If anything was going to yield in terms of Donald Trump’s political principles, the one that was ostensibly anti-war was bound to be first. From January’s civilian and SEAL-killing Yemen raid, to the airstrikes against Syria, to the recent use of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb (or MOAB, or, more informally and creepily, the “Mother of All Bombs”), Trump seems perfectly happy to intervene abroad just as much as his predecessors.
Not only does the dabbling in nations such as Yemen — with which the US is not legally at war — continue under Trump, and the same troop and drone presence all over the world as Obama, Bush, and others offered, but Trump is now flirting with a couple of new wars. Tensions with North Korea are a 60-year-old story in the US, but Trump’s coyness about doing something about their continued nuclear tests is more concerning than the nation’s endless threats to nuke the USA, since those remain baseless (knock on wood).
His tensions with Russia have upped, thanks in part to the airstrikes on Syria in response to the chemical attack on citizens; thanks also perhaps to Trump’s desire to be seen as no one’s puppet.
And then there’s the MOAB. The press has buzzed with the excitement of the use of a 16-million dollar, 21,000 pound weapon to kill a paltry 36 ISIS fighters and destroy a few tunnels. Thankfully, assuming first reports are accurate, which is probably unwise, no civilians were killed in the attack. The 11-tons-of-TNN blast was so powerful, however, that people heard the blast for miles, and it shattered windows and raised a cloud of mushroom-cloud-like plume of dust. The bomb was invented to replace out of date Vietnam weapons, and to scare the pants off of Saddam Hussein in the early aughts. The US has 20, but has never used them in combat before.
Like the Syria strikes, this was interpreted as a truly presidential action on Trump’s part. Fox and Friends aired footage of the attack alongside a Toby Keith song, because it’s always 2001 on that show.
The MOAB is the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in America’s arsenal. It’s 30 feet long. It explodes above the ground, and is intended to penetrate bunkers. It is essentially a big, showy weapon, but one without the power or the taboo of something nuclear.
The president also used it for the first time in Afghanistan, the most bitter slog of an active combat that the US is currently engaged in–and has been for 15 years. For all of the wars and drone strikes and based that the US has, Afghanistan is probably the most active one that many of us forget about on a daily and monthly basis.
Occasionally, the US will make some kind of catastrophic PR and human life error and bomb a Doctors Without Borders Hospital, as Obama did in 2015, killing 19 people. But mostly, Afghanistan has not been war number one since before Iraq. Initially, the vast majority of people supported the war. By 2014, a plurality thought it should never have started.
Obama’s most ardent supporters seem to have missed the fact that he freely admitted during his first campaign for the presidency that he supported the war (unlike Iraq), and intended to (and later did) increase troop numbers there. But again, flashier wars; ISIS’s movements in Iraq and Syria have taken attention away from the first target America hit in the war on terror in what seems like a different era.
Hitting ISIS in Afghanistan, of all places, with ordinance that was previously unused in combat sounds dramatic. Spending $12 million to take out 36 people in a country that people forget has any ISIS fighters at all (about 800 at this point) sounds like a hefty price tag. But this attack was ordered by a general, not the president. Reportedly, the general chose the weapon on his own initiative. That fits with Trump’s stated desire to let the military make more of their own decisions.
MOAB can only be used in a remote area unless the US decides to start ignoring civilians entirely. Its use seems to have been comparatively calculated, and relatively successful, even coming from an antiwar perspective. By all accounts, it hit the right target (but then, you have to, in this case), and it killed the worst people. Still, setting a precedent with weapons use in a war that has gone on far too long is never comforting, and rarely bodes well for a peaceful future. The media, however, has reacted with both early aughts shock and awe-ish glee, and myopic critiques that tended to be mysteriously lacking when Obama’s drones hit a wedding or two. Still, this is a bomb with an incredibly powerful airburst that can kill people miles away. It was, perhaps, used reasonably carefully and in a remote area, but it would have to be to avoid a complete slaughter of civilians.
Even if Trump didn’t order this beforehand, this is Trump’s foreign policy. It’s letting the military decide, which has its merits and its drawbacks. Trump is commander-in-chief. Civilian control of the military is intended to be a safeguard, though it obviously hasn’t prevented the US from stepping all over the globe, and into various wars. But Trump either doesn’t have the attention span to micro-manage, or actually has less of an ego in this area, and realizes he’s particularly clueless about foreign affairs. He does not know which bomb to use in which country at which time. In response to questions of whether he authorized the bomb use, he rambled positively about the greatness of the military.
Trump does, however, appear to know he’s changed his mind. The man who prioritized mocking the Dick Cheney school of foreign policy arrogance is gone. The familiar sight of a US president who is happy to send a message to the bad guys, and use weapons in an theatrical manner is in front of us again. Trump may pivot from one war to the next, but he does not seem to be pivoting away from any conflicts.
If any of us expected Trump to actually pull back from wars, we were foolish and naive. The only thing to do now is hope he doesn’t start any new ones, particularly with Iran or North Korea. He will, one suspects, be using the best, the fanciest, the most expensive weapons the US has, whenever they are supposedly warranted. That, if nothing is, is President Trump all over. Even better is letting the military make the hard choices, and Trump taking the credit, while lavishing praise upon them.
Lucy Steigerwald is the assistant editor of Young Voices, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com