Trump’s Secret ISIS Plan Must Be More Than Tactical Tweaks

Bonnie Kristian Fellow, Defense Priorities
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President-elect Donald Trump says he has a plan to defeat the Islamic State. It’s an “extremely tough” plan, he insists, that will totally “change the playbook.”

It’s also a secret plan, the details of which he refuses to divulge, a move that has led critics to suggest the plan may not actually exist. Pressed by Fox News’ Steve Doocy for specifics back in September, Trump’s reply had more style than substance: To defeat ISIS, he said, America must “knock hell out of them. We have to get everybody together and we have to lead for a change.”

In late December, Trump ally Newt Gingrich suggested—perhaps in an unintended slip off-message—that the ISIS plan is indeed nonexistent so far. Gingrich does “not think [the Trump team has] a strategy,” he said, adding as a would-be comfort that “they know, which is important, [that] they are going to need a strategy.”

Gingrich’s remarks are in one sense encouraging: If the plan is not yet set in stone, that means Trump may still be influenced toward a truly fresh policy of prudence and restraint. Before considering what might be, however, it is worth examining the few hints we already have as to what Trump’s plan could look like.

His campaign website labels his August speech on terrorism the president-elect’s “Detailed Plan to Defeat ISIS,” but unfortunately that is a generous description. Though full of specific images of the problem ISIS poses—and criticisms of reckless past policies which contributed to that problem—its concrete recommendations for future action are few, mostly amounting to naming “Radical Islam” as our enemy, keeping the oil in Iraq out of ISIS hands, working closely with allies, and finding common ground with Russia. (That latter point Trump reiterated at this past Wednesday’s press conference: “Russia can help us fight ISIS,” he said, and “if Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset.”) These may or may not be wise ideas, but they are more at the level of tactical adjustment than a true reassessment of U.S. strategy in the greater Mideast.

Trump’s August talk quite correctly castigates the failure of ill-advised invasions and nation-building efforts, most notably in Iraq and Libya, but he equally attacks withdrawal of U.S. military presence from these conflicts once intervention has begun. The upshot is thus unclear: A President Trump may be commendably uninterested in entangling the U.S. in new wars, but does he have any intention of disentangling America from the seven nations where we are presently engaged?

That confusion is troubling because many of the president-elect’s comments about fighting ISIS indicate he does not realize the full extent of those expensive, dangerous, and often counterproductive entanglements. “We’re not knocking [ISIS],” he told Doocy in that September conversation. “We’re hitting them every once in a while. We’re hitting them in certain places. We’re being very gentle about it.” Just this week, Trump’s secretary of state pick, Rex Tillerson similarly bemoaned U.S. “withdrawal” from the world in his prepared remarks for his confirmation hearing.

This is a common narrative, propagated (with significant variation) by President Obama and his critics alike, so it is no surprise that Trump and his staff would believe it. The trouble is it isn’t true: The United States dropped a whopping 26,171 bombs in seven countries in 2016. After campaigning as an anti-war candidate, Obama leaves the U.S. bogged down in all the wars underway when he entered office plus several more.

In short, there has been no withdrawal, and we are constantly “knocking” just about everything that moves in the Middle East and North Africa, cost and consequence be damned.

Trump’s promise in his September speech to defeat ISIS by “aggressively pursu[ing] joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS, international cooperation to cutoff their funding, expanded intelligence sharing, and cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable their propaganda and recruiting” is thus fundamentally more of the same. If this is a glimpse of what we can expect from the secret plan—if Trump is operating under the false assumption that America can defeat ISIS simply by “knocking” them more—his claim to a new strategy is bound to disappoint.

By contrast, Trump’s December promise of “a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past” showed real potential for meaningful strategic change. “We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments,” he said. “Our goal is stability, not chaos, [and] new era of peace, understanding, and goodwill.”

This is the sort of impulse Trump must keep at the forefront of his planning process. It is only by a serious willingness to break with establishment foreign policy orthodoxy—the naïve and obstinate interventionism that has produced the last 15 years’ grim cycle of war and terror—that Trump’s developing plan can escape the useless doldrums of tactic tweaks and make a true strategic shift. The past two presidents have proven the paucity of ideas in that bipartisan establishment; if Trump’s secret plan is of any value, he cannot simply escalate that same bankrupt approach.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.