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De Gaulle Would See Our Afghanistan War as Folly

The great French leader would advise Trump to stand his Deep State antagonists down and bring the troops home.

One gets the feeling that foreign policy is the spine running through the impeachment saga, as well as opposition to Donald Trump overall. That is, it’s the Deep State’s national security wing that has decided that Trump shouldn’t be president anymore. And so impeachment—starting with that Deep State “whistleblower,” still on the federal payroll somewhere—is the way be rid of the Orange Man, or at least to soften him up with an eye toward removal in the November election. 

Trump, of course, has hardly ingratiated himself to any portion of the establishment, yet it’s the Deep State’s military-industrial complex that has undoubtedly been most antagonized by his denunciations of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Nobody likes to see their life’s work being attacked. 

Of course, Trump has not shown himself to be an effective executor of his own presumed policy. Yet even if he’s proven himself malleable, in terms of keeping the wars going, at least he’s never embraced, rhetorically, the globalist bombast of his predecessors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. 

Indeed, just in his February 2019 State of the Union address, Trump took a swipe at the previous occupants of the Oval Office: “As a candidate for president, I loudly pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars.”  That line got a lot of applause. Yet at the same time, it set the teeth of armchair warriors up and down Massachusetts Avenue—from the liberal-interventionist Brookings Institution, to the neoconservative-interventionist American Enterprise Institute, to the conservative-interventionist Heritage Foundation—into a hard grind-mode.

The feeling that Trump had made deep and well-placed enemies arose again last fall during the testimony of National Security Council staffer Alexander Vindman. In huffy and officious terms, Vindman told Congress that Trump had dared to transgress “the consensus views of the interagency”—that is, the interagency policy process within the NSC. The implication was clear: the interagency was the  guardian of American policy rectitude; Trump was just some egregious interloper. 

And just last week, Congressman Adam Schiff, leader of the Democratic impeachment team, said on the Senate floor that a key concern of his was “protecting and projecting democracy around the world.” Schiff added, “The U.S. aids Ukraine and its people so they can fight Russia over there and we don’t have to fight them here.” In the caustic view of TAC’s Jim Antle, “This is a bad parody of neoconservatism circa 2003, during the peak of George W. Bush’s messianic aspirations toward the Middle East.” 

Speaking of Bushite messianism, we now learn that John Bolton, the uber-hawk Bush loyalist who unaccountably ended up as Trump’s national security adviser for a rocky year and a half, is soon to publish an unflattering book about Trump. In fact, a purported partial summary of the book has miraculously leaked to The New York Times. Funny how that works: just in time for the Senate trial.

Of course, even now, as the Beltway swoons for Bolton, few believe that the Senate will actually vote to convict the president. And yet at the same time, damage is being done: a new Fox News poll shows Trump losing the election to every one of his major Democratic challengers. Which is to say, if Trump is not president this time next year, it’s possible that the military deep state—where Trump has made his share of personal enemies—will be remembered for its role in yet another regime change. 

To be sure, the Democrats challenging Trump are typically positioning themselves as more dovish than the incumbent president (the obvious exception being Joe Biden, the candidate of establishment restoration, which bodes well for more liberal interventionism). Yet as we have seen, in 2016, the Republican challenger positioned himself as more dovish than the incumbent president—and yet four years later, here we are, still at war. 

Indeed, in three presidential elections in a row—2008, 2012, and 2016—the more dovish candidate won, yet we’re still in the quagmire. Given that track record, who can be sure that the winner in 2020, whoever it proves to be, won’t somehow trick us—or be tricked—into continuing the same exhausting policies?  

To this observer, the determination of the American deep state to keep the U.S. mired—its preferred term, of course, is engaged—in foreign war recalls the determination of the French deep state to keep France mired engaged in Algeria in the ’50s and ’60s. 

These thoughts come to mind while reading Julian Jackson’s recent book, A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle. As Jackson records, the Algerian War erupted in 1954, when Algerians rose up against the French colonialists. At the time, de Gaulle, the greatest French hero of World War II, was out of power, yet amidst the domestic political convulsions associated with that bloody conflict, he was recalled, in 1958, from political exile to lead his country once again. 

