Donald Trump’s practical record might suggest otherwise, but his rhetoric has been the most anti-war on record. Last week he chastised Joe Biden for sending “our youth to fight in these crazy endless wars” as vice president. He also complained that top Pentagon officials “want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs, that make the planes and everything else, stay happy.”
In practice, he has done little to turn his words into policy. U.S. troops are still fighting every war they were fighting when he took office in 2017. Before reducing forces in Afghanistan, Trump did an Obama—increasing the number first.
Moreover, the president brought the U.S. uncomfortably close to war against Iran, largely, it seems, at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Worse, Trump played a dangerous game of geopolitical chicken with nuclear-armed North Korea, creating serious concern that he might inadvertently trigger what could become the Second Korean War. The latter would have been far bloodier than all the military actions taken by Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama combined.
Nevertheless, no other president has similarly criticized America’s promiscuous war-making, denounced U.S. aggression, admitted that Washington has abused its power to kill, and questioned the Pentagon’s endless subsidies for wealthy allies. Although the Blob, the ever-interventionist foreign policy establishment, routinely dismisses his observations, its members have been forced to address such critiques for the first time. Which has horrified, even angered those who evidently believe that they have the mandate of heaven to rule the world.
Unsurprisingly, the president’s latest comments were ill-received. And he unfairly maligned the military leadership, which tends to be more cautious than politicians. During the Reagan years Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz clashed over the use of military force, with the former urging restraint.
The confrontation between Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was similar. The former came up with the “Powell Doctrine,” which set restrictive conditions similar to those advanced by Weinberger. In contrast, Albright infamously asked Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it.” Powell, who saw men die in Vietnam, an experience spared the ivory tower warrior Albright, noted that he “almost had an aneurysm.” Yet Albright has continued to afflict her views on the American people, always backing endless wars.
Nevertheless, the U.S. military brass has lined up solidly in favor of every commitment, alliance, deployment, program, weapon, base, subsidy, expenditure, maneuver, grant, facility, war, guarantee, agreement, promise, and everything else that expands the armed services’ footprint and role overseas. The president’s desire to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq set off collective hysteria in Washington. The wailing and gnashing of teeth was as frenzied at the Pentagon as it was at Foggy Bottom and think tanks across New York and Washington, D.C. Not a single Blob member seemed to dispute the principle that what has ever been must ever be.
Certainly, the president has noticed that when he, as commander-in-chief, expresses his desire to exit a war or alliance, those in uniform around him turn into whirling dervishes determined to halt any move toward disengagement and peace. The military’s motto might as well be: “Why not another 19 years of peacebuilding in Afghanistan?” Or: “Stay in Syria forever lest the devastated country reunite.” Better yet: “Remain a Saudi pawn in the Sunni-Shia struggle in Iraq.”
The president’s whack at the military-industrial complex drew particularly sharp criticism from some Blob members. Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake accused Trump of sounding like Noam Chomsky. Yet defense contractors know that war increases demand for their wares. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the master of ceremonies opening a conference of arms-makers enthusiastically thanked Saddam Hussein. While the infamous merchants of death may not explicitly lobby for war, they promote the meme that the world always is increasingly dangerous, always requiring ever greater weapons expenditures. That contributes to a public perception of danger and aids candidates who run for office suggesting that Americans are in greater danger today than ever before, which is utter nonsense.
The most striking complaint about Trump’s comments may be the most fatuous. Lake contended: “The reason America keeps supporting weak, corrupt governments in Baghdad and Kabul is because their collapse would lead to more war, more terrorism and more suffering. Nineteen years ago this week, when a plot hatched in war-ravaged Afghanistan felled the World Trade Center and destroyed part of the Pentagon, the U.S. learned this lesson. Trump’s foreign-policy message for 2020 is an attempt to persuade American to forget this history.”
This claim fails at many levels. First, al-Qaeda did not attack America because the latter was so virtuous. It struck the U.S. because the latter had intervened all over the world, meddling in other people’s disputes, supporting oppressive governments, occupying nations, and more. This didn’t justify terrorism, but believing Washington to be an innocent Vestal Virgin abused by the nasty world has resulted in stupid, counterproductive policies. If you strike the hornet’s nest, you get stung. Intervention is the problem, not the solution.
Second, the U.S. invasion of Iraq generated many of today’s problems. America managed to create the worst possible consequences: thousands of dead Americans, tens of thousands of wounded Americans, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, millions of displaced Iraqis, a sectarian conflict, an activist Shia government, greatly strengthened Iranian influence, and creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the Islamic State. The latter, combined with the consequences of sectarian conflict and governance, led to a second round of catastrophic violence.
Third, spending almost 20 years to promote centralized and liberal government in Afghanistan was not a successful means to prevent more war, terrorism, or suffering. The Watson Center figures tens of thousands of civilian dead and millions displaced in Afghanistan. Nor does attempting to buttress the dismal wreck known as the government in Kabul halt terrorism. Al-Qaeda can operate from any ill-governed space. Osama bin Laden ended up in Pakistan, where he was killed. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who planned 9/11, lived almost everywhere but Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, located in Yemen, long was viewed as the most effective national affiliate. As for Washington’s concern over terrorism, it should be noted that in Yemen the U.S. has supported the Saudis, Emiratis, and Hadi governments, all of which have accommodated or cooperated with AQAP; in contrast, the Yemeni Houthis long opposed the terrorist group.
Fourth, Washington’s support for weak, corrupt, aggressive, and oppressive governments is one of the best incubators of terrorism. Among bin Laden’s grievances was U.S. support for Riyadh, including stationing U.S. troops on what he viewed as holy Muslim soil. Current al-Qaeda head Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri was radicalized in the prisons of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a long-time, well-subsidized American client. It would not be surprising if Yemenis eventually strike at the U.S. for providing the Saudis with planes, munitions, intelligence, and refueling services used to bomb weddings, funerals, apartment buildings, school buses, and more. The best way to minimize terrorism would be to make fewer enemies, especially by no longer reflexively making other people’s conflicts America’s own.
There is much to criticize about Trump’s approach to foreign policy. His policy toward Iran is little short of disastrous. His embrace of the vile Saudi regime is beyond embarrassing. His faux Mideast “peace plan” was written to empower Benjamin Netanyahu with no concern for Palestinians who have suffered under a half century of military occupation. His consistently failed reliance on “maximum pressure” around the globe is a fiasco. He lost an admittedly faint opportunity to negotiate an agreement with North Korea by adopting John Bolton’s approach without John Bolton. Trump’s effort to shift responsibilities onto prosperous, populous allies has been all rhetoric, no action.
Nevertheless, his willingness to criticize the endless wars promoted by the usual ivory tower warriors and think tank samurai deserves praise. Maybe not the Nobel Peace Prize—after all, he has yet to end a single war. However, Washington’s promiscuