- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Trump Surrenders To The Generals

Everybody who voted for Donald Trump hoping that he would reduce the US military’s involvement in foreign wars has been made a fool of. I’m sorry, but there it is. Last night’s announcement by the president that he’s going to send more troops to Afghanistan — he mentioned no numbers, but his staff has been telling lawmakers around 4,000 — is a betrayal.

Earlier this year, the president gave the Pentagon authority to send more troops into Iraq and Syria. [1] He has deepened our involvement on the Saudi side of the Yemen war. And now we’re going back into Afghanistan.

The New York Times has a story out today about how the generals talked Trump into doing the Afghanistan surge. [2] Excerpts:

President Trump’s skepticism about America’s involvement in Afghanistan was no secret to his staff. But his top national security officials were still taken aback at a meeting in the Situation Room on July 19, when an angry Mr. Trump began ripping apart their latest proposal to send thousands of additional American troops to the country.

“We’re losing,” the president declared, according to a person who was in the room. The plan, he complained, was vague and open-ended, with no definition of victory. “What does success look like?” he asked.

The day before that meeting, Mr. Trump had invited four soldiers who had served in Afghanistan to the White House for lunch. His exchanges with these enlisted men, an official said, left him sober about the prospects for turning around a war that has dragged on for nearly 16 years. He showed up the next day determined to ask hard questions.

Then the generals — all of whom had Afghan experience [3] — got to work on him. More:

Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, worried that the generals were leading the president down the same path as Mr. Obama, who felt boxed in by his generals in 2009, his first year in office, when he agreed to send 30,000 additional troops. Mr. Bannon questioned why an additional 4,000 troops would fix the situation.

“For 16 years, from neocons to progressives to Obama’s people, they all thought they were making great decisions,” Mr. Bannon said, according to a person in the room. “Why are we any smarter than they are?’’

At a meeting of the National Security Council’s principals committee, he clashed with General McMaster, who had taken the lead in developing the policy. Their relationship deteriorated, and Mr. Bannon became General McMaster’s biggest in-house nemesis.

Bannon is gone. More troops are going into Afghanistan. And here we are. I would love to know what those four enlisted men told the Commander in Chief.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js [5]

UPDATE: James Fallows: [6]

Donald Trump as a candidate was hard over on the “don’t fight unwinnable wars” front. It was the most refreshing thing about him. Now he claims to have reflected, with his new responsibilities as president (and now without Steve Bannon at his side), on the arguments he had disdained before, and has come up with what Richard Nixon long ago would have called a “secret plan [7]” for Afghanistan.

  • He won’t say how many more troops he’s sending. (A stance that, with the kind of checks-and-balances Congress that a democracy depends on, or with a non-chickenhawk public exposed to the consequences of military commitments, he couldn’t get away with.)
  • He won’t say what will constitute “victory” or an end point, in what he emphasized was already America’s longest war.
  • Except for bromides, he won’t say why this new approach will work, when its predecessors for 16 years have failed. (The main bromide is: “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” This is an argument against George W. Bush’s ambitious and Wilsonian inaugural speech in 2005 [8]. It is more or less in sync with what Obama was doing.)
  • He can’t say how the policy he’s proposing matches the staffing and budget he has put together. Tonight Trump said: “Another fundamental pillar of our new [sic] strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power—diplomatic, economic, and military—toward a successful outcome.” Both George W. Bush and Obama expounded exactly the same goal. The difference is that both of them backed it up with staffing plans and budgets. (Barack Obama had the redoubtable Richard Holbrooke as his Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan [9]. Trump is dismantling the office, and of course most of his embassies and State Department posts stand vacant.)

It’s like any of the speeches that other politicians could have given about Afghanistan, which the pre-presidential Trump ridiculed for having no end point or concept of victory.

He was right then.

82 Comments (Open | Close)

82 Comments To "Trump Surrenders To The Generals"

#1 Comment By Anne On August 22, 2017 @ 1:36 pm

The generals’ argument that stops presidents in their tracks seems to be that, without the US military presence, Afghanistan will become a safe haven for terrorists from around the globe, as it was for Al qaeda under the Taliban. As if…still as long as there are terrorists doing bad things anywhere in the world, be they the homegrown kind in Europe driving cars into crowds or ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq, where the Bush invasion and its aftermath (Abu Ghraib, etc.) inevitably stirred up an extreme reaction (alt.-islam, anyone?), there will be those who say more American firepower is needed to keep them busy fighting over there, so they don’t come over here.

