President Donald Trump’s speech on Afghanistan on Monday night wasn’t remarkable for it’s new ideas—there wasn’t much new to be found. There wasn’t, as administration officials had led many to expect, a new number for the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, or a new approach to Pakistan, or a new regional strategy for South Asia.
Instead, Trump’s speech was remarkable for what was old. It represented a return to themes of the campaign trail for a candidate who insisted that he could and would carry out foreign policy better than his predecessors—George W. Bush and Barack Obama, alike—without actually grappling with how.
First, Trump comfortably reassumed the role of attack dog, admonishing his predecessors for “trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.” This has long been the misleading core of Trump’s foreign policy pledge: a promise that the sheer act of putting America first will restore American greatness.
It’s a pledge that, seven months into Trump’s presidency, betrays a misleading reductionism unchastened even by the responsibilities of leadership. That’s because every American president, of both parties, has doggedly pursued America’s security interests. The difficulty and disagreement lie in the question of how, not whether. But that’s a unity of purpose that, even after calling in his speech—too little and too late—for national unity after the horrors of Charlottesville, Trump refused to acknowledge. Instead, he showed himself content to avow, yet again, that other presidents have pursued something other than American security interests, leaving his task simply to put America first again.
Second, Trump returned to the theme that a sustainable approach to countering terrorism demands defeating terrorists’ underlying ideology, emphasizing the importance of “exposing the false allure of their evil ideology.” The Trump team continues to herald the idea of taking on terrorist ideology as something new, when in fact it has been a key—if challenging—facet of counterterrorism since 9/11, across two previous administrations. And, even as the Trump administration pays lip service to the ideological dimension of this struggle, it is demolishing the very structures it inherited, designed to tackle this challenge.
Those structures include the domestically focused Countering Violent Extremism Task Force and the overseas-oriented Global Engagement Center, both of which have suffered critical leadership losses over the past few weeks. As if forcing out top talent isn’t bad enough, the Trump administration has deliberately and inexplicably spurned funding already allocated specifically for the ideological dimensions of counterterrorism. So, here too, Trump’s speech revealed a president keen to hit the tired old themes of the campaign trail while practicing precisely the opposite of what he preached—in this case, dismantling the very tools capable of delivering on those themes.
Third, Trump insisted—again echoing his unrelenting rhetoric as a candidate—that, whatever he would do, it would be different from what Obama had done before him. Trump’s language asserted change at every step, as he doggedly pointed to “details of our new strategy,” “[a] core pillar of our new strategy,” “[a]nother fundamental pillar of our new strategy,” “the next pillar of our new strategy,” and the need for foreign “partners to support our new strategy” (all emphasis mine).
This is a Trump hallmark on national-security policy, and one I’ve emphasized before: the insistence that Trump’s policy represents a wholesale rejection of Obama’s. It’s a trope that Trump perfected on the campaign trail. But, as in other contexts, it suffered in his Afghanistan speech from its utter disconnect from reality.
What Trump insisted was “new” about his approach to Afghanistan—“the integration of all instruments of American power—diplomatic, economic, and military—toward a successful outcome”; the refusal to “be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat”; and so on—could be ripped from the pages of Obama-era strategy documents. Indeed, not only does the blatant conceptual continuity belie any claim to novelty, but the unanswered question of how again undercuts Trump’s claim to be able to deliver on these elements of his approach. How, for example, does he intend to integrate all instruments of American power when he also appears personally responsible for shattering any attempt by his team to produce a coordinated, interagency approach to foreign policy? Likewise, how does Trump intend to generate new leverage vis-à-vis Pakistan to demand greater counterterrorism cooperation, when he is reported to have unabashedly gushed in his first post-Election Day call with Pakistan’s prime minister about his “amazing work which is visible in every way”?
Fourth, Trump avowed that he would deliver victory by defining it more clearly at the outset: “From now on, victory will have a clear definition.” Now read carefully the very next words of Trump’s speech: “Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” Whatever one’s view of the proper scope of America’s mission in Afghanistan, it is hard to view this seemingly boundless list—especially “attacking our enemies”—as “a clear definition” of victory.
And, underneath all of the campaign trail rhetoric, that lack of a definition of victory may be the most concerning aspect of Trump’s speech. The president who claimed to have “studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle” seemed still not to have grappled with—or perhaps even grasped—the truly big questions that face the United States at its current and critical juncture in Afghanistan. What are U.S. objectives there—countering terrorists who threaten Americans, or defeating the Taliban, or promoting regional stability, or something else entirely? And how much is America willing to invest to achieve those objectives—how many troops, for how long, at what cost, and with what opportunity cost? And, finally, once it has defined ends and means, how will it connect them—in other words, what’s the strategy?
Those are questions worthy of a president. Alas, what Trump provided was, yet again, a stump speech of a perpetual candidate.