strategic interests. On the contrary, they are committed to open-ended military operations without any expectation of conflict termination.

Meanwhile, Washington’s fanatical urge to spend lavishly on America’s Cold War Industrial Age military structure defeats any attempt to build a new twenty-first century armed force, let alone question the American military establishment’s ability to fight a modern opponent that is not deaf, dumb and blind. An accurate and sobering self-assessment of the U.S. military’s strengths and weaknesses — its ability to perform major surgery — is missing.

The problem confronting the president is serious. Today’s international system is radically different from the world of 2001. The United States no longer has an overwhelming monopoly on key military capabilities. Great-power war is no longer a remote possibility.

In his book Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis James Rickards offers the example of a forest fire that is analogous to the outbreak of a major war. Whether a fire destroys a single tree or a million acres, the destruction begins with a single bolt of lightning. The same bolt of lightning can strike a thousand times with little or no effect, or it can cause a catastrophic fire. Wars between great powers or alliances of regional powers are similar. Major wars are the massive forest fires no one expects, but given enough sparks, they inevitably occur.

Mr. President, you said, “It’s time to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy. It’s time to invite new voices and new visions into the fold.” You were right. If the Trump Presidency is to succeed, we’ll need a new national security team with an “America First” mind-set. The country needs a team with an acute sensitivity to the vulnerability of U.S. military power far from American shores and an appreciation for the importance of conflict avoidance. Events in the Middle East, Asia and eastern Europe suggest there is no time to lose.

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About Douglas Macgregor

Douglas Macgregor retired as a Colonel in 2004 after a distinguished career with notable successes as a squadron operations officer in the Battle of 73 Easting during the Gulf War and as a planner and leader of other operations. He was a strong advocate for reform of the US Army, which froze his career. Events in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven the need for fundamental change. See his Wikipedia entry for details.

He is vice president of Burke-Macgregor, a consulting firm based in Reston, Virginia; he occasionally appears as a guest commentator on television and radio. He has a Ph.D. in international relation from the University of Virginia.

He has written four cutting edge books about military affairs: Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century (1997), Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights (2003), Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting (2009), and Margin of Victory: Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War (2016).

See these posts about his work…

  1. Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars.
  2. Important new articles about reforming our military, a key to balancing the Federal budget.
  3. What does the future hold for the US Army – and America?
  4. Doug Macgregor explains how our military reached its current state, so only desperate reform can save us.
  5. Margin of Victory: Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War.

For More Information

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About Macgregor’s latest book

From the publisher…

“In Margin of Victory Douglas Macgregor tells the riveting stories of five military battles of the twentieth century, each one a turning point in history. Beginning with the British Expeditionary force holding the line at the Battle of Mons in 1914 and concluding with the Battle of Easting in 1991 during Desert Storm, Margin of Victory teases out a connection between these battles and teaches its readers an important lesson about how future battles can be won.

“Emphasizing military strategy, force design, and modernization, Macgregor links each of these seemingly isolated battles thematically. At the core of his analysis, the author reminds the reader that to be successful, military action must always be congruent with national culture, geography, and scientific-industrial capacity. He theorizes that strategy and geopolitics are ultimately more influential than ideology. Macgregor stresses that if nation-states want to be successful, they must accept the need for and the inevitability of change.

The five warfighting dramas in this book, rendered in vivid detail by lively prose, offer many lessons on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war.”