Daniel Larison

Trump’s Awful Afghanistan Speech

Forward Operating Base Torkham, in Nangahar Province, Afghanistan (army.mil)

Reading over the text of Trump’s Afghanistan speech, I was struck by his easy acceptance of the conventional hawkish view that withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated elsewhere:

And, as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for, and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS. The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit, and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.

This convenient bit of revisionism omits several important things. First, most Iraqis didn’t want a continued U.S. presence in Iraq. Second, the U.S. could not secure a new Stats of Forces Agreement that gave American forces legal immunity, and it was politically impossible for Iraqi leaders to agree to such a condition after eight years of occupation. Finally, a U.S. residual force would not have been enough to stop any of the things that happened in the years that followed, and their presence would have very likely triggered a new insurgency against them. Withdrawing from Iraq wasn’t a mistake. It was a necessary first step in extricating the U.S. from its entanglements in the region.

Unless the U.S. intends to make Afghanistan its permanent ward and wishes to be at war there forever, there is no compelling reason for a continued American military presence. Nothing in Trump’s speech provided such a reason. He embraced the sunk cost fallacy (“our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made”), and ignored that throwing away more lives on a failed war is far worse than cutting our losses. He indulged the safe haven myth, according to which the U.S. must police countries on the other side of the earth without end for fear that they might give shelter to terrorists if we do not. These are all very familiar and cliched assumptions by now, and they are wrong. We can’t rationally weigh costs and benefits of a war that can’t end unless it somehow redeems the losses already suffered, and Afghanistan is never going to be made secure enough at an acceptable cost to eliminate the possibility that some part of its territory might play host to jihadists. Trump calls his approach “principled realism,” but as usual it is neither principled nor realist.

Trump defined the mission as “killing terrorists,” which practically guarantees that more terrorists will be created in the process and ensures that the mission will never end. There have been higher numbers of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria since Trump took office, and Trump’s statement that he “lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters” promises that the same will happen in Afghanistan. He also made a rather alarming statement, saying “that no place is beyond the reach of American might and Americans arms.” That reflects a potentially very dangerous contempt for the sovereignty of other states that could easily blow up in our faces.

Trump typically dressed up his lack of a discernible strategy as a cunning ruse: “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.” Of course, people living in their own part of the world can always “wait us out.” It is the height of hubris and stupidity to think we can outlast them. His assertion that the U.S. will integrate “all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic, and military — toward a successful outcome” isn’t credible when his administration is presiding over the gutting and wrecking of the State Department.

Trump defined victory as “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” Based on this definition, victory is not possible at an acceptable cost. The preoccupation with “winning” an unwinnable war just dooms the U.S. to fight there for decades to come. If we can’t admit failure after sixteen years of it, when will we?

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Trump Escalates in Afghanistan

Trump announced last night that the U.S. would be escalating the war in Afghanistan once again:

Trump’s reversal stands out not just for the outright vehemence with which he previously argued that America needed to put an end to its 16-year-long war—Trump has called for total US withdrawal from Afghanistan and for handing the country over to an army of mercenaries—but also because of what it says about his foreign policy at large. In the seven months since taking office, Trump has expanded military operations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and, now, Afghanistan. And that’s in addition to an escalated nuclear standoff with North Korea.

It is worth remembering that Trump never campaigned on ending the war in Afghanistan, and he didn’t talk about the war during his entire candidacy. Indeed, both presidential candidates managed to avoid mentioning the war in Afghanistan during their debates, and neither of them was ever forced to explain what U.S. policy would be after the election. This was a media failure to put the candidates’ views under scrutiny, but it was also an abdication by the candidates to outline their plans for the country’s longest war. Both candidates had strong incentives to say nothing, because no one wanted to be reminded that the U.S. was fighting a desultory war for more than a decade and neither of them had the first clue what to do about it.

