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The Trump Doctrine: Peace Through Unrestrained Strength

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That, perhaps more than anything else, is how Trump kept Americans safe without starting a war.

Less than a month after entering the White House in 2017, President Donald Trump flew to Dover Air Force Base to attend the dignified transfer ceremony for Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, a Navy SEAL who was the first U.S. service member killed in action during the Trump presidency. It was a weighty experience, especially for the president who had personally ordered the raid. I was with him shortly after he somberly received news of Owens’ death. It impacted him so deeply that he would go on to bring up the Owens family—and in particular Owens’ widow, Carryn—many times in the months and years to come.

Other presidents have undoubtedly felt the weight of sending Americans into harm’s way and remember the first time that one of their orders resulted in an American servicemember being killed in action. But the reality is, most presidents in recent history haven’t let these harsh realities of war stop them from sending Americans to die in conflicts that are hard to justify, from mission creep in Afghanistan that turned into America’s longest war, to nation building in Iraq, and beyond. Senator J.D. Vance was right to hail Trump’s greatest policy success as simply not starting any wars. This would perhaps be a low bar if it hadn’t been too high for most modern presidents to clear.

There isn’t a singular explanation for how Trump accomplished this, but it certainly wasn’t because of pacifist sentimentality, although the above anecdote illustrates his deep emotional connection to the troops. After all, just two months after his first trip to Dover, he launched fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime.

Trump’s intuitive approach means something very specific to America’s enemies: There is always the possibility that he will use overwhelming and shocking violence if he feels they have harmed or humiliated the United States. Unrestrained savagery doesn’t fit neatly beside the foreign policy elite’s favorite euphemisms, like “targeted killings” and “kinetic military action,” but no matter what you call it, it proved to be an effective restraint on our most vicious adversaries.

When Trump’s military advisors proposed a menu of options to deal with Iranian terrorist general Qasem Soleimani—an evil man with Americans’ blood on his hands, who was actively plotting more attacks—he chose the most aggressive option.

In the middle of the night, as Soleimani was being whisked away from an Iraqi airport, an American MQ-9 Reaper drone unleashed a Hellfire missile that tore him to pieces, along with several other members of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The move was so provocative that Joe Biden warned it could bring the Middle East to “the brink of a major conflict.” It didn’t. In fact, Trump doubled down, warning the Iranians that the United States had targeted “52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” making it clear that if they responded by harming Americans, they would be “hit very hard and very fast.” In other words, there was no telling what he might do. The only thing they – and other American adversaries – could be sure of was that if they crossed Trump’s threshold, he would not be going through a laborious policy process to figure out how to react.

Unfortunately, Iranian attacks have skyrocketed since President Biden took office. Most recently, an Iranian drone attack in Syria last week killed one American and injured six others. The Biden administration responded with what they called “proportionate and deliberate action,” an air strike against Iranian-backed militia facilities. Iranian proxy forces responded the very next day with attacks against U.S. troops. And while there were no casualties, it was a clear indication that they have priced in the Biden Administration’s predictable response as just the cost of doing business.

Trump’s critics—and in the case of his threat to Iranian cultural sites, even his own cabinet officials—bemoan his lack of restraint and willingness to deploy over-the-top force, but this approach has deep roots in America’s foreign policy tradition and maintains a firm grip on the American psyche.

In Walter Russell Mead’s seminal work on the Jacksonian tradition in American foreign policy, he remarked that “those who prefer to believe that the present global hegemony of the United States emerged through a process of immaculate conception avert their eyes from many distressing moments in the American ascension.” For example, American bombing raids at the end of World War II killed nearly a million Japanese civilians, “more than twice the total number of combat deaths that the United States has suffered in all its foreign wars combined.” In Korea, Mead noted that U.S. forces killed an estimated 1 million North Korean civilians, approximately thirty civilian deaths for every American soldier killed in action.

Many Jacksonians—and Trump is perhaps more of a Jacksonian than even Jackson himself—take a narrow view of America’s national interests, but when those interests are harmed, hell hath no fury like a Jacksonian unleashed. They will not be constrained by so-called international law or multinational institutions. As Mead wrote, “Jacksonians believe that there is an honor code in international life—as there was in clan warfare in the borderlands of England—and those who live by the code will be treated under it. But those who violate the code—who commit terrorist acts in peacetime, for example—forfeit its protection and deserve no consideration.”

The virtues of deploying such ruthless and devastating force are that it seeks to defeat aggressors as quickly as possible, resulting in fewer lives lost than there would be in protracted conflict, and serves as a deterrent against future attacks. Even suggesting there are virtues to this approach will result in condemnation from the foreign policy establishment, who decry Jacksonians as immoral, isolationist cowboys. But for many Americans, especially those who live in the American heartland far away from the coastal elites, this approach to foreign policy—and to life in general—holds deep resonance.

In 1968, Richard Nixon confided in his top aide, H.R. Haldeman, that he liked to employ what he called “the Madman Theory” to convince the North Vietnamese that he “might do anything to stop the [Vietnam] war.” Nixon as vice president had seen how President Dwight D. Eisenhower contained communism—and, according to Eisenhower, convinced China to end the war on the Korean Peninsula—by leveraging the terrifying threat of nuclear war.

Some pundits have tagged examples of Trump’s approach as the Madman Theory reborn, and there is some truth to that. But one thing the critics seem to miss is that it’s not a charade; its effectiveness lies in Trump’s capacity for genuine unpredictability, his openness to letting new developments shape and change his responses in real time.

As much as it will exasperate Trump’s foreign policy critics, nowhere was the success of this approach more evident than in the containment of Russian military aggression.

Here are the facts: Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 when George W. Bush was president. Russia took Crimea in 2014 when Barack Obama was president. Russia has now invaded Ukraine with Biden as president. However, when Trump was president, Russia did not seize territory from any of its neighbors.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s appetite for expansion did not wane during the four years Trump was in office, and the world was not just miraculously a safer place. Bad actors—from Russia and China to Iran and North Korea—simply knew that they had to restrain themselves or deal with the unpredictable but inevitably severe consequences.

That, perhaps more than anything else, is how Trump kept Americans safe without starting a war.

Cliff Sims served as Special Assistant to the President, 2017-18, and as Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Strategy and Communications, 2020-2021.