On Monday evening, Donald Trump gave a speech about Afghanistan that we might have heard from any mainstream politician over the past 15 years.
In some realms, the idea of a “normal” presentation by Trump would be heartening. For instance, as I noted last week, among the usual expectations of a president is that at times of national shock or fear, he will speak to all of the people and reassert shared American values, hopes, and unifying ties. If Trump had managed to do that after the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville—as FDR so famously did after Pearl Harbor, as Dwight Eisenhower did during the school desegregation crises of the 1950s, as John Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and during the Cuban Missile crisis, as nearly every president did, right through George W. Bush immediately after the 9/11 attacks and Barack Obama after the Charleston church shooting—his standing would be different today, and so probably would be the temper of the nation.
But a “normal” speech about Afghanistan is a shortcoming rather than an achievement. The essential problem is the one that Trump himself characteristically overstated four years ago:
Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2013
Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the rationale for a U.S. focus on Afghanistan was clear, limited, and in principle achievable. The objective was to punish, disrupt, and simply kill members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda group that had carried out the attacks in New York and Washington. Tragically, within a few months George W. Bush’s administration had shifted emphasis, troops, and money from this justified and attainable goal toward the disaster of its invasion of Iraq. (As I argued at the time, here and here and here.)
Ever since then, through the end of the George W. Bush’s administration and the entirety of Obama’s, the challenge of Afghanistan, for U.S. presidents, has been finding the least-bad configuration of several irreconcilable elements. These include: the desire to keep Afghanistan from again becoming safe-haven operating ground for terrorist groups; the fear of becoming enmeshed in an open-ended pursuit of “victory” in a place legendarily hostile to foreign control; the equal-and-opposite fear of seeming “weak” in withdrawing or admitting the impossibility of controlling Afghanistan; the idealistic desire to protect Afghan citizens from depredations by the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other oppressors; the separate impossibility of trying to control or influence “the ally from hell,” Pakistan—and the ongoing awareness that in our current “chickenhawk” political configuration, many citizens and most politicians will look the other way about Afghanistan decisions as long as the consequences don’t affect them directly.
George W. Bush faced the Afghanistan snarl late, because of his strategically disastrous decision to shift the battle emphasis to Iraq. Barack Obama—mistakenly, in my view—agreed as a new president to his generals’ argument that a “surge” was worth trying, but he put a strict time limit on it. (The main anti-Obama argument: The time limit allowed the other side to wait him out. My argument: There is no evidence to suggest that an open-ended commitment would have worked any better. And the time limit allowed Obama to do in 2011 what he probably wishes he had done in 2009, which is contain the U.S. exposure in unwinnable circumstances.)
Donald Trump as a candidate was hard over on the “don’t fight unwinnable wars” front. It was the most refreshing thing about him. Now he claims to have reflected, with his new responsibilities as president (and now without Steve Bannon at his side), on the arguments he had disdained before, and has come up with what Richard Nixon long ago would have called a “secret plan” for Afghanistan.
- He won’t say how many more troops he’s sending. (A stance that he couldn’t get away with, if Congress were carrying out the checks-and-balances responsibilities that U.S. democracy depends on, or if the public were exposed, non-chickenhawk style, to the consequences of military commitments.)
- He won’t say what will constitute “victory” or an end point, in what he emphasized was already America’s longest war.
- Except for bromides, he won’t say why this new approach will work, when its predecessors for 16 years have failed. (The main bromide is: “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” This is an argument against George W. Bush’s ambitious and Wilsonian second inaugural speech in 2005. It is more or less in sync with what Obama was doing.)
- He can’t say how the policy he’s proposing matches the staffing and budget he has put together. In his speech, Trump said: “Another fundamental pillar of our new [sic] strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power—diplomatic, economic, and military—toward a successful outcome.” Both George W. Bush and Obama expounded exactly that same goal. The difference is that both of them backed it up with staffing plans and budgets. (Barack Obama had the redoubtable Richard Holbrooke as his Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Trump is dismantling the office, and of course most of his embassies and State Department posts stand vacant.)
It’s like any of the speeches that other politicians could have given about Afghanistan, which the pre-presidential Trump ridiculed for having no end point or concept of victory.
He was right then.
Because Trump managed to read the whole text stolidly from the teleprompter, despite inflection suggesting that he was seeing it for the first time (learning how to give a speech that way is harder than it seems) but without his accustomed inflammatory ad-libs, some reporters heralded the speech as a turning point. For instance, the usually excellent Phillip Rucker of The Washington Post had this highly credulous response:
Tonight is a new President Trump: Acknowledging a flip-flop and talking about gravity of office, history & substance.— Philip Rucker (@PhilipRucker) August 22, 2017
To me, the speech was a step toward “normality” of message, on just the point where Trump’s defiance of convention had been most valuable.