Even though President Trump didn't authorize dropping of a 21,000-lb. bomb in Afghanistan on Thursday, he may still get a political boost from it.
After U.S. military announced the attack on an Islamic State tunnel complex, Trump said he endorsed the strike, and he said he wasn't trying to send a message to another troublesome nation, North Korea. "It doesn’t make any difference if it does or not — North Korea is a problem, the problem will be taken care of," Trump told reporters.
Asked about the use of the GBU-43, or massive ordnance air blast (MOAB) in Afghanistan, coming one week after a missile strike in Syria, Trump said that "what I do is I authorize my military. ... We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and frankly that’s why they’ve been so successful lately."
Government officials said that while Trump has been briefed on the potential use of the MOAB, it does not appear Trump got a special briefing on Thursday's use. There was no need for one, a White House official said, because Trump had given authority to the military when it came to attacking ISIS, and the president was aware that this weapon was an option. "He had already in effect greenlighted it," the official said who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Military officials said the president has given the military wide latitude to fight the war on terrorism as they see fit.
Commanders in Afghanistan already had approval to use the bomb from Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, who had changed the rules for bombing in Iraq and Syria last year, said a defense official who was not authorized to speak on the record. He said Thursday was chosen because of the target. The strike was announced because it was the first time the MOAB was used in combat and the size of the blast was certain to raise questions among locals, the official said, and was not dropped to send a message to North Korea. The MOAB was seen as the best choice among a series of options for the attack.
A second senior Defense official also cautioned reading more into the use of the MOAB. Sometimes a bomb is just a bomb, said the official who also was not authorized to speak publicly.
Fears of a wider conflict
Trump’s decision to attack Syria’s airbase last week won plaudits from allies around the world and many Syrians under siege from the regime of President Bashar Assad. Even former presidential opponent Hillary Clinton said she was in favor of a retaliatory strike (she actually said it before he did it).
Thursday's attack may bolster Trump's popularity, at least in the short term, analysts said, thought it may also heighten fears about the president's aggressiveness.
Foreign policy analysts have long noted that Trump likes to surround himself with military symbols, whether it's appearing with troops in uniform or campaigning on battleships and aircraft carriers. "I think Trump is the kind of person who likes to put out visuals," said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a non-partisan foreign policy think tank in Washington. "It seems like he's a guy who likes to do a lot of signaling to his adversaries."
He added, though, that doesn't mean we should expect him to attack North Korea, whose leader, Kim Jong-un, has increased his war of words with the United States and may be planning a nuclear test this weekend. "I think he's trying to signal to the North Koreans that he means business, but I don't think it means anything more than that."
Also, the MOAB is delivered by a cargo plane, in this case an MC-130, which would not be suitable for use in North Korea.
While Trump once expressed opposition to bombing in Syria, he has long threatened to use force against the Islamic State — most famously in November of 2015 in Fort Dodge, Iowa, when he drew applause for threatening to go after ISIS oil fields and "bomb the s--- out of them."
As for North Korea, Trump has urged China to help rein in their neighbor's nuclear threats, or the United States and its allies will do so on their own.
The saber rattling, the sudden strikes in Syria and Afghanistan, and opposition to the Syria strike from countries like Russia all have created worries by critics that Trump might somehow start "World War III."
Michael Caputo, who worked for Trump's presidential campaign last year, said military men and veterans "are happy to see a different kind of chief executive," and he predicted the public will react positively as well. The strikes have been carefully planned and "very precise," he said, and "those kinds of actions typically get high levels of support."
Dismissing concerns about a general war, Caputo said "we've been war with Islamic terrorism for a long time ... This isn't unique to his presidency."
Trump is also issuing warnings to adversaries, Caputo said. "One, when he draws a red line, it's really quite red," he said. "And, two, we have the weaponry to cause really, really serious trouble."