If Trump is embracing a default interventionist position now, it is because he has no firm principles and never opposes foreign wars when it matters in any case. He didn’t run against any of our ongoing wars, but took easy, self-serving positions against previous wars that he had supported in the past. His overall foreign policy record in office shows that he prefers military action and threats to other courses of action, so it can’t have been that hard to talk him into another pointless troop increase. Escalating in Afghanistan is undoubtedly the wrong decision, and the U.S. will be trapped in fighting a war it won’t win for years to come because of it, but such is the sad and warped state of our foreign policy debate that Trump’s escalation will be greeted with applause across much of Washington.

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Yemen’s Cholera and Famine Crises and U.S. Responsibility

Jackson Diehl comments on the major famine crises around the world, including the one created in Yemen by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war and blockade:

The result, says Joel Charny of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA, is that the Yemen crisis “is not about aid or aid dollars.” It’s about the blockade — and the Trump administration is complicit. It is backing the Saudi war effort with intelligence and military supplies and, says Charny, “failing to pressure the Saudis to do basic things that would remediate the situation.”
[bold mine-DL]

Everything Diehl says here is correct, but it is not just the Trump administration that has been doing this. It important to remember that this disgraceful policy of enabling and supporting the Saudis and their allies started in the spring of 2015 under the Obama administration, and most members of the Senate have opposed every attempt to restrict U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. The starvation of Yemen has been going on all this time, and it received no more attention before Trump took office than it has since he became president. The shameful policy of backing the coalition war on Yemen has run into some resistance in Congress, but not nearly enough to stop it.

There is no question that the Trump administration is complicit in the coalition’s war and blockade, but there are also a lot of other people in Washington that have supported the same horrible policy and they should be called to account for that support as well. Continued support for the war on Yemen is by far the worst thing Trump is doing right now, and the sickening thing is that it is probably one of the only Trump policies that still commands bipartisan support. It is one of the very few Obama-era policies that Trump doesn’t want to reverse.

The cholera epidemic is another product of the war, and has likewise received scant coverage, and when it is covered the responsibility of the coalition and its Western patrons is usually ignored all together. That is beginning to change. More people are now publicly identifying U.S. and British support for the war and blockade as a significant factor in creating the conditions for the epidemic. A group of researchers in Britain recently concluded that the U.S. and U.K. have created the conditions for the spread of the cholera epidemic in Yemen, which is the worst in the world and the worst on record:

Mr Kennedy said in an additional statement: “Saudi Arabia is an ally of the UK and USA. American and British companies supply Saudi Arabia with huge amounts of military equipment and their armed forces provide logistical support and intelligence. “This backing has made the Saudi-led airstrikes and blockade possible, and therefore the UK and USA have played a crucial role in creating conditions conducive to the spread of cholera.”

Diehl is right to hold the Trump administration responsible for the current enabling of the famine and cholera crises in Yemen through continued support for the Saudi-led coalition, but we shouldn’t forget that the blame for creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis extends to all supporters of this policy from both parties.

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Trump’s ‘Monumentally Stupid’ Gift to Maduro

Venezuelan dictator Nicholas Maduro is an evil man, but President Trump has no business threatening him with military action (Marcos Salgado/Shutterstock)

Andres Oppenheimer reviews the damage done by Trump’s careless bluster about a “military option” in Venezuela:

If you talk with Latin American presidents and top diplomats — as I did in recent days — you will conclude that President Donald Trump’s recent remark that he may consider a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela was a moment of monumental stupidity that is already hurting the cause of freedom in that country [bold mine-DL].

Oppenheimer’s report backs up what I have been saying over the last week about the harm that Trump’s heedless meddling has already done. Trump’s rhetoric was undoubtedly a gift to Maduro and a blow to the opposition, but beyond that it has done a remarkable amount of damage to the regional response to the crisis. Instead of focusing on the abuses of Maduro and his allies, regional governments and media are worrying and talking about renewed U.S. interference in their affairs. Oppenheimer observes how Trump’s statement has affected media coverage in South America:

Watching television in Peru and Argentina, I was amazed to see how Trump’s Aug. 11 remark that “I’m not ruling out a military option” in Venezuela has changed the conversation about the Venezuelan crisis in the region. Latin America’s most influential media, which until recently were focusing on Maduro’s break with constitutional law, are now talking about the history of U.S. interventions in Latin America.