Within a couple of years, de Gaulle, career military man that he had been, concluded that victory in Algeria was not possible, and so he began looking instead for a diplomatic solution as a fig leaf for an exit. 

It was at this point that elements of the French military began plotting ways to keep the war going—and even conspired to assassinate de Gaulle. At least two serious assassination attempts were made. (A highly fictionalized version of this conspiracy is found in Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 thriller The Day of the Jackal, later turned into a Hollywood movie.) 

Happily, de Gaulle survived, and the vast bulk of the French military stayed loyal and followed its lawful orders. France extricated itself from Algeria in 1962.

Still, in the dogged efforts of the État Profond, six decades back, to rule from below, we can see a template for institutional determination on behalf of a cause, no matter how destructive and counter-productive it might be for the country as a whole. 

In fact, de Gaulle, a student of history, knew a lot about how militaries can subvert civilian rule with disastrous consequences. Back in 1924, when he was just a 30-something junior officer, he wrote a book on that very subject. 

That volume, The Enemy’s House Divided, details what de Gaulle saw as the critical mistakes made by Germany in World War I. Intriguingly, the reader learns less about this weapon, or that flanking maneuver, and more about the larger geopolitical mistakes the Germans made. 

Showing his own canniness about how government works, de Gaulle related that the top German commanders—Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, joined by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz—used their own wiles and the hallowed honor of the military to undercut the authority of civilian figures such as Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Holweg, who was seeking some sort of negotiated end to the fighting. 

Bethmann-Holweg finally resigned in July 1917, leaving the flag officers to fill the power vacuum, surrounding Kaiser Wilhelm II with false hopes and fanciful visions of victory. 

Indeed, even before they took complete control of the government, the commanders had helped make Germany’s strategic situation unviable. Von Tirpitz, for example, had so aggressively used his U-Boats in the Atlantic that the Americans were antagonized. Most notably, it was the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, which killed 1,198 civilians, that outraged U.S. public opinion and tilted Uncle Sam down the road to war. And it was U.S. entry into the war, of course, that sealed Germany’s fate. 

Thus the irony: the German commanders could maneuver well in the bureaucratic councils of Berlin, yet even as they won inside cabinet rooms, they set in motion forces that caused their country to lose on the battlefield. And of course, soon thereafter, the entire Hohenzollern dynasty—which traced its power back to the 11th century—collapsed amidst the national chaos. 

In his typically ornate language, de Gaulle wrote: 

Profiting from the weakness of their sovereign, and abusing their prestige, the military leaders had taken authority and credit from the government. Germany discovered with horror that the logical and necessary balance of the State had been destroyed.

So we can see: de Gaulle was a soldier who knew the limits of soldiering. The military should implement policy, not make it. 

Indeed, as biographer Jackson also recalls, de Gaulle was a canny fellow throughout his life. He warned the young American president, John F. Kennedy, against escalating the war in Vietnam. De Gaulle died in 1970; in other words, he lived long enough to see his Vietnam warning ignored—and vindicated. 

So if de Gaulle were alive today, what would he think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The answer seems obvious enough: with the same cool Cartesian logic he showed toward the Algerian conflict, he would conclude that “endless wars” are both a folly and a fallacy—they must, in fact, have an endpoint. 

Moreover, were he somehow in charge today, he’d find a way to turn the correct thought into the corresponding action. He’d anticipate that the generals might resist, and so he’d summon the moral courage—and, if need be, the personal courage—to stand them down. 

All this adds up to a good reason to study history: to learn how things should be done and, indeed, to learn how to get things done. And for those who might not know the secrets of statecraft, here’s an encouraging thought: it’s never too late to start learning. Yes, that’s true even for a not-so-book-learned American president. 

about the author

James P. Pinkerton is a longtime contributing editor at The American Conservative, columnist, and author. He served as longtime regular columnist for Newsday. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, National Review, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Fortune, and The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of What Comes Next: The End of Big Government--and the New Paradigm Ahead (1995).He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. 

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