How President Trump’s Love of Baseball should inform his foreign policy.
President Donald Trump once called himself the “the best baseball player in New York”. Unfortunately for the American public, President Trump has recently decided not to throw the traditional first pitch of the baseball season, which every American president has done since Republican Will Howard Taft in 1909.
A more trying occasion than the start of the baseball season now demands a decision by President Trump. This week, over 100 people died in a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria. President Trump has already responded with a missile attack that has horrified, among all people, his political base. However, such interventions carry the risk of being ineffective at best – as in Libya – or a long-drawn out quagmire at worse – as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. If President Trump does consider military intervention, then he must also revise an oft-cited American foreign policy position – and use his baseball knowledge to do it.
Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick
While running for President, Theodore Roosevelt first mentioned the phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far” in an address at the Minnesota State Fair in 1901. The phrase describes a foreign policy that prioritized peaceful negotiation and military build-up in order to avert future crises. Roosevelt exercised the foreign policy in sending his Great White Fleet around the world, as well as mediating a resolution to the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Since that time, presidents and national security planners have used Roosevelt’s aphorism as a reason to maintain America’s enormous military. It easily played into the narrative of Mutually Assured Destruction during the Cold War, supported the rationale for intervening in Bosnia during the 1990s and is used even today to support President Trump’s new budget that greatly increases funding for the military.
On the face of it, the belief that an all-powerful military with a global reach can deter international actors from violating international norms seems logical. After all, Saddam Hussein did not invade Kuwait after Desert Storm. But there is a caveat: possessing the largest fighting force in the world deters nothing, if international actors believe it will not be used.
Perhaps the most cited contemporary case of an empty threat of force is President Barack Obama’s 2015 red line on chemical weapons in Syria. However, the precedent existed long before that. In 1979, after witnessing the Carter administration’s weak public response to the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Leonid Brezhnev closed the door on détente and ignored American threats of repercussion by invading Afghanistan. Before that, Nikita Khrushchev decided to send nuclear weapons to Cuba only after seeing the failure of President John Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion. Jaws agape in awe of the American military can quickly transform into cackles of laughter due to both lack of credibility and lack of courage. In a word, if one is to carry a big stick, one must swing it.
… Swing Hard …
The type of intervention used in Libya by President Barack Obama will not be sufficient for Syria. Not only is the Syrian government and military better organized and better armed than Libya’s, but Syrian society is home to a larger and more complex population that is similar to that in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the Russian intervention there is unable to quell the ongoing crisis is evidence of the difficulty of the operating environment. If President Trump truly wants to change the situation in Syria and break the legacy of the Obama presidency, then only armed intervention on a scale equal to Operation Desert Storm will be effective in quickly resolving the conflict and signaling to the world that the United States will no longer maintain a dogmatic aversion to large-scale military intervention.
An intervention weaker than Operation Desert Storm would only lead to a quagmire that is so feared by the American foreign policy establishment. Even though Operation Rolling Thunder dropped more bombs than was dropped during either the entirety of the Korean War or the Pacific Theater during World War II, North Vietnam continued to effectively supply the Viet Cong and harass American troops in the South. More famously, the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, which used a third of the amount of troops deployed for Desert Storm, resulted in the drawn-out war that spawned Daesh. If in the end Donald Trump chooses to swing the stick, he must be prepared to swing the biggest stick he can find.
… and Follow Through
While a repeat of Desert Storm would have the greatest chance of neutralizing the Assad regime’s ability to murder its own people as well as take out Daesh’s political control over Al-Raqqa, an armed intervention alone will also sow the seeds for future conflict and radicalization. Alexander Lee in World Politics argues that the root causes of radicalization are the loss of economic opportunity and the presence of barriers to political participation – both of which increase when a country is destroyed by war or declines under dictatorship. It is for these reasons why so many young Iranians supported Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and why so many Sunni Iraqis answered Caliph Al-Baghdadi’s call to form Daesh in 2014. It was also the reason that so many Europeans voted for Communist and far-left parties after World War II.
America’s solution for preventing further radicalization then was the Marshall Plan, the largest direct grant aid program in history. A Marshall Plan in Syria in the wake of massive armed intervention would be expensive. In 1946, the Marshall Plan gave around $38.25 dollars per capita to Europe. Accounting for inflation, the equivalent in 2016 dollars would be $382.5 per capita, which would amount to over $8.74 billion total for a county of Syria’s population.
However expensive, a program of that magnitude would undermine the Islamist’s main gripe against America: that we bomb their cities and kill their people, then return home. The plan would provide better conditions for a democratic system to develop and bolster the popularity of pro-American groups. Anything less than a Marshall Plan would only prolong the suffering of Syrians and lay the foundations for another threat to American security to rise again. In 1993, President Bill Clinton announced a $43 billion economic aid package for a Russia that saw its GDP cut by 60% and inflation approach 2500%. As impressive as that sounds, over $6.5 billion went unused in a ruble stabilization fund, while over $25 billion were just loans and $15 billion was debt relief. A much ballyhooed $45 billion was in actuality only $1.5 billion in direct aid. The disparity between the announced number and actual aid bred resentment in Russia not just for America, but democracy itself. It is not hard to understand how President Vladimir Putin is so popular for his shows of defiance against America. As any good baseball player knows, the key to a good swing is follow-through.
Or Don’t Swing at All.
The missile strikes last week, for all the controversy it sparked over violating the UN Charter and the War Powers Act, do nothing to stop the killing of Syrian children or the recruitment of radical Syrian youth into a terrorist outfit that threatens American lives. Any armed intervention short of a Desert Storm level magnitude and accompanied by anything less than a Marshall Plan style aid program will only prolong the conflict. President Trump must either be prepared to commit massive resources to resolve the Syrian War or stay out of it. But can we trust a president too hesitant to throw a first pitch to commit the resources necessary to resolve the problems which greater men could not? To borrow another quote from President Roosevelt, will President Trump be the “man in the arena, who at the best knows the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly” or will he be one of “those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”?