The Trump administration wants to break with Obama’s policy of discussing and forecasting the deployment of U.S. troops. This policy shift, which was announced last month after it came out that a unit of U.S. Marines had been quietly sent to Syria, is intended to give the U.S. the element of surprise in its battle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
According to Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon, “In order to maintain tactical surprise, ensure operational security and force protection, the coalition will not routinely announce or confirm information about the capabilities, force numbers, locations, or movement of forces in or out of Iraq and Syria.”
This is in keeping with Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign: “I don’t want to be like Barack Obama where he announced a few months ago we are sending 50 soldiers, our finest, to Iraq and Syria. Why do you announce that? Why do you tell the enemy that your sending people over there and they now have a target on their backs?”
Could This Exacerbate The Risk Of Mission Creep?
This policy shift is all the more notable in light of the recent airstrike on a Syrian airbase and the possibility of increased military engagement in the country. Trump’s detractors argue that this secrecy will rob the American people of the chance to discuss and weigh-in on overseas military engagements. An article in Politico railed against the new policy:
“The risk of mission creep is compounded by Trump’s penchant for secrecy regarding how U.S. military forces are being deployed. The lack of transparency guts public accountability at the very time when more U.S. forces are being put in harm’s way, risking ever-expanding commitments with no real public debate.”
To be sure, there ought to be some level of openness about the extent to which the U.S. is committing itself in foreign conflicts. The public should debate this and make its sentiments known to lawmakers and the president. But that kind of engagement is not the same thing as having an up-to-date live feed of all troop movements.
We Are Used Instant Gratification, But It Doesn’t Fit War
We desire this level of information, in part, because we are used to having instant gratification thanks to the internet and the ever-vigilant (or distracted) masses on social media. We’ve started to treat knowledge of all things like a right. We have a right to know exactly where U.S. troops are, don’t we? This is certainly how the Obama administration treated foreign policy and military movements.
The Obama doctrine was centered on the dual-pronged philosophy of diplomacy and absolute transparency. The two were connected. Obama thought that the U.S. should lay everything on the table for the American people at home and therefore also for our enemies. This notion grew from Obama’s anti-Iraq War platform and Americans’ distaste for foreign engagements. There was less of a need for secrecy because Obama thought America should rely predominantly on diplomacy, by which he meant excluding the threat of military force. The U.S. would avoid another war by never giving up on diplomacy, even if it meant tipping our hand that military force was off the table, giving our enemies the upper hand.
It’s no surprise, then, that former Obama administration officials are aghast at Trump’s new policy. One of Obama’s National Security Council spokesmen, Ned Price, said, “The position of the Obama administration was that the American people had a right to know if servicemen and women were in harm’s way. It’s truly shocking that the current administration furtively deploys troops without public debate or describing their larger strategy.”
How Highly Should We Value Transparency?
Transparency is desirable in most areas of government. It’s important when it comes to things like the budget or what’s contained in a massive healthcare bill. The American people want to know how a congressman is using public funds. In these areas, the more transparency the better. But when it comes to national security and the movements of the U.S. military, this is not necessarily the case. Transparency on military matters can be harmful to our strategic aims and possibly even dangerous.
Leaving some things concealed is also a vital element in military strategy just as it is in other areas. If your business is in competition with another firm, you don’t put all your cards on the table. You want to keep your competitor guessing what your next move might be. Just so in when it comes to military strategy and diplomacy.
There should, absolutely, be clear communication with the public about foreign wars, and the U.S. hasn’t always had the best track record on that score. But that doesn’t mean the government should volunteer information about how it will proceed in every scenario. Our enemies certainly aren’t playing by those rules.
Obama Never Acted Like Our Enemies Pay Attention
The Obama administration never seemed to understand that our enemies are paying attention. Perhaps that’s because Obama never truly acknowledged that the U.S. had any enemies. His doctrine of diplomacy, which could be summed up as “speak softly and don’t carry a stick,” assumed that all countries have similar values and goals, and that getting along was just a matter of clearing up some misunderstandings. If that were true, then his style of absolute diplomacy would make sense.
But the reality is that America does have adversaries in the world, and not all governments have virtuous motives. Some of them are watching what we do, seeking to outmaneuver us.
Trump wants to keep ISIS on its toes by not openly disclosing strategic planning when it comes to U.S. troops. Rightly so. But ISIS probably doesn’t have the intelligence capabilities to analyze troop movements, making the secrecy less necessary. That said, other countries are paying attention—like China, Russia, or Iran. When we broadcast where we’re sending our troops, we are also indicating to other countries where those troops are not going. This can endanger the efficacy of our strategies in other regions.
Whether or not this policy of non-disclosure will extend beyond Syria and Iraq remains to be seen, though it would be consistent with Trump’s previous comments. It’s also unclear whether Trump will ultimately strike the proper balance between secrecy and transparency, which is required in a democracy. He could well take this new policy too far. But, for now, the Trump administration’s understanding that the element of surprise is an important tactical tool in any conflict is a welcome change from the Obama era.