With no counter-argument strong enough to beat the generals’ case, strutters like Trump who really think acting tough and brandishing “a big stick” is the only way to get what you need are especially vulnerable to it. Did Bannon himself have a well-argued response? If so, I’d like to see it. Getting out of foreign wars is not what people with that basic attitude do;they’re the ones who get us in even more of them, no matter what they say when they’re just talking among themselves. (Kind of like when they say they won’t take away people’s health insurance or social security benefits even as they cut taxes and build ridiculously expensive border walls.)

Obama wasn’t even a strutter, and he really did oppose the Iraqi invasion as well as kept his cool after 9/11 when virtually everybody else was losing theirs. Yet when the generals played the Afghanistan-will-arm-terrorists card, he too caved in (even though he tried to claim it would not be indefinitely). As Trump said last night, being President really does change your perspective, at least when the generals claim you’ll be arming terrorists.

This means we are essentially where the US was in Vietnam by the late 60s, trapped by our fears in a self-imposed quagmire. It took a combination of public will in the form of an organized antiwar movement that included far more elements than the usual pacifists and leftwing ideologues AND a media committed to informing the people about both the real state of that war on the battlefield AND the state of the enemy in the world at large. That’s how you dissipate the fear of fear itself.

I’m not sure anybody or any group of Americans is that committed to ending our military involvement in Afghanistan today. Not only is there no draft that brings this war home to every American family, but the media too seems less committed to telling truth to power than it was 50 years ago. Still, ironically, Trump himself and the opposition he engenders just by being his own incompetent self may be enough to generate the spark that reignites the kind of movement needed to get civilian authority (including a re-affirmed State Department) talking back to the generals and end these self-defeating, endless wars.

#2 Comment By ScottA On August 22, 2017 @ 1:47 pm

Trump is just another chickenhawk politician who thinks they are a big tough guy because they send other men and women off to fight and die while exempting themselves and members of their privileged families from making similar sacrifices.

#3 Comment By Alan On August 22, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

“Everybody who voted for Donald Trump hoping that he would reduce the US military’s involvement in foreign wars has been made a fool of.”

For what it’s worth, replace DT with Barrack Obama and the statement works just as well.

Rod, you don’t believe that US Presidents have control over these things do you?

#4 Comment By John On August 22, 2017 @ 2:00 pm

Like those who came before him Trump doesn’t want to be the guy who officially loses an unwinnable war.

Unfortunately, this means innocent civilian and soldier alike will die in vain, their lives wasted by those who should no better.

#5 Comment By Sawbuck On August 22, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

Mark 21 Aug 2017 as the first day of George W. Bush’s FIFTH term. (And yes, if Obama had made the same speech the media would be wetting themselves in praising the dear leader.)

If we really supported the troops we would bring every single one of them home today.

#6 Comment By ROB On August 22, 2017 @ 2:53 pm

A guy like Trump would never overrule the generals. For better or worse they are going to call the shots.

#7 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On August 22, 2017 @ 3:02 pm

It’s a mistake to think about the war in Afghanistan as a war. It’s not actually a war, is an occupation.
Unfortunately the current circumstances make such an occupation almost unavoidable as Afghanistan is ideally positioned as a base for jihadi terrorism both for its geographical position and for the means of funding it provides (smuggling and opioids production).
Under curren circumstances, such an occupation could well last a century…

#8 Comment By catbird On August 22, 2017 @ 3:21 pm

Slugger said it, he has nowhere else to go.

And, no, Will Harrington, no one is investing massively in Afghan infrastructure. Other places in post-Soviet Central Asia, but not Afghanistan. There’s not enough security to make a massive investment worth the risk.

#9 Comment By Bob On August 22, 2017 @ 3:45 pm

Maybe McMaster should re-read his book about Vietnam, especially the parts about the generals and politicians duplicity.
As a Vietnam veteran (notice that Obama’s generals are not), the similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan are nothing short of remarkable.

#10 Comment By Nate J On August 22, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

@Many of your are pathetic, and I do, really, loathe your stupidity and naivety.

– – –

Thanks. This will surely ingratiate your side to both your opponents and the American public alike.

For what it’s worth, I still think Hillary would have been far worse; we’d still have foreign interventionism (on steroids) plus a host of actively pushed leftist policy domestically.

