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A nation must think before it acts.
“Just met with General Petraeus—was very impressed!” tweeted President-elect Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Petraeus described his conversation to reporters. “[Trump] basically walked us around the world, showed a great grasp of a variety of the challenges that are out there and some of the opportunities as well. Very good conversation, and we’ll see where it goes from here.” In a process not entirely dissimilar to that of the hit show The Apprentice, Trump is currently finalizing his Cabinet selections, including the prize role of secretary of state. The finalists appear to include Petraeus, Mitt Romney, and Senator Bob Corker. Petraeus is a controversial and flawed selection, but if chosen he could also be an essential part of Trump’s White House.
Petraeus is, to say the least, damaged goods. During the presidential campaign, Trump condemned Hillary Clinton for using a private email server, claiming the scandal was “bigger than Watergate.” But in 2015, Petraeus pled guilty to a charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified information, after handing over data to his mistress and biographer, and was sentenced to two years probation.
The reason that Trump needs Petraeus is what we might term Trump’s “Clausewitz problem.” The 19th-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz argued that war is not about destroying things for its own sake, but is a “political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” In other words, fighting is not the end of politics, but is instead a shift in tactics, or a new form of bargaining. Clausewitz’s insight continues to be central to military thought. According to the 2014 U.S. Army Operating Concept: “Army forces are prepared to do more than fight and defeat enemies; they must possess the capability to translate military objectives into enduring political outcomes.”
But when Trump talks about war, he focuses almost solely on destruction—not on the larger political goals. Trump promised to “beat the hell out of ISIS,” and the Islamic State “will be gone if I’m elected president. And they’ll be gone quickly. They will be gone very, very quickly.” Trump shows little interest in the political consequence of bombing, nation-building, or the demands of post-conflict reconstruction. “We are spending trillions of dollars in the Middle East, and the infrastructure of our country is disintegrating.”