Before Trump was elected, one of the common complaints from the foreign policy establishment was that he would disengage from the rest of the world. That was a faulty prediction. We can see plainly that the danger of the Trump administration is not disengagement, but rather ham-fisted meddling. Trump does not renounce U.S. “leadership,” but he doesn’t know the first thing about smart or effective diplomacy, and so we get a series of unplanned, ill-advised threats of military action that simultaneously alarm allies and benefit adversaries.

Besides handing Maduro an easy propaganda win, there are more practical and meaningful consequences to Trump’s outburst:

In fact, Trump’s remarks have already done more harm than allowing Maduro to shift the conversation away from his power grab. They have also fractured Latin America’s diplomatic front that was putting growing pressure on the Maduro regime to restore democratic rule.

Top Peruvian diplomats told me that the group of more than a dozen Latin American countries that met in Peru earlier this month to discuss the Venezuelan crisis is now divided over whether to adopt stronger diplomatic sanctions against Maduro, because several countries are reluctant to go forward amid the threat of a U.S. military intervention [bold mine-DL].

It is possible that some regional governments are looking for excuses not to put additional pressure on Venezuela and are now seizing the opportunity provided by Trump’s remarks, but the point is that Trump provided that excuse with his mindless threat. Trump has strengthened Maduro’s position domestically and internationally, and he did so because he thinks showing “strength” is all that matters and because he confuses making threats with being strong. This is one of the more egregious blunders of Trump’s first year in office, but I suspect it won’t be the last or the biggest.

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The Disgraceful, Failed War on Yemen

Colum Lynch reports on the the failed Saudi-led war on Yemen:

For nearly two-and-a-half years, Saudi Arabia and its allies, equipped with American-built aircraft and precision-guided rockets, have prosecuted one of the most advanced airpower campaigns against one of the world’s poorest countries.

But the Saudi-led coalition’s overwhelming military superiority has brought them no closer to victory. Instead, it has furthered Yemen’s political fragmentation, deepened a humanitarian crisis that has brought the country to the brink of famine, and fed widespread public resentment in response to high civilian casualties, according to a confidential U.N. report reviewed by Foreign Policy.

The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is a failure on its own terms, but it is important to remember that it would be an indefensible war even if it had been more successful. The coalition’s stated goals of restoring Hadi to power and driving Houthis from the capital remain as unrealistic as ever, but they were lousy reasons for a military intervention in the first place. Over two years later, even members of the coalition are now working against their intended puppet, and the “legitimate” government has little or no control in the south:

Yemen’s internationally recognized leader, President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is on the ropes. His authority has been undercut by militias funded and controlled by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the very countries fighting to restore him to power.

Several of Hadi’s top ministers have broken ranks, establishing a separate transitional council with visions of governing the southern Yemen. The council, according to the U.N. panel of experts, enjoys sufficient support within the Yemeni military “to constitute a significant threat to President Hadi’s ability to govern in the south.”

It has been obvious for quite some time that the “legitimate” government of Yemen doesn’t and cannot govern any part of Yemen, but the coalition has no business trying to govern Yemen in its place. The intervention has been and remains wholly illegitimate, and in its devastating effects on the civilian population it has proven to be one of the most destructive and senseless military interventions of our time. It is to the enduring shame of the U.S. and the coalition’s other Western backers that our governments have made such a disgraceful intervention possible.

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Trump’s Weakness

Robert Merry sums up Trump’s weakness:

He is merely a battery of impulses, devoid of any philosophical coherence or intellectual consistency.