I’ll take Trump’s passive conservatism (plus a chance to swing SCOTUS for a generation) over Hillary’s active leftism. Do you have any more names you’d like to call me now?

#11 Comment By MikeS On August 22, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

JamesP: I think you expressed the best argument for Trumps decision. You have to admit it seems plausible.

#12 Comment By VikingLS On August 22, 2017 @ 4:49 pm

@NCMichael
Okay, I voted for Trump, I’ll bite.

“Tell me how this isn’t a betrayal?”

It is,and I’m unhappy about it.

“Tell me how this is not a complete 180 on his previous position.”

It is, and it’s a sign he’s overwhelmed by the job and now outsourcing his thinking to mainstream Republicans.

“Tell me how this is what you actually voted for.”

It’s not, it’s the opposite, no matter what he says.

“Tell me how Hillary would have been worse.”

Oh you were doing so well, you really were. Then you got greedy and blew it.

Noah more or less covered it, but let’s ask you. Why don’t you tell us why you think Clinton would have been better, based not on “she’s a Democrat” but her record?

What in Hillary Clinton’s time as senator and secretary of state convinces you that she WOULDN’T have done the same thing, or more?

#13 Comment By simon94022 On August 22, 2017 @ 4:54 pm

And that solution is to work toward stability with ALL of Afghanistans neighbors, rather than trying to create some sort of “Western” outpost in the middle of Iran, Pakistan, and a bunch of Russia’s (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan) and Chinese (Turkmenistan) client states.

Iran is especially important, because it doesn’t want a radical Sunni regime on its eastern border. In other words, if our foreign policy wasn’t controlled by Saudi Arabia and Israel, we’d have the sense to exploit our common goals with Iran — a stabile, non-radicalized afghanistan.

@Paul Lukasiak, thank you. You are exactly right.

The only strategy that can ever work will never be considered.

#14 Comment By JonF On August 22, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

Re: I’m not sure how anyone could have discerned a foreign policy direction from Trump’s campaign blather. He was pretty much all over the map.

That’s pretty much Trump in a nut shell. And it allows the uncritical to read their own hopes and desires into his words and assume he’s going to do what they want– until rude reality slaps them in the face.

#15 Comment By Robert Levine On August 22, 2017 @ 5:08 pm

This is the fault of everyone whose vote for President would be swayed by the “President X lost country Y” – which is to say, a fair portion of the electorate.

As much as I loath Trump, I find it hard to fault him for bowing to basic political reality. Until we as a people can accept that not interfering in other countries’ civil wars will mean that some very bad people (and the Taliban are very bad people indeed) might come to power in those countries, no president will be willing to be tagged with the “he/she lost Farawayistan!” bulls-eye.

#16 Comment By CharleyCarp On August 22, 2017 @ 5:19 pm

I think Gen Patton is right about what the President was promising: victory. And now his plan is to stop preventing the military from winning.

I don’t think they can deliver, just as I didn’t think they could deliver in 2009 when they talked the last President into letting them have a go.

Essentially the goal is to leave without being seen to have been forced to leave. I don’t think this is remotely possible, because it’s not about either the willpower of our executive or the firepower of our military, but depends entirely on the success of the Afghan government in uniting various factions. Which success has to survive our departure, and no one I talk to in Afghanistan believes this can happen.

#17 Comment By JamesB On August 22, 2017 @ 7:26 pm

I was reluctant to write anything, partly because as a fairly consistent neocon, I’m reluctant to defend a policy associated with Donald Trump. (I’m a veteran also, in case anyone was about to shout “Chickenhawk!”) However, I think that the problem with this piece is that it speaks about the war in Afghanistan as though what is currently happening there is on par with what was happening in Vietnam circa 1969. It isn’t. Last year, US military personnel had a higher chance of being killed in Jordan than Afghanistan, and the former is considered to be a highly permissive environment. The media keeps claiming that the conflict is unwinnable. This is a less important question than whether or not the conflict is sustainable in the long term. The US was willing to underwrite the defense of western European countries during the course of the Cold War and continues to do so for South Korea today. Furthermore, those who argue that we should withdraw entirely fail to note that this is more or less what we did in the late 1980s in Afghanistan, with disastrous results that led directly to September 11th. The fact of the matter is that Afghanistan has not had stable institutions since the Soviet Union invaded in the late 1970s. The best we can hope for is to prevent it from being a terrorist haven again, and the only way to ensure that happens is to stay engaged for the long term.

