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Last week, David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times claimed (archive):

Love or hate him, Trump has used military force less than any other president since Jimmy Carter.

There are probably a number of ways to measure this (troop deployments, missile launches, conflicts started), but I do believe this writer has made a substantive enough claim that it can be analyzed.

Has President Donald Trump used military force less than any other U.S. president since President Jimmy Carter?

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    Maybe this would be a better question for Politics, where they can just list the 5 relevant presidents (all but one who served 8 years, compared to Trump's 3) and the wars that the US were involved with during their presidency. This seems like it is more easily done back-of-envelope rather than to Skeptics.SE's required level of rigour, and that better matches the level of rigour in the claim. – Oddthinking Jan 13 at 1:07
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    how do you define it anyway? Specific actions, entire campaigns, things he personally ordered rather than happening under previous larger orders (e.g. if the navy engages an Iranian gunboat that gets within a distance limits set by their ROE, is that counted as a separate instance or not?). Do you count totals or average number per day in office? Such questions get very murky very quickly. – jwenting Jan 13 at 5:35
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    @jwenting, IDK. Maybe the writer made an unfalsifiable assertion :/ – Paul Draper Jan 13 at 10:37
  • @PaulDraper possible, but given the hostility of the NYT against the president one has to wonder why they'd print something that makes him look good in the eyes of many people (unless they're claiming that not making war left and right is a bad thing of course). Of course the "since Carter" thing is significant as Carter was a peacetime president in office only a single term. Every other president since was a wartime president and/or in office for 2 terms. – jwenting Jan 13 at 10:40
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    @jwenting: Note this is an op-ed column. It's the opinion of David Brooks, who has been writing this column since 2003, and not of the New York Times per se. Newspapers don't normally exercise editorial control over their op-ed columnists. – Nate Eldredge Jan 13 at 18:17
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Yes by some measure; no by others


Operations

Wikipedia maintains a list of U.S. military operations.

Obviously not all "operations" are of equal size, but initiating fewer military actions is a reasonable interpretation of "using military force less."

Counted by the date of their initiation:

  • Jimmy Carter (1977-1980): 2 operations over 4 years

  • Ronald Reagan (1981-1988): 22 operations over 8 years

  • George H.W. Bush (1989-1992): 16 operations over 4 years

  • Bill Clinton (1993-2000): 25 operations over 8 years

  • George W. Bush (2001-2008): 15 operations over 8 years

  • Barack Obama (2009-2016): 21 operations over 8 years

  • Donald Trump (2017-2020): 4 operations over 3-4 years

This measure also supports the claim's implication that Carter used the military even less than Trump.

FYI, the four listed operations during the Trump administration were

  1. Shayrat missle strike in Syria

  2. Damascus and Homs missles strikes in Syria

  3. Operation Sentinel in Middle East waterways

  4. response to Baghdad Embassy attack in Iraq

Troop deployment

Washington Times reports:

Just over 217,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, Airmen and Marines were deployed in various global hot spots in September 2017, representing a nearly 42% decline from 2008

This data comes from DoD publications.

In 2016, there were fewer overseas active-duty troops than there had been in many decades

The number of active-duty U.S. military troops stationed overseas has dipped below 200,000 for the first time in at least 60 years.

Starting in 2017, the numbers are less clear. The DoD chose for security reasons not to publish troop strength in Middle East regions; the only available data is the occasional statement from the President or the Pentagon. And the deployment numbers have fluctuated. The U.S. increased the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2017-2018 and then decreased deployment by a similar amount in 2018-2019.

Air strikes

Drone and missile strikes have been a popular measurement target for military activity.

Obama increased drone strikes 10 times more than his predecessor.

Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, there were 574 strikes during Obama (72/yr), and 258 strikes during Trump (86/yr), according to The Beareau of Investigative Journalism which collects accounts of covert strikes.

Some organizations report massive increases in strikes under Trump. However, they often fail to mention that the date was not collected for Afghanistan until 2015, and it sees far more U.S. action than the other three countries (well over 10x the number of strikes).


Conclusion

If you measure by the number of new military engagements, Donald Trump has used the military less than any president after Jimmy Carter.

If you measure overseas troop deployments, either Obama or Trump has the fewest.

Troop deployments and airstrikes have less data on them, but it would seem that Obama had less of each than Trump.

  • This list of military operations seems to not include various usages of drones outside of those two conflicts. I doubt that the list is otherwise complete either. – Christian Jan 16 at 13:03
  • @Christian, it's admittedly inexact, but I believe it's comprehensive for anything unclassified and of notable significance. FWIW, the va.gov itself directs people seeking a list of military operations to that same Wikipedia page. – Paul Draper Jan 16 at 16:34
  • I think there's substantially more information in the public record about military operations that happened 10 years ago then there's information in the public record about those that happened 2 years ago by the nature of it being easier to keep things out of the public eye for shorter periods of time. I don't think it's possible to conclude from the fact that Wikipedia lists less events for a recent time then for a time further ago that there are now less events. – Christian Jan 16 at 16:44
  • @Christian, after the War Powers Act, the President is required to notify Congress within 48 hours of taking military action. These become publicly known fairly quickly. – Paul Draper Jan 22 at 16:30
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Perhaps by some measures, e.g. the number of troops deployed in official conflict zones, but surely not by all measures, e.g.

During Mr Obama's eight years in office, 1,878 drone strikes were carried out, according to researchers. Since Mr Trump was elected in 2016, there have been 2,243 drone strikes.

Actually, I'm not sure how to quantify Bill Clinton's years since the only major conflict he oversaw was in Yugoslavia and US didn't have troops on the ground much. Perhaps one can compare ammunition expended in air strikes... There were over 23,000 NATO air munitions fired in the war against Yugoslavia. On the other hand, in 2018 in Afghanistan alone slightly over 7,000 were fired, which is supposed to be an increase over the previous years (for which I can't find precise figures). Around 6,000 were fired against ISIS in 2017 (again I can't find numbers for other years). So in the 3 years since Trump was elected ISIS+Taliban targets might have received a fairly comparable number with Yugoslavia during Clinton...

The claim is probably reasonably/trivially true if major ground operations are considered with respect to H.W. Bush (1st Gulf war), G.W. Bush (2nd Gulf war) and even Obama (given the 2009-2010 troop surge in Afghanistan).

It's actually not terribly clear with respect to Reagan's time though, given that Reagan only started a relatively small war in Grenada and some pretty limited air strikes against Libya and naval action against Iran. Going by the Wikipedia figures less than 200 enemy combatants were killed in all those actions combined. I'd be impressed all those drone strikes carried out during Trump's administration didn't kill at least as many.

  • If we're going by death toll, it appears that Reagan, Clinton, and even Bush I used less military force. – Colin Jan 23 at 5:20

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