The president could hardly be anything else, since the only things that seem to concern him are how others treat him and the status of his brand. He makes no firm commitments, and he reverses himself according to whatever is most expedient to him at the time. It is almost inevitable that he is winging it because he has no relevant experience or knowledge that would keep him from doing so. Trump believes in himself and nothing else, and Chesterton observed long ago that asylums were full of such people.

If Bannon et al. thought they could use him as a vehicle to advance their agenda, they failed to see that he was using them only as long as they could be valuable for helping him. The trouble for many Trump supporters is that Trump has never believed in any of the things they thought he represented, and so they were backing a leader who had no intention of risking anything on their behalf. This was especially true on matters of foreign policy, where Trump’s instincts for plundering and bullying could easily be directed toward conventional hawkish goals if they weren’t already heading that way. Merry sums up the results of Trump’s foreign policy thus far:

On foreign policy he has belied his own campaign rhetoric with his bombing of Syrian military targets, his support for Saudi Arabia’s nasty war in Yemen, his growing military presence in Syria, his embrace of NATO membership for Montenegro, his consideration of troop augmentations in Afghanistan, and his threat to consider military involvement in Venezuela’s internal affairs.

Trump has certainly governed as more of a conventional hawk than his campaign suggested he would, but his actions have been quite consistent with the blundering aggressiveness that he has displayed for years. His support for the war on Yemen, for example, is entirely in keeping with the rather deranged view that Obama was not pro-Saudi enough. Even though Obama backed the war on Yemen to the hilt for years, Trump was always going to be more supportive and less critical because he faulted Obama for not backing so-called “allies” as much as he should have. On NATO expansion, Trump doesn’t care if the alliance takes on new and unnecessary members. All that interests him is whether they pay what they supposedly “owe,” and even if they don’t he doesn’t seriously propose dissolving the alliance or withdrawing from it. As for Syria, his decision to order an attack on their government lines up with his contempt for international law and his desire to seem “tough.” He has no problem initiating illegal hostilities against other states, but he doesn’t like it when the U.S. is expected to clean up the mess afterwards.

Trump’s foreign policy has become almost entirely one favored by Republican hawks because the president doesn’t hold firm convictions on these issues and yields to what his hawkish advisers want. He has accepted a foreign policy of endless war because he is too weak and self-serving to pursue any other course.

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The Illegal, Dangerous Option of Preventive War in Korea

The Times report on preventive war thinking in the White House starts off on the wrong foot:

Not since 2002, as the United States built a case for war in Iraq, has there been so much debate inside the White House about the merits — and the enormous risks — of pre-emptive military action against an adversary nation.

It is worrisome that administration officials are debating an attack on North Korea in any case, since the likely consequences would be disastrous for U.S. allies and for Americans in South Korea. Because the National Security Advisor has publicly (and, in my view, dishonestly) rejected the idea that North Korea can be deterred, this debate inside the White House is even more alarming. The problem with the article’s framing is that the attack being considered has nothing to do with pre-emption as it is properly understood. Pre-emption is an extreme but nonetheless potentially valid form of self-defense. An attack on North Korea would be preventive war of the most stupid and dangerous kind, and the public needs to understand that it has nothing to do with self-defense.

If the U.S. attacked North Korea, it would be doing so illegally and without justification. Preventive war cannot be defensive by definition, and so there is no sense in which it can be waged as a last resort. Preventive war is inherently unjust, and the U.S. should never wage such a war. If Trump ordered a preventive war against North Korea, he would have no authority to do so. He would be acting in violation of U.S. and international law, and he would be launching nothing less than a war of aggression. Regardless of what one thinks U.S. policy should be, it should be easy to agree that illegal, aggressive warfare is unacceptable.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Trump’s comment on Venezuela makes a bad situation worse. Michael Shifter calls Trump’s “military option” statement a “gratuitous gift” to Maduro.

Things don’t end well for madmen. Stephen Walt explains the pitfalls of running an unpredictable “madman” foreign policy.

