The Tell-Tale Signs That Trump Has Conformed to Washington's Ways
Before President Trump decided to increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by an additional three thousand to four thousand troops, and before he decided to relax the rules of engagement for commanders in the field, he essentially equated the Central Asian nation as a bottomless pit of doom. To Trump, the war in Afghanistan was never going to end as long as the United States stayed involved. For the businessman, bailing out a corrupt, weak and unstable Afghan government with tens of billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money was the definition of foolishness. “When will we stop wasting our money on rebuilding Afghanistan?” Trump tweeted in October 2011, “We must rebuild our country first.” Less than a year later, Trump tweeted again of his disgust for the war effort, remarking that because the Afghans were plagued by systemic corruption, Kabul simply didn’t deserve the payments Congress was pouring into the country. After a war that lasted over a decade, Afghanistan was very much considered by Trump as a lost cause where any further sacrifice from American service members would not make a difference. "Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back,” Trump wondered. “Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home.”
As commander-in-chief, however, Trump didn’t follow his own advice. The commanding general, his national-security adviser, his secretary of defense, and a good slice of Washington’s punditry wanted the administration to authorize a deeper American commitment to Afghanistan so the Taliban were prevented from capturing Kabul. And, despite any evidence to the contrary that a few thousand U.S. troops will be able to do what 140,000 coalition soldiers failed to do during the 2010–2012 surge, Trump reluctantly agreed to give the order. As a result, U.S. troops are not withdrawing from the longest war in American history, but are instead being recommitted to the very same provinces and districts U.S. troops fought and died for only years prior. U.S. Marines stationed in Helmand Province when Trump wrote his tweets are now back in Helmand five years later.
Syria is yet one more illustration of President Trump being usurped by a reflexively interventionist foreign-policy mainstream. When Trump spoke about Syria as a candidate, he largely treated it as a counterterrorism problem. Yes, Bashar al-Assad may be an evil and despicable human being, but he did not represent a direct national-security threat to the United States. The Islamic State, though, did, and Trump made it perfectly clear that his administration’s Syria policy would be focused predominantly on eradicating ISIS from the territory it captured. While the details of his war plan were sketchy and would undergo revision during the first several months of his presidency, Trump’s anti-ISIS mission was a simple one to understand. There would be no nation-building involved. The objective would be killing terrorists and helping America’s partners on the ground kill terrorists, a position the American people could support.
But what has occurred since the recapture of Raqqa from the Islamic State has been a complete end-run around Trump’s America First mantra. If Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s address on the administration’s Syria strategy is actually implemented, Washington will soon be juggling multiple plates at the same time. Dismantling and defeating ISIS—and keeping it defeated—will now be one of several objectives. The others, which include assisting in the stabilization and reconstruction of cleared territory and using U.S. troops as leverage to accelerate a post–Assad Syrian future, is a complete change of mission that the American people are highly unlikely to support absent a full national debate. In Syria, America First has been surpassed by the more ambitious and expansive recommendations that have been percolating throughout Washington’s think-tank community for months. As former CIA senior analyst Paul Pillar astutely observed, the course the White House is now setting for itself in Syria “is a far cry from the impression candidate Trump once gave that he favored contracting missions for U.S. armed forces overseas rather than expanding them.”
Donald Trump, in short, may like to market himself as a refreshing break from previous presidencies, a man who is not afraid to—and in fact enjoys—standing up to the exclusive club of scholars, analysts, think tankers, and career diplomats who have run U.S. foreign policy for the previous twenty-five years. But in reality, regardless of the marketing, the confrontational tweets, and the off-the-cuff remarks, the bedrock of Trump’s foreign policy is not at all dissimilar to the very interventionism that he campaigned against. On the big issues, there is very little in the Trump doctrine that can be categorized as realism or restraint.
The national security by autopilot, meanwhile, goes on.
Daniel R. DePetris is a world affairs columnist for Reuters, a frequent contributor to the American Conservative and the National Interest, and a foreign-policy analyst based in New York, NY.