Home/Daniel Larison/There Has Been No Retrenchment Under Trump

There Has Been No Retrenchment Under Trump

President Donald J. Trump speaks with reporters during a briefing with military leadership members Wednesday, December 26, 2018, at the Al-Asad Airbase in Iraq. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent explain in detail that Trump hasn’t reduced U.S. military commitments overseas:

But after nearly three years in office, Trump’s promised retrenchment has yet to materialize. The president hasn’t meaningfully altered the U.S. global military footprint he inherited from President Barack Obama. Nor has he shifted the costly burden of defending U.S. allies. To the contrary, he loaded even greater military responsibilities on the United States while either ramping up or maintaining U.S. involvement in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere. On practically every other issue, Trump departed radically from the path of his predecessor. But when it came to troop deployments and other overseas defense commitments, he largely preserved the chessboard he inherited—promises to the contrary be damned.

MacDonald and Parent’s article complements my earlier post about U.S. “global commitments” very nicely. When we look at the specifics of Trump’s record, we see that he isn’t ending U.S. military involvement anywhere. He isn’t bringing anyone home. On the contrary, he has been sending even more American troops to the Middle East just this year alone. While he is being excoriated for withdrawals that never happen, he is maintaining or steadily increasing the U.S. military presence in foreign countries. Many Trump detractors and supporters are so invested in the narrative that Trump is presiding over “withdrawal” that they are ignoring what the president has actually done. Trump’s approach to U.S. military involvement might be described as “loudly declaring withdrawal while maintaining or increasing troop levels.” Almost everyone pays attention only to his rhetoric about leaving this or that country and treats it as if it is really happening. Meanwhile, the number of military personnel deployed overseas never goes down.

The authors offer a possible explanation for why Trump has been able to get away with this:

A more compelling explanation for the persistence of a large global U.S. military footprint, and the concomitant creep of oversees commitments, is to be found in domestic politics. Trump’s rhetoric can diverge sharply from reality without consequence because few in his party have an incentive to hold him accountable. In this hyper-polarized political moment, most voters will stick with their party regardless of how many campaign pledges are broken or foreign policy initiatives end in failure. With an all-volunteer military, flattening taxes, and deficit financing, the vast majority of Americans are insulated from the costs of American foreign policy. So long as most Americans want to look tough and influential without paying for it, politicians won’t be punished for living in the same fantasy world as voters.

Trump is further insulated from scrutiny and criticism because he is frequently described as presiding over a “retreat” from the world. Most news reports and commentary pieces reinforce this false impression that Trump seeks to get the U.S. out of foreign entanglements. There are relatively few people pointing out the truth that MacDonald and Parent spell out in their article. The main reason why America’s military commitments remain unchanged under Trump may simply be that the president doesn’t really want to reduce them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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