The critical difference between preemption and preventive war. Christopher Preble notes the importance of this distinction and explains how it applies to China’s willingness to defend North Korea.

Detente in the Persian Gulf is in everyone’s interests. Paul Pillar explains why stoking regional rivalries is bad for all involved.

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The Pitfalls of Trump’s Predictable Bellicosity

Stephen Walt points out the pitfalls of the “madman” approach to foreign policy:

Moreover, unpredictable leaders also fail because they cannot attract or sustain reliable allied support. This problem isn’t surprising either; who would want to link their fates to an unpredictable, erratic, and hotheaded partner? It’s hardly surprising that most of the impulsive leaders discussed above ended up isolated and eventually became the targets of concerted and powerful opposition.

I agree with a lot of what Walt says, but I would frame the problem with Trump’s approach to foreign policy a little differently. His column reminded me of a recent article summarizing Trump’s recent threats and how they have backfired on him in different ways every time:

During his rise to power, President Trump proved he has a finely honed sense of what threats, intimidation and bluster can accomplish. In recent days, he has received reminders — including from South Korea, Iran and Venezuela — that geopolitics operates with a different set of rules than real estate or political campaigns.

As we have seen over the last seven months, many of the biggest quarrels between Trump and foreign leaders have been with leaders of allied or friendly states, and his tendency to make threats without any coordination or forethought has further strained relationships with many of these same states. At the same time, adversaries have reaped the benefits of Trump’s careless rhetoric. The effect of Trump’s bluster towards Iran at the Riyadh summit and afterwards has not been to make Iran more cooperative, but rather to sour relations and intensify their resistance to his demands while encouraging the Saudis in further blundering with its campaign against Qatar. Threats against Maduro and his allies haven’t made the government in Caracas more compliant with Washington’s preferences, but have managed to alarm almost every other government in the region about our intentions while giving the Venezuelan president a ready-made distraction. Likewise, Trump’s “fire and fury” talk regarding North Korea hasn’t elicited any improvement in North Korean behavior, but it has forced the new South Korean president to insist publicly that the U.S. will not act without his government’s consent.

On every front, Trump has either strengthened the position of the adversary he was trying to intimidate, or he has worried U.S. allies so much that our officials have had to spend more time reassuring them that the president doesn’t really mean what he says than they spent on addressing the relevant issues. That hasn’t happened because of Trump’s preference for unpredictability, but because he has been reliably bad at alliance management and consistently prone to issuing threats that scare our allies more than they worry our adversaries.

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The Consequences of Meddling

Venezuelan dictator Nicholas Maduro is an evil man, but President Trump has no business threatening him with military action (Marcos Salgado/Shutterstock)

Michael Shifter also found Trump’s Venezuela bluster to be quite harmful:

It now looks like the president has confused United States policy and given Mr. Maduro a gratuitous gift. Mr. Trump has thrown the opposition off balance, further alienated regional allies, and made his vice president clean up after him. Venezuelans will be the ones to suffer.

Most observers seem to agree that Trump’s statement was an unforced error that has already had serious consequences for Venezuelans and for U.S. diplomacy in the region and could have more in the weeks to come. It was also instructive in showing that seeking to intimidate another government by issuing threats normally boosts the other regime’s position at home and hurts that of the regime’s opponents. Even when threats from abroad are grossly inflated, they can be used to stifle dissent, crack down even harder on political opponents, and create a much-needed distraction for failing leaders. It makes an already difficult task for Maduro’s opponents even harder:

Amid the mounting tensions there has been no statement from the main opposition alliance or its leaders. Meanwhile, its website remains hacked for a second straight day with a photo of a finger-pointing Trump under the banner “I Want You to Kill Your Brothers and Sisters.”

Few things could be worse for the prospects of effective political protest and change than providing a regime’s leaders with the specter of U.S. intervention. We are seeing that unfold in Venezuela now, and we should remember that for the next political crisis when we start to hear demands that the U.S. “must act.”

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