There seems to be a higher-than-usual amount of attention on grading President Donald Trump's first 100 days in office. We're still more than a week away from the milestone, yet both the media and the White House already seem to be at fever pitch over how history will see Trump's first 100 days. Maybe it's just my own perception, but I don't seem to remember quite this level of intensity for the past few presidents, or at least not this early on the calendar.
But since it seems to be what's on everyone's mind, I thought today I'd take a stab at grading Trump's military actions so far. Grading a commander-in-chief this fashion is a subset of his overall grade on foreign policy, which I'm not going to bother examining at length today (just to be clear).
Trump has taken four notable military actions in his first three months in office. He authorized a raid in Yemen, he launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase, he dropped a large bomb in Afghanistan, and he supposedly sent an aircraft carrier steaming towards the waters off North Korea. There have been other military actions the United States has been involved with during this period, such as the continued push to take Mosul in Iraq, but they are more in the nature of ongoing operations (that Trump hasn't changed or influenced), so any blame or credit for them at this point still rests largely with President Barack Obama.
Two out of the four Trump military actions are at least partially shared with Obama as well. The "mother of all bombs" dropped in Afghanistan was moved there quite a while back, and Obama reportedly authorized the generals on the ground to drop it whenever they thought it necessary or advantageous. The raid in Yemen was at least partially planned (but not fully authorized) while Obama was still in office as well. But grading a president on his military actions really has to be done from two different perspectives: military success or failure, and how the action was perceived domestically and internationally.
Taking the four events chronologically, the raid in Yemen was Trump's first foray into the world of authorizing the Pentagon to take military action. It was not exactly a success, militarily. American troops wiped out some terrorists, but they also suffered one casualty and lost an aircraft in the raid. There were also quite a few civilian casualties. The Pentagon claimed they had captured enemy intelligence, but they didn't exactly offer up any convincing proof of this claim (more on that later). The generals were reportedly pushing not only for this raid in Yemen, but for a whole campaign of getting tougher militarily in the country. If it had gone better, to put this another way, it would likely have been the first raid of many. Instead, it appeared ill-conceived and badly executed. The targets were even reportedly tipped off that an attack was coming by the fact that drone surveillance of them was ramped up before the attack began. So "going outside, looking up, and noticing a bunch of drones circling the area" defeated all the advance planning for a surprise attack. All in all, the raid had to be judged a military failure. If it really had been successful, we would have launched other such raids in the country. We haven't. That's really the best indicator of failure, right there.
The second attack came after Trump saw "beautiful babies" dying in Syria as a result of a chemical weapons attack. He hastily ordered a limited raid on a Syrian airfield in response. Of the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched, 58 hit their targets (one failed in flight). Assessing the raid's effectiveness is complicated, though. The Russians and the Syrians made a concerted effort to portray the attack as having minimal effect, and fighters were taking off and landing from the airfield the very next day. The Pentagon countered that something like one-fifth of Syria's air force was destroyed, but they didn't provide clear evidence to confirm this claim. Normally, if a military strike had devastating consequences, the Pentagon isn't exactly shy about bragging; but this time there were no satellite photo close-ups of destroyed planes presented to the public, so it's hard to accurately judge whether the Pentagon was right in their assessment. Especially since the Russians were publicizing photos of very limited damage. In this propaganda war, what was notable was nobody was talking about the peripheral damage to the airfield. The runways weren't targeted for "cratering," but the fuel dumps and the airport's infrastructure was. But, again, neither side really addressed how effective this effort was. One notable thing about the raid was how expensive it was -- those cruise missiles aren't exactly cheap -- but the benefit of such weapons is that they can be launched without putting American troops in harm's way.
The missile strike likely caused some limited damage, but it certainly didn't affect the war effort much. Trump did not have any sort of long-range strategy to announce on Syria, and Assad's forces were bombing the same area where the chemical weapons strike happened the very next day. Since then, though, there have been no further chemical attacks reported in Syria. So, militarily, this was a limited mission which at least partially succeeded in hitting the planned target, and may have succeeded in the larger purpose of stopping the chemical weapons attacks.
