Those anticipating that President Donald Trump would spend a considerable part of his State of the Union address on foreign policy likely came away disappointed. With the exceptions of his bragging about the U.S. military being stronger and better than ever before, killing one of the al-Qaeda operatives who planned the USS Cole attack over 18 years ago, and condemning Nicolás Maduro-style socialism, Trump was noticeably subdued on events beyond America’s shores.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, the Trump administration’s favorite target, was portrayed as led by depraved fanatics intent on committing murder and mayhem throughout the Middle East. Russia—a country that has caused Trump all sorts of political trouble in Washington—was called out for violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Chinese President Xi Jinping was described as a friend while his government was excoriated as a predatory economic behemoth that has sapped America of its wealth, killed its manufacturing sector, stolen its intellectual capital, and decimated its blue-collar workforce. And Trump minced no words when briefly talking about Venezuela’s Maduro, who has plundered a once wealthy Latin American nation.
These portions of the speech were typical red meat to the Republican Party establishment. You won’t find a single conservative at a think tank or on TV who doesn’t enjoy hitting Tehran over the head with the strongest economic sanctions regime in history or boasting about wiping the Islamic State off the face of the earth. The president’s references to America as an agent of freedom sounded less like Trump and more like a combination of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, two men that define GOP foreign policy orthodoxy to this day.
What was different and indeed encouraging was Trump’s expressed desire to get the American military out of the foreign wars that have bogged it down with few—if any—benefits to American national security. He repeatedly talked about how U.S. soldiers have been fighting, training, advising, bombing, and dying in the same places with little to show for it other than munitions expended. Armies that Washington helped build, train, and fund remain semi-competent at best and grossly corrupt and inadequate at worst. Seven thousand troops killed, nearly 52,000 wounded, and $7 trillion spent has produced neither the market capitalism and democracy previous administrations envisioned nor the regional stability policymakers in Washington assumed.
The byproducts of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and all the rest have often been weapons proliferation and terrorism rather than the freedom happy-talk neoconservatives and liberal internationalists hoped for. Put aside his character flaws and deficiencies as a leader for a moment. Trump is at his best when he’s discussing the forever wars that have defined America’s foreign policy since the beginning of the century. On this, he is more in sync with the average American than he is with Beltway luminaries like Eliot Cohen, Bill Kristol, or Max Boot—all of whom continue to advocate for the very interventions that created so many problems in the first place.
In many cases, these positions isolate Trump from his fellow Republicans. A day after all but four Senate Republicans voted to approve an amendment opposing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, the president framed the coming departure as a successful conclusion of the counter-ISIS mission. America’s brave warriors, Trump told the assembled guests, will soon be given a “warm welcome home” after destroying the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate. The U.S. military did its job admirably. What else is there for them to do other than pack up and come home?
On Afghanistan, Trump was emphatic that 17 years of war is enough. Having long assessed Afghanistan to be a lost cause and American investment in that country to be a waste of money, the president has never seen the utility of stretching out the war in pursuit of an unattainable objective. At the end of the administration’s Afghanistan strategy review in the summer of 2017, Trump reluctantly gave the Pentagon what it asked for: a few thousand additional soldiers and looser rules of engagement in order to pound the Taliban from the air and compel its leadership to talk about peace. Those talks are now occurring, and Trump appears patient enough to give the negotiations time (“the hour has come to at least try for peace”). But one would be mistaken in assuming that his patience is unlimited. With or without a peace agreement with the Taliban, Trump is more likely to pull out of Afghanistan and cut short a failing campaign than he is to double down as so many of his predecessors have. Washington would be aghast at the prospect, but the American people would very likely support it.
Donald Trump could have used his State of the Union speech as an opportunity to deliver a warning to the foreign policy elite in both parties that the days of unlimited intervention are coming to a definite end. He failed to go that far tonight.
He did, however, offer up plenty of morsels for realists and restrainers. The United States is hungry for a foreign policy that is grounded in common sense and political leadership, that recognizes that staying in conflicts indefinitely—regardless of how high the cost—is the definition of insanity. They may finally have it.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.