#18 Comment By OMM 0910 On August 22, 2017 @ 8:47 pm

Trump is f*cking up
Hillary would have been worse.

#19 Comment By 2018: bad guys out, good guys in On August 22, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

“I await the pro-Trump rationalizations.”

You’ll get none from me. I voted for him in the hope that he’d get us out of the Middle East and start focusing on America.

He has yet to either end a single Obama era war.

He is even continuing Obama’s pointless, monstrous support for the Saudi starving and wrecking of Yemen.

Next year I’ll vote for the most non-interventionist American nationalists I can find.

And of course it’s not just foreign policy – he’s still flooding the country with immigrants, still handing out hundreds of thousands of work visas. Millions of illegals still running around. No sign of the wall.

Trump completely screwed us – to be fair, and as a sop to my native optimism, I’ll add a very tentative “so far” to that.

#20 Comment By Gene Berkman On August 22, 2017 @ 10:22 pm

You said “He won’t say what will constitute “victory” or an end point.”

In his speech last night, it sounded like the goal is to demonstrate enough strength to convince the Taliban to join the Afghan government in a power sharing deal.

Thousands have died, and billions have been spent, and I don’t think most people were hoping the result would be an Afghan government that includes the Taliban.

#21 Comment By Sam M On August 22, 2017 @ 10:30 pm

Interesting column from David French, who has excoriated Trump every other day of his presidency, but applauds him here:

[10]

Interesting because French admits that he sees the war on terror as a potentially permanent condition. We will be in Afghanistan forever, maybe.

Wow.

#22 Comment By Noah172 On August 22, 2017 @ 11:14 pm

ScottA wrote:

Trump is just another chickenhawk politician who thinks they are a big tough guy because they send other men and women off to fight and die while exempting themselves and members of their privileged families from making similar sacrifices

Trump was talked into this decision, against his better judgment, by Mattis and McMaster, both combat vets who have served in Afghanistan, and Kelly, also a career military man and who lost a son in Afghanistan.

Criticize the President’s decision, as I do, but be fair.

#23 Comment By CMPT On August 23, 2017 @ 2:03 am

VikingLS: “What in Hillary Clinton’s time as senator and secretary of state convinces you that she WOULDN’T have done the same thing, or more?”

This is a very fair question. I voted for Hillary Clinton, but her record strongly suggests she would have made the same decision Trump made here. She also almost certainly would have taken action against Syria at least as violent as what Trump did. So, on these two issues, there’s no reason to believe she would have been any less hawkish than Trump.

However, there’s every reason to believe she would not have issued a toothless threat to N. Korea as Trump did (i.e., fire and fury if N.K. makes any threats against us). She also has a greater understanding of the rationale for nuclear nonproliferation. Nor, would she be itching to back out of the nuclear deal with Iran. So, on issues that give rise to nuclear threats, there’s every reason to believe she would be better than Trump.

I prefer a president who’s more likely to avoid nuclear confrontation, but I concede a reasonable argument can be made that MAD is a sufficient deterrent for that, and that the more likely threat to peace comes from our presence in Afghanistan and the ME. YMMV.

However, it’s not as if the argument that Clinton would have been better rests solely on whether one considers potential nuclear war or prolonged conventional war the greater harm. Notwithstanding Trump’s campaign rhetoric, Trump’s efforts to take health insurance away from 32 million people, eviscerate Dodd-Frank, suppress the minimum wage, dramatically cut every form of domestic spending, and give huge tax cuts to the richest people in America, leaves no question that Clinton would have been better for average Americans.

#24 Comment By BadZ On August 23, 2017 @ 3:09 am

Matt: “2. Have you or any of your readers ever noticed that the war party/Neocon/Military Establishment always gets exactly what it wants? And I mean ALWAYS.”

Well, they didn’t get the Syria war they wanted in 2013. Partly because it was too hastily ginned up, partly because Obama was not an enthusiastic salesman, but mostly because of David Cameron’s decision to allow a vote on the issue (a little too democratic, that bloke). With the Brits out, even desperate cheerleading from France and Australia couldn’t get the party started. I’m sure it’s still on the back burner though, ready to heat up as soon as they think they might be able to sell it.

Paul Lukasiak, spot on!