A few weeks later, the GBU-43/B "Massive Ordinance Air Blast" bomb was used in combat for the first time. Its "MOAB" acronym also colloquially stands for the "Mother Of All Bombs," which was likely influenced by the fact that it was developed for the Iraq War when Saddam Hussein was still in power. Twenty such bombs were produced, and the military finally got the green light to drop one in Afghanistan to take out a cave complex used by the Islamic State. The bomb has an explosive yield of 11 tons of T.N.T., which is enormous by conventional bomb standards but doesn't come close to the yield of a nuclear bomb (the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of 16,000 tons of T.N.T. and the one dropped on Nagasaki had a yield of 21,000 tons -- and they were both very weak nuclear bombs by today's standards, which now measure explosive effect in megatons, not kilotons).
Donald Trump can't take full credit for dropping the MOAB, since reportedly President Obama was the one to authorize its use, last year. The military decided upon a target where the unique properties of the bomb would be useful and effective, but that didn't happen until Trump was in charge. The bomb was developed with two main objectives in mind: military effectiveness and psychological intimidation. Its first use has to be judged a pretty clear military success, as it reportedly killed all of roughly 100 Islamic State fighters in the cave complex. The bomb's massive pressure wave and the ignition of the air itself did precisely what its designers intended, in other words -- destroyed a very hardened military site in one blow. It also sent a psychological and political message, which I'll address in a moment.
The fourth military action Trump took was not an actual attack (as the other three were). It falls into the category of "saber-rattling." With great fanfare the Trump administration announced that the U.S.S. Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its accompanying fleet (called "an armada" by Trump) was quickly heading for the waters between Korea and Japan. A week later, however, the media noticed that the ship had actually headed in the opposite direction, into the Indian Ocean. Whoops! Maybe it was commanded by Wrong-Way Corrigan?
Trump's bluff turned out to be a double-bluff, or what some might just call "fake news." Sending an aircraft carrier near North Korea was always going to be a bluff, since launching any sort of pre-emptive strike on the country would be followed within hours by the absolute destruction of Seoul, South Korea -- a city of 25,000,000 people. This high price is just never going to be paid, by Trump or any other United States president, but that doesn't stop us from bluffing every so often. But it's hard to bluff when the ship is in an entirely different ocean. The bluff itself turned out to be a bluff. But because it wasn't an actual attack, there wasn't any actual after-action analysis to assess.
The public's perception was that two out of the four military actions taken by Trump were outright failures. The third was only a partial success, at best. But Trump did score one clear victory in the public eye.
It's hard for anyone to argue that the big bomb dropped in Afghanistan was anything but a success. It did was it was supposed to do, and it killed everyone it had targeted. No American lives were lost. Collateral damage was kept to a minimum by the choice of target for the big bomb. It also signaled a willingness to use such a weapon, perhaps in other places around the world. This might be summed up as: "Don't mess with Trump, he'll drop a MOAB on you if you do." You can bet that America's enemies around the world watched the video of the bomb's explosion quite a few times, while worrying what effect it would have on them. This is the psychological impact of such a bomb, which (as mentioned previously) was a major objective in the development of such a weapon.
The raid on the Syrian airfield had a very mixed reaction in the United States. Trump's job approval went up a tiny bit (roughly two percent) after the raid, but the Russian and Syrian propaganda seemed to have more of an impact than the Pentagon's post-raid analysis. Photos and videos (shot by Russian troops) of empty hangars destroyed and other very limited damage were on the air within 24 hours. The Syrians defiantly staged landings and takeoffs from the airfield the next day, too. Many Americans were left thinking: "We paid how much for such minimal results?!?" An attack costing tens of millions of dollars didn't seem all that devastating, to put it mildly. And Assad bombed the same city that suffered the chemical attack the next day, too (albeit with conventional weapons such as barrel bombs).
