Trump's Speech Can't Change Recalcitrant Realities

It was a performance that seemed designed to garner immediate approval, and it failed to grapple with long-term challenges.

An Afghan man watches TV coverage of President Trump's address.
An Afghan man watches TV coverage of President Trump's address. (Omar Sobhani / Reuters)

President Trump will not rapidly withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But then, you already knew that: The first year of his presidency is two-thirds over, and there has been no move to implement his campaign promises to withdraw them.

Trump will focus the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, not on nation-building, but on chasing and killing military enemies one-by-one. But you already knew that too: The tempo of violence in all overseas U.S. operations has been accelerating under Trump, while other arms of U.S. power have shriveled from neglect.

Trump hopes to bluster Pakistan into solving the Afghanistan problem for him. You did not already know that, but you could have guessed from studying his approach to North Korea, where he is trying the same method with China.

It’s a strange approach to presidential speechmaking to use a primetime address to the nation to announce, “Nothing new here except a forlorn hope.” But that’s what happened.

And the months-long process of review and deliberation that Trump described doesn’t explain his choice; it only heightens the mystery. The first time his advisers proposed a plan like this one, he sent them back to the drawing board. He looked outside the usual circle of national-security officials for other options. Even after the president endorsed their approach on Friday, his advisers worried that he’d change his mind at the last moment—and revert to the fantasy that Erik Prince’s private army could assume the job.

So why did Trump do it?

The Trump presidency is still reeling from the bungle it made of the Charlottesville violence that left one woman dead. Those events left the president looking not only bigoted and callous, but also weak: He repeatedly called for Confederate monuments to remain standing, and across the country local governments are ignoring him and taking the monuments down. For almost a century, the stretch of US-1 nearest Washington, D.C., has been named Jefferson Davis Highway: The Alexandria city council has voted now to change that name.

Trump has been shunned by national Republicans; the only surrogate he could find to champion him on this past weekend’s Sunday shows was Jerry Falwell Jr.

This is a situation calculated to enrage the president—and also to throw him back on his reality-TV instincts: It’s time to boost ratings by changing the plot line.

The two best-rated events of the Trump presidency were his 2017 State of the Union address and his April launch of 59 cruise missiles into Syria. Perhaps he was tempted to combine those two “my best day” events into one? A speech that is also a missile launch? And—even better—to counter-program that speech against a big night for one of the congressional Republicans he blames for his current predicament, House Speaker Paul Ryan? Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Look closer at the structure of Trump’s remarks. He opened by correcting not one bungle, but two: His indifferent response to the 10 missing American sailors in the naval accident of the destroyer USS John S. McCain—and his equivocations about the deadly violence of white supremacists after Charlottesville. Normally when a president opens a national-security speech with a reference to some sad recent domestic event, it’s a matter of basic respect—the equivalent of a moment of silence during a busy working day—before proceeding to the main content. A president never wants to seem so focused on a crisis overseas that he overlooks the flood or earthquake or hurricane back home.

Not this time. Those prefatory clean-up remarks were the real content of the speech, and everything else was just so many empty sentences and syllables, mingled with the usual boasting and self-praise: “When I became president, I was given a bad and very complex hand. But I fully knew what I was getting into: big and intricate problems. But one way or another, these problems will be solved. I'm a problem solver, and in the end, we will win.”

After that self-administered pat on the back, we come to this, supposedly the key working mechanism of the speech:

Another critical part of the South-Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India; the world’s largest democracy, and a key security and economic partner of the United States. We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States—and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.

What is that? That is the sound of policy paralysis. You can imagine the thinking behind those words.

"We have to get Pakistan to stop screwing us—get them fully on board with our anti-Taliban program.”

“We’ve been trying that for 17 years! Nothing works!”

“What if we threatened a hard tilt to India?”

“President Bush tried that.”

“What if we meant it this time?”

“OK, great, but remember India runs a $24 billion trade surplus with the U.S. last year, ahead of South Korea's. That’s a big concern for the president.”

“Well, he’s just going to have choose his priority.”

But of course, he did not choose a priority. He’s trying to change Islamabad’s behavior by threatening it with a tilt to India—and trying to change New Delhi’s behavior at the same time by threatening it with a tilt against India. Result: He will change nobody’s behavior, and face exactly the same strategic choices a year from now that he does today.

This speech, however, despite its billing, was not about strategic choices, not this year or next. It was about this week’s positioning. Within the closed-world of cable-TV chatter that matters so desperately much to this president, the tactic will work for a time. He probably enjoyed his morning TV viewing today more than he has enjoyed it in a long, long time. But he has changed nothing in either the domestic or international political situation, and that gravity will reassert itself very soon.

As often as he does wild and erratic things, still much of his time is spent doing normal-looking president-y things: signing pieces of paper, sitting amid grave-looking officials, shaking hands with foreign dignitaries. It’s the nature of television (or at least, the nature of people most often invited onto television) to see the world as a sequence of days, each only lightly connected to the day preceding or the day following. “Did the president have a good day? Who won the week?” It’s even more the nature of television (or of its favorite guests) to perceive events visually—to transform politics into optics. “Did the president sound strong? Did he change the narrative?”

Yet real-world events move slower and their consequences last longer. Changing the narrative changes very little, if the narrative is based on reality, because reality is recalcitrant. Wise and consistent presidential leadership can move that reality, but usually only slowly. Fitful and impulsive leadership that seeks to change only the next morning’s TV chatter—well, it changes only that, and that is not very important. The chatter will change again the day after that.

But if you do want one image to remember from yesterday, cast aside Trump’s theatrical performance of Monday evening. Pay attention instead to his behavior of Monday afternoon, when he waved aside all advice and glared directly into the solar eclipse. Truculent and self-harming: That’s the elected leader of the United States. Nothing will change that, certainly not words written for him or promises of action extracted from him. Those will flit and fluctuate from day to day, hour to hour, and will mean little enough at the time they are spoken. So it is with this highly advertised speech—but that, too, you knew already.