Finally there is a way in which Donald Trump is acting as a ‘normal’ president. On August 21 he announced his decision to increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan by at least 4000. In so doing, Trump is following in the footsteps of Barack Obama who also acceded to the generals’ demands for more troops in as yet unsuccessful attempt to secure victory. Trump’s increase is, for now, smaller than Obama’s, who doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2009, his first year in office, to 100,000. Obama during his 2008 campaign for the presidency repeatedly called Afghanistan a “good war” as opposed to the “dumb war” in Iraq, making it hard for him to withdraw or to challenge his generals’ recommendations for a surge in Afghanistan.
Trump, unlike Obama, campaigned in opposition to continuing the Afghan war. Already in 2012, during an election in which both Obama and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney pledged to continue the war through to victory, Trump tweeted, “Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!” In 2013 he tweeted “Do not allow our very stupid leaders to sign a deal that keeps us in Afghanistan through 2024-with all costs by U.S.A. MAKE AMERICA GREAT!”
Trump’s stated opposition to war paid off in the election, in part because journalists rarely challenged his false claim that he had opposed the Iraq war from the start. Journalists also gave little attention to Trump’s later statements on Afghanistan, such as when he said during a debate with his Republican primary opponents in March 2016, “you have to stay in Afghanistan for a while, because of the fact that you're right next to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, and we have to protect that. Nuclear weapons change the game.”
There was a clear relationship between a state’s level of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan and its vote: the higher the rate of war deaths, the lower the vote for Hillary Clinton. Thus Trump had an electoral endorsement of his stated promise to withdraw from Afghanistan, just as Obama had for withdrawal from Iraq, and Lyndon Johnson had in 1964 for pulling out of Vietnam. In addition, Trump had a core of ‘white nationalist’ advisors, most notably Steve Bannon, who shared his isolationism and who had the capacity to mobilize a mass base for a decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Trump, like Obama but unlike Lyndon Johnson with Vietnam, could have blamed the ‘loss’ of Afghanistan on the policy failures of his predecessor from the opposing party.
Nevertheless, despite all those political advantages, Trump ended up punting and decided to expand the Afghan war. He also is allowing the generals to continue the low level commitment of ground forces and the more intense air wars in Iraq and Syria. It turns out foreign policy decisions, even negative ones like deciding not to fight a war, take more effort than writing tweets. While allies like Bannon can help Trump make a case to his supporters, any president needs skilled aides who can devise a strategy that limits the consequences for America’s global position of withdrawing from any part of the US global empire. That consideration, in the end, was what prevented Johnson from letting go of South Vietnam. He and a majority of his aides and the members of Congress felt that a US defeat in Vietnam never could have been explained to or accepted by America’s allies in Europe and Asia. Of course in retrospect the US ended up looking worse in the eyes of its allies for having fought in Vietnam than it would have by withdrawing, and some allies, most notably France, made that point back in 1965.
Trump is in a weaker administrative position than any president in memory. His Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, whom Trump chose because he “looks like a secretary of state,” has no past experience in politics or diplomacy beyond rising to the top of Exxon and negotiating oil deals with governments. Tillerson thinks that his main task is to reorganize the State Department to make it more efficient and so hasn’t filled most top positions, waiting for the consultants he hired to come up with a plan that tells him which offices should be eliminated. Many White House positions have not been filled, as have a majority of ambassadorships. Trump fundamentally lacks the personnel to devise a new policy and then to explain that policy to foreign governments.
There is one department of the US government that is filled with experienced diplomats who enjoy long-term relations with their foreign counterparts and which has the capacity to devise and implement geopolitical strategies. That department, of course, is Defense. The military’s organizational power is augmented by the fact that the current Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor, as well as Trump’s chief of staff all are generals. In past administrations civilians usually filled those positions and never before have all been military men.
Trump’s idiosyncrasies and his bizarre behavior merely are accelerating an ongoing shift of power and autonomy to the military. For decades the budget of the State Department has declined while the military has been able to build up its own parallel diplomatic corps. US presidents come and go, but the military is led by a self-reproducing elite that has consistent interests that they are able to articulate to their counterparts in other countries. Now that the State Department is essentially leaderless and understaffed, governments around the world turn to the US military for reassurance and stability. Under those circumstances it is farfetched to expect that Trump would be able to summon the discipline to rethink US foreign policy, first because Trump himself is ignorant and lacks curiosity about the world and second, because he cannot call on staff with the knowledge and ability to devise and implement a new foreign policy. Thus, Trump, like his predecessors, will look to the generals for advice and will follow their lead. America will remain at war in Afghanistan and the Middle East.