The Syrian raid initially caused a frisson of excitement in the news media, because they absolutely love running video of cruise missiles launching (just ask Brian Williams!). The raid did successfully distract the media's attention for almost a week, which Team Trump must surely have chalked up as a victory (they haven't had many such weeks so far, to put it politely). But Trump's lack of any strategy towards Syria or any followup meant that the story eventually faded away. When it did, however, the MOAB story took over. The timing of the attack in Afghanistan meant that a much-clearer military victory was the followup, which helped Trump's portrayal in the media.
However, these two actions were bookended by Trump's military failures. The Yemen raid was the first Trump military action, and although the Pentagon and the White House insisted that it was a victory, the public soon felt otherwise. Especially after the Pentagon bragged that it had captured a treasure trove of terrorist intelligence, and trotted out a terrorist-recruitment video to prove it. It was quickly pointed out that this video had been available on the internet for ten years, which seriously undercut the "it was a smashing success" storyline the Pentagon was peddling. However, the perception of failure didn't do Trump that much damage with the public because the raid was so small-bore. Calmer heads prevailed at the Pentagon, and no subsequent raids were launched, which did serve to limit the perception of failure with the American public.
Currently, however, Trump is looking like either a liar or a joke on the world stage. When you announce an aircraft carrier is going to threaten a country, it always helps if the ship doesn't head in the opposite direction, to put it mildly. Trump had strengthened his own position on the world stage by the Syria raid and the Afghanistan bombing, because it showed he was more than willing to let the military decisively act. Call it the "Don't mess with Trump" effect. But this was seriously weakened by all the bluffing towards North Korea. They went ahead and tested a missile launch anyway, which was another failure but also showed that Kim Jong Un was also willing to do whatever he felt like without regard to Trump's threats. And that was all before it was revealed that the aircraft carrier wasn't even in the neighborhood. From this point on, world leaders are going to wonder: "Is Trump even telling the truth when he makes military threats, or is it just his own version of 'fake news' meant to confuse us?" That is a much weaker position than "Don't mess with Trump," obviously.
Politically, Trump hasn't been hurt much or helped much by his military actions in his first three months in office. His job approval ratings were pretty bad throughout, and he got one of the smallest "rally 'round the president" bumps ever after the Syrian strike. Each of the four military actions had quite limited consequences, mostly because Trump didn't take the opportunity of any of them to announce any overhaul of military policy or strategy in any of the four countries affected. Yemen was supposed to do this, since the raid was supposed to be the first of many to come. The other three haven't changed any war plans or strategies at all, at least not beyond showing a willingness to react to chemical weapons attacks in Syria. If the North Korean situation escalates in any way in the near future this could all change, but for now it seems to be calming down somewhat from the past few week's bluster (on both sides).
All in all, Trump hasn't had any complete military disasters during his first 100 days in office. By comparison, the Bay of Pigs fiasco happened on April 17th of John F. Kennedy's first year in office. Trump hasn't presided over a comparable military disaster, at least not yet. His military record so far as commander-in-chief has been decidedly mixed, however. The most notable aspect of it so far is Trump's erratic nature, but then again he did virtually promise this during his campaign (by saying he wouldn't telegraph such actions beforehand). Trump has largely kept Barack Obama's war plans in place for both Iraq and Syria, and both seem to be succeeding slowly. The Islamic State continues to lose territory, and they're about to lose their hold on Mosul. By the end of the year, they may be fully evicted from Iraqi territory altogether. The next big attack on the Islamic State will come in their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa, Syria, and Trump so far hasn't announced any changes in strategy for any of it.
One final note is worth making when assessing Trump's military actions: I could easily see three out of the four Trump actions being taken by Hillary Clinton, if she had become president. Hillary might have approved the raid in Yemen. She could also have responded with a limited airstrike after the chemical weapons attack in Syria. She definitely wouldn't have stood in the way of the Afghanistan bombing (which was reportedly greenlighted in principle by Obama, remember). But she would probably have handled North Korea much differently, with much more emphasis on a diplomatic effort. When judging Trump, I find it useful to wonder whether things would have been any different under Clinton, and in three out of the four military actions since January 20th, I think there's a very good chance Clinton would have done pretty close to the same thing Trump did. This shows the limited ability of the president to act in such matters, and it's an important consideration when assessing a president's military record.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant