Trump campaigned on the promise that he would seize power from globalist usurpers in Washington, D.C., and return it to the people, spending their tax dollars rebuilding America rather than investing blood and treasure in faraway war zones. Among populists, this project was sold as a return to “America First” thinking. Intellectuals in the orbit of the Claremont Institute saw it as part of an effort to rein in the administrative state. But eight months into Trump’s presidency, his administration has effectively abandoned “America First,” empowered the administrative state by ceding decision-making to generals, and undermined a basic means of democratic accountability by hiding what it is doing from the public.
In his speech unveiling his plan for Afghanistan, Trump declared, “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on.” As John M. Donnelly observed, “In framing the issue this way, Trump conflated three things that are distinctly different: disclosing military plans; announcing deadlines for withdrawal; and informing Americans how many of their family members will be sent into harm’s way.”
The public deserves to know how many Americans will be sent into harm’s way. Troop deployments should always be part of ongoing debate in a representative democracy.
At the very least, Trump owes the public accurate information about how many troops are fighting now, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, or beyond. As Representative Adam Schiff argued, secrecy “deprives the American people of the information they need to determine whether another escalation is taking place and the ability to hold their elected officials accountable for the results.”
The refusal to disclose the scale of new deployments compounds an existing lack of transparency about the number of troops deployed to combat zones. As Politico notes, “Caps on troop levels in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria mandated by the Obama administration have led to an elaborate Pentagon accounting system that conceals thousands of troops from the public.” And it goes on to report that “the discrepancy, which has come under new scrutiny amid leaks about actual troop levels, has led Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to review the policy and promise to offer more accurate official numbers. But after Trump announced this week that his administration will not talk about troop numbers, Mattis’s initiative is in doubt.”
Trump’s actions are not surprising. As I noted before the election, his campaign rhetoric masked the fact that he has often been more hawkish than the Washington establishment; and as Daniel Larison presciently argued, Trump’s lack of foreign-policy experience and aversion to studying any issue enough to be informed predictably made him even more reliant on defense establishment advice than bygone presidents.
Still, Trump misled his supporters about his approach to foreign conflicts, and the fact that he is now trying to keep troop levels a secret only underscores that he has perpetrated a betrayal worth concealing.