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.)