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  • Marching as to War:Trump's New Militarism
  • Karen J. Greenberg (bio)

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When Barack Obama picked up the baton of national security in 2009, he faced a choice: veer decisively away from his predecessor George W. Bush, as many of his supporters expected, or continue along the path that had been set for the country.

Obama ended up splitting the difference. Having signaled that he would reverse the country's course on torture and detention at Guantanamo, Obama had some success but promised more than he achieved. In other areas like surveillance and drone killings, he maintained or even strengthened many of the legal and policy excesses of Bush's war on terror.

With Donald Trump, the handover of national security has been more of a messy grab. President Trump snatched the baton passed to him by Obama and, as quickly as he could, buried it. [End Page 83]

Trump's intention appears clear: leave anything Obama as far behind him as possible. In health care, in immigration policy, and, above all, in foreign policy and national security, Trump seems hell-bent on making his a pivotal presidency.

In line with this approach, Trump has transformed the national security state from cautious and reluctant to bellicose and trigger-happy. The effects are playing out both at home and abroad and on the levels of policy, personnel, legislation, and style.

Trump is not the first president to enter office determined to chart a new trajectory, and to do so rapidly. Within days of his inauguration, George W. Bush pushed through significant tax cuts and issued an executive order creating the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, established to coordinate federal funding for social services through religious and community organizations. Likewise in their first few days, Obama signed an executive order banning torture, and Bill Clinton pushed through legislation on unpaid leave that George H.W. Bush had left to die in the Senate.

And no one reversed the country's course more during their first 100 days in office than Franklin D. Roosevelt, on whose achievements the hundred-day presidential benchmark is based. In that short period of time, Roosevelt passed more than a dozen bills, shifting away from the depression-deepening policies of his predecessor Herbert Hoover and creating the social program and economic reform plan that became known as the New Deal.

Trump's national security turnaround may not be as transformative as that, but it is nonetheless remarkable. Trump is exchanging a broad approach to security that includes foreign aid, legal remedies, and diplomatic efforts to one grounded largely, it seems, in military dominance.

With the risk of U.S. involvement in an overseas conflict growing and new theaters of war presenting themselves, the stakes are high. While Obama was seemingly hesitant to send more troops into conflict zones, Trump has already increased deployment of U.S. forces abroad. He has also scratched out a potential path to war in North Korea—telling the press in late April that there is the chance of a "major, major" military conflict with Pyongyang. As a further sign that the sound of drumbeats may be getting louder, Trump has followed up a proclaimed willingness to go to war with shows of force, notably with the decision to drop the so-called "mother of all bombs" in Afghanistan.

Although it was available to both presidents, neither Obama nor Bush felt the need to deploy the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast Weapon (MOAB)—the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat.

Looking for more leeway and more weapons, Trump has asked for extra money for military spending in the 2018 budget. And drone warfare, Obama's signature military program, has taken another leap forward under Trump, whose administration has dropped drones at the rate of one every day or two, more than five times as frequently as Obama, according to a March report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Hard power has come at the expense of soft power. With less public fanfare than the breast-beating strengthening of the military, Trump has downgraded diplomatic, aid-related, and soft-sector efforts...


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pp. 83-86
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