#25 Comment By Coco On August 23, 2017 @ 7:24 am

Trump said the right things as a candidate. That’s all.
Now his House is staffed by Generals and Wall Street. On both those fronts it will end in disaster: there will be another 2008 type crash and some military catastrophy.

#26 Comment By Polichinello On August 23, 2017 @ 8:30 am

This is a less important question than whether or not the conflict is sustainable in the long term. The US was willing to underwrite the defense of western European countries during the course of the Cold War and continues to do so for South Korea today.

Man, I hate this talking point. It was retarded when the Weekly Standard trotted it out in 2001, and it’s no better now.

There were never significant portions of those countries carrying on armed resistance against us. The most you had were a few a-holes, like the Red Brigade, committing sporadic acts of violence. We certainly never had to worry about some Feldwehr in the Bundeswehr deciding to self detonate around his American trainers.

Furthermore, those who argue that we should withdraw entirely fail to note that this is more or less what we did in the late 1980s in Afghanistan, with disastrous results that led directly to September 11th.

We were never *in* Afghanistan in the 80s. We sent care packages with Stingers via Pakistan. The idea that we could have written more checks and brought Afghanistan back into its idyllic days of the early 70s is ludicrous retconning.

As for 9/11, we could try this thing called “border control”, but your neocon buddies oppose such a thing as impossible…However, re-making the Middle East into a democratic paradise, totally doable.

The long and the short of it is that we are taking on enormous expenses to maintain a remote military presence. We’ve spent almost a trillion dollars on this adventure so far (that’s one Obama stimulus package). The place is “safe” only in that we’re spending a fortune on “force protection”, and at the same time steadily losing ground, or, at best, marching in place. We cannot continue maintaining this expenditure forever, not when we have a lot more pressing issues at home.

My hope is that after arguing with the generals for a months, he’s going to give them their way for a while, and once that doesn’t work out (it won’t), he’ll have reason enough to pull the plug.

#27 Comment By Polichinello On August 23, 2017 @ 8:34 am

Thousands have died, and billions have been spent, and I don’t think most people were hoping the result would be an Afghan government that includes the Taliban.

The British were in a similar situation twice in Afghanistan, and they wound up agreeing to their initial adversaries re-taking power. The Afghans aren’t all that eager to get rid of them, and I don’t see much point in pursuing this, as we can’t exactly go all Ghenghis Khan on them for reasons of basic morality.

#28 Comment By amhixson On August 23, 2017 @ 10:57 am

Sam M: Interesting because French admits that he sees the war on terror as a potentially permanent condition. We will be in Afghanistan forever, maybe.

Wow.

Pretty much. The talk in defense circles is of following the “Korea model” in Afghanistan.

#29 Comment By BaronHarkonnen On August 23, 2017 @ 11:09 am

Hillary Hillary Hillary. After 8 months of her defeat that’s all we hear from Trump supporters, day after day after day. Newsflash: your guy is president, time to take responsibility, and leave the retired bitter defeated washed up pol alone.

Trump supporters are like anti-vax people. The more evidence you give them they’re wrong, the more they dig in. They’e psychologically incapable of acknowledging they’ve been had. Doomsday cult members are the same. Doomsday didn’t come? It’s coming SOON and I’m even more certain of it than ever!!

#30 Comment By tainted On August 23, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

Unsurprisingly, these are the same generals who advocated for our twisted new homoerotic sex-change anything-goes military, the one with the floating pregnancy wards down in Norfolk and record numbers of rape victims of both sexes. I’m sure the Taliban are going to roll right over for that.

#31 Comment By Noah172 On August 23, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

BaronHarkonnen wrote:

Hillary Hillary Hillary. After 8 months of her defeat that’s all we hear from Trump supporters, day after day after day

All we read in your comments, day after day after day, is “But her emails.” Just who is fixated on Hillary?

Another anti-Trump commenter asked “Tell me how Hillary would have been worse.” Some of us responded rationally.

#32 Comment By Mike Schilling On August 24, 2017 @ 5:00 am

Anyone who voted for Donald Trump hoping that he would reduce the US military’s involvement in foreign wars was a fool long before this announcement.

Did you honestly watch him campaign and think he had ideas or principles he would stick to? Did you not notice the number of military men he’s appointed to positions usually held by civilians? Did you not notice that one of his consistent traits is belligerence?

Honestly, I’d love to say “You made your bed, now lie in it”, but we’re all in this together.