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Donald Trump's 'Military First' Administration

U.S. President Trump has changed from a candidate concerned with the economic plight of ordinary Americans, to an imperialist president fascinated by military power.

Trump at 136th Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony in May.
Trump at 136th Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony in May.


BUENOS AIRES — The campaign slogan that helped get Donald J. Trump elected to the White House and that has characterized his first 100 days in office needs to be clarified: "America First" has so far actually meant "military first."

Trump's announcements on tax reform, his executive orders affecting the economy and finances and his promises of unilateral action on trade will not necessarily strengthen the country's industrial or productive foundations, nor reduce material inequalities or social and cultural divisions.

What is clear since January is that there has been greater emphasis on military muscle than diplomatic tact, an emphasis that was already evident since the end of the Cold War, and even more so since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Trump has unveiled his vision of strategic primacy: Washington will not tolerate the rise and advance of any power to the level of the U.S. This strategy was pursued by George W. Bush, then calibrated somewhat under Barack Obama and is now back in full force under Trump, as several indicators show:

First, there is the military presence within the administration headed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, all senior officers. People tied to the defense industry also occupy top positions, such as Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, who had links to Lockheed subsidiary firms and investments in companies like Raytheon and Honeywell; Benjamin Cassidy, a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security who was an executive at Boeing; and Michael Catanzaro at the National Economic Council, who was a lobbyist for Halliburton. Added to these are well-known hawks like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Using the most lethal arms does not necessarily make strategic sense, but it does convey a wish to appear more offensive

Second, the administration decided to increase the defense budget by $54 billion for 2018, over the current $600 billion, while cutting the budgets of education, healthcare, environmental protection and international aid.

Third, there has been a significant growth in the arms business. According to the Forum on the Arms Trade, Obama's first 100 days in office resulted in $713 million worth of notified arms sales, while arms sales in Trump's first 100 days totaled $6 billion. It was no wonder, therefore, that Moody's Investors Service noted an improved market climate for the military industry in March 2017 after a fall in the sector's contracts during 2012-15.

Fourth, the new administration has continued and expanded the use of force with more potent and threatening weapons. A recent report in the Council on Foreign Relations said that the Obama administration launched 26,171 bombs in 2016, while it observed a 400% increase in drone attacks by the Trump administration.

The report notes that the administration has increased U.S. involvement in Yemen, expanded military operations in Africa (especially Somalia), launched 59 Tomahawk missile attacks on Syria, dropped the "mother of all bombs' (MOAB) on a site in Afghanistan and is contemplating sudden military action against North Korea. Using the most lethal arms does not necessarily make strategic sense, but it does convey a wish to appear more offensive in conflicts where the United States has not demonstrated decisive victories.

And fifth, there is clearly a political, bureaucratic and corporate backdrop to the belligerence of Trump's early presidency. During his campaign and in the early days of his administration, Trump's main focus was on terrorism, and other goals seemed limited. Over time, under pressure from civil and military actors and partly in response to his allies' demands, internal complications grew and with them, the belief that the use of force could deliver domestic political gains.

Hence the decisions to step up the "war on terrorism," to threaten Iran and North Korea, to reconsider Russia's position as a major enemy of the West, to tacitly suggest "regime changes," reinforce certain Middle East alliances that have not contributed to boosting the region's alliances, tighten the geopolitical noose around China and to insinuate the willingness to cross red lines in the use of weapons of mass destruction.

This is why the core policy of Donald Trump, whose personal style combines boldness and ignorance, is a resurgent United States where the military comes first.

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