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.