All Levers of U.S. Power

Many who watched President Trump’s speech on July 22, as he commissioned the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, took his remarks as a flexing of American military muscle. Speaking of the Gerald R. Ford, President Trump said, “American steel and American hands have constructed a 100,000-ton message to the world: American might is second to none…We will win, win, win. We will never lose.”

A former U.S. Marine, Jake Cusack, had a sobering assessment of this speech. Cusack, who served multiple tours in Iraq as a platoon commander, pointed out the dangers of relying too heavily on military power while ignoring all the other levers of U.S. national power. Here is part of what he said:

Mr. Trump’s speech reflected his administration’s emphasis on the military as the primary instrument of U.S. foreign policy. He has delegated broad powers to his military commanders while sidelining the State Department and proposing deep cuts to foreign aid. As a former Marine, I loved seeing a new aircraft carrier commissioned. But as I listened to Mr. Trump, I recalled a lesson from my service in Iraq a decade ago: Feeling strong and being strong are often two very different things.

I vividly remember one particular mission in which we searched four compounds for “high-value” insurgents. It was the heady stuff of recruiting commercials—heavily armed Marines riding helicopters into lawless terrain in the dead of night. The raid was a success, and when we landed back on base at 5 a.m., we felt great, high on testosterone and adrenaline.

But I soon began to wonder if this was the best we could do with our superior technology and troops. More than 60 Marines, backed by assault helicopters and fighter planes, just to capture a few Iraqi farmers who had taken potshots at other Marines a few weeks earlier?

Later in my deployment, I joined a small group of Marines to talk to some sheikhs who lived along a U.S. resupply route that was riddled with explosive devices. We tried to map the road out in one- or two-kilometer segments, identifying which local leaders held their communities’ respect. With various rewards and punishments as our tools, we worked with them to reduce the number of roadside bombs.

The second mission lacked the action-movie excitement of helicopters whisking away bad guys under cover of darkness. But what feels effective is often different from what is effective. Winning the support of local leaders was a key part of the counterinsurgency strategies forged by such commanders as David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster (now Mr. Trump’s national security adviser). These low-key efforts buttressed the pulse-pounding raids—and made Iraq a safer place for several years before the U.S. troop pullout that ended in 2011.

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