One of Donald Trump’s more remarkable qualities is his ability to convince people to give him credit for things he hasn’t done. He has, for example, convinced many Americans that he is an effective businessman, despite his massive inherited wealth and legacy of failure; an effective dealmaker, who makes very few successful deals; and an economic populist, whose main legislative accomplishment is a tax cut more regressive than any passed by the patrician Bush family he savaged in the 2016 primary.
Trump, reeling from negative coverage surrounding The Atlantic’s story about his disparaging American service members as “suckers” and “losers,” fell back on yet another unearned element of his reputation: He claimed to be a noninterventionist.
“I’m not saying the military’s in love with me—the soldiers are, the top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t, because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy,” Trump said at a news conference on Monday. Polls actually suggest that a plurality of service members support his rival, Joe Biden, but that’s almost beside the point.
Two decades after the 9/11 attacks, America’s global war on terrorism has led to one failed conflict after another, eroded civil liberties and due process, and poisoned American politics with a browbeating jingoism and corrosive religious intolerance. Having a president who saw those effects clearly would be a boon to the country. Donald Trump is not that president.
As with his business acumen, his skill as a negotiator, and his image as an economic populist, Trump says one thing and does another. There are always people willing to believe that Trump’s image of himself is accurate, despite all evidence to the contrary—and to praise the president for articulating principles verbally even as he makes a mockery of them with his actions. To uncritically accept Trump’s self-serving attacks on military contractors is to attribute to him qualities he does not possess and a record he has not earned. The president’s criticism of military contractors is belied by his commitment to fattening their pockets.
During the 2016 campaign, some of Trump’s statements gave the impression that he might be opposed to expanding America’s military commitments abroad. This view was perhaps most memorably crystallized by the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s April 2016 op-ed, “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk.” But Trump’s presidency has seen the steady expansion of American military involvement abroad, not retrenchment.
That record underscores the hypocrisy of the charges he lobbed at the Pentagon. In a country with a normal military budget, new wars might be necessary to fatten the pockets of defense contractors. But in America, our perpetual global war against terrorism will do. The forever war ensures a rising defense budget, no matter how peripherally related its line items are to actual conflict. Trump’s administration has overseen a rise in military spending every year he has been in office, with fiscal year 2019 matching the Obama administration’s highest year. The leadership at the Trump Department of Defense, including Mark Esper, the current defense secretary, is replete with former executives of companies such as Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. Defense contractors are not going hungry during the Trump administration, which has also given Palantir, owned by the Trump supporter Peter Thiel, lucrative military contracts. Trump famously dismissed restrictions on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain over human-rights concerns, hardly the actions of someone trying to end war by starving evil defense contractors. Contrary to the president’s assertion, “the companies that make the bombs and make the planes” have had little to complain about during his administration.
Nor has the Trump administration allowed those bombs and planes to go unused. According to the New America Foundation, Trump has stepped up air strikes in Somalia and Yemen while reducing them in Libya and Pakistan. He’s also removed Obama-era restrictions and transparency mandates on drone warfare, which makes assessing the human cost of such methods difficult. In Afghanistan, according to The Washington Post, Trump has increased the number of air strikes while reducing the Pentagon’s efforts to investigate strikes that result in civilian casualties; he’s even expanded the use of land mines for no discernible reason. After an initial surge in which he doubled the number of service members in the country, troop levels in Afghanistan are only now trending down to what they were when Trump took office.
Trump famously scrapped the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike. Since then, the administration has told the government of Iraq that it will not honor any request for American forces to leave the country. As The New York Times reported in late 2019, despite his vows to conclude “endless wars,” Trump hasn’t ended any. As the Times put it, “More troops have deployed to the Middle East in recent months than have come home. Mr. Trump is not so much ending wars, as he is moving troops from one conflict to another.”
Whether you think this record should be a source of pride or shame, it is not, in any sense, noninterventionist or dovish.
Similarly, the president’s attacks on the excesses of the “deep state” have failed to produce more robust civil-liberties protections. Despite his insistence that the “deep state” participated in an Obama-Biden “coup” against his administration, Trump has not meaningfully curtailed federal law-enforcement or surveillance powers expanded in the name of fighting terrorism. Last year, Trump signed on to a bipartisan reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act without major changes; last November, the Trump administration invoked PATRIOT Act authorities to detain a person indefinitely on American soil for the first time—an act from which it later retreated in fear that the courts might not uphold it. The president has repeatedly threatened—and deployed—federal power to suppress anti-police-brutality protests. His administration has urged the suppression of intelligence showing attempted foreign interference in American elections on his behalf, while ordering the manufacture of intelligence meant to justify an authoritarian crackdown on his domestic political critics.
All of that said, even with the examples of Trumpian cruelty, the president has compiled less a record of radical departure from his predecessors on these particular matters than one of continuity. Barack Obama was elected as a skeptic of the War on Terror; his administration presided over an expansion of its scope, much as Trump’s has. A Hillary Clinton administration likely would have as well, perhaps with some differences—maybe a Clinton administration would not have rescinded Obama’s drone restrictions, and public pressure might have resulted in a reduction in drone warfare. But the two most consistent qualities of the post-9/11 security state are that it grows, and that its growth is bipartisan. The trend suggests that a rollback of expansive national-security powers and commitments won’t be forthcoming in a hypothetical Biden administration either.
On Thursday, Biden told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes that “these ‘forever wars’ have to end. I support drawing down the troops. But here’s the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism and [the Islamic State],”adding that he does not “foresee major reductions in the U.S. defense budget.”
Still, it makes no more sense to give Trump credit for being a dove than it would to give Obama credit for his 2008 rhetoric on the same issues, or Biden just for saying that the “forever wars” must end. Just as he is no great businessman or economic populist, Trump is no foe of defense contractors or endless war—he only plays one on television.