They dispatched the carrier strike force toward North Korea. They launched the cruise missiles at Syria. But the U.S. military, stung when it was sent to war before without a clear plan and then blamed for the resulting mess, is expressing caution about being thrust deeper into any of the conflicts raging around the world.
Combat-ready American and allied troops are deployed today against heavily armed opposing forces in Europe and the Korean peninsula. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, U.S. and NATO commander in Europe and the former top U.S. commander in South Korea, last year described their situation like this: They're ready "to fight tonight if deterrence fails." But a plan would be good.
After 15 years of bloody, inconclusive war in Iraq and Afghanistan, experienced military officers are looking to President Donald Trump not just to pull the trigger on military action when needed. They're looking for a coherent statement of American goals and a coordinated strategy that combines military force with economic, political, diplomatic, cyber and media power ― and doesn't leave the war to the military alone.
"There is a limit, I think, to what we can do," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said this week at a Pentagon news conference, when asked about next steps the military might take in Syria following the April 7 missile attack.
Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general with years of warfighting experience, indicated that he's in no rush to send U.S. forces into combat as the sole instrument of American power.
In a book he co-authored with Hoover Institution scholar Kori Schake last year, Mattis argued that the public and politicians are "implausibly expecting military force to produce sophisticated political, economic and cultural outcomes." That's not the military's job, but "inherently a political undertaking."
"In free societies, politicians must choose the political ends," Mattis and Schake wrote. "They must also determine what price ― in blood, treasure and national credibility ― to pay for those ends."
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton put it more simply. By failing to coordinate and focus all elements of power, he told The Huffington Post, the United States has "outsourced foreign policy to the U.S. military, and we are frequently not the very best tool."
While Trump praised the "flawless" missile strike on Syria, he's been quick to complain about America's recent war record. "We never win," he groused earlier this year. "And we don't fight to win." When a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed during a military raid in Yemen in February, Trump was ready to blame "the generals."
It may seem counterintuitive, but many generals say war is too important to be left up to them. "I don't think it's fine, personally, to leave it up to the generals at the top level," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, who has served at all levels of command including leading the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan on his third combat tour.
"I don't believe in leaving it to the generals because the generals need help in harnessing political and economic and informational power," he told HuffPost. "The political work has to be synchronized with the military, with one strategic outcome for America's use of power."
That might require Trump's national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, to structure the White House's thinking about war the same way that military commanders approach it.
In combat operations, military leaders always write down and then brief their subordinates on their goal for the mission. This "commander's intent" details precisely what the mission is intended to accomplish. Everyone should understand how each action contributes to the desired end state ― that is, the situation the commander envisions when the smoke clears.
Given the commander's intent, staff officers can then plot out what resources will be needed to make the plan work ― troops, heavy-lift helicopters, ammunition, fuel, intelligence on enemy positions, even good weather (or bad, to cover troop movements).
At a higher level, the same kind of "commander's intent" from the White House would help clarify, for instance, how a U.S. missile strike in Syria fits into an overall strategy of bringing down the regime of President Bashar Assad or ending the Syrian war. Guidance from the top would also help various staff allocate non-military resources to reach the goal.
It's not something you can simply add water to a dehydrated plant and it's suddenly a full-fledged plan. This is hard work and it's going to take time. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis
That's the sort of next steps that Mattis seemed to have in mind when he said the U.S. strategic plan for defeating the Islamic State exists "in skeleton form." He said the plan is "being fleshed out now. This has got to be done in a methodical way, where we look at each element of it."
"And it's not something you can simply add water to a dehydrated plant and it's suddenly a full-fledged plan. This is hard work and it's going to take time," Mattis added.
No such direction on any of the military conflicts in which the U.S. is engaged has come from the Trump administration ― or from Congress, which alone has constitutional war-making authority. The Pentagon has recently mounted operations in Somalia, Libya and Syria and has re-engaged in Iraq under the authority of legislation passed in 2001 to allow attacks on al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Congress has declined to update that authorization.
"Congress has been very content to go to ground, stay in foxhole defilade, if you will, and while the rounds are going over the foxhole, they're not really involved," Eaton said.
On Thursday, U.S. forces escalated the air war in Afghanistan, striking with a massive bomb on what was described as an ISIS tunnel complex. But the White House did not explain how the attack fit into an overall strategy or contributed to a clear end state. White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to talk about strategy and referred all questions to the Defense Department.
Similarly, the White House ordered the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its accompanying warships to head toward the Korean peninsula this week after Trump made vague threats about halting North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons development. But the White House gave no explanation of the naval armada's precise purpose, and did not address what reaction it anticipated or how the U.S. would handle a North Korean escalation.
The military's insistence that it operate with a coherent strategy and a defined end is hardly academic. They want to make sure that lives ― their own, their buddies, all the men and women they command ― are not spent in vain.
"One third of the Army's general officers have children serving in the military. I have three children who have served," said Eaton, a West Pointer who now serves as a senior adviser to the progressive group VoteVets. With his two sons still on active duty, Eaton said, "we are consumed with the outcome of the mission and the human lives that are at stake, both American and on the other side."
So when they look to the commander-in-chief, they have a blunt request.
"If you're going to give a four-star [general] a mission, then you better be clear about what your end state is," Eaton said.
No strategy or clear end state has ever been defined for the ongoing U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, he said, with more potential conflicts tempting American intervention, "we as a military class do not want a mission where we're going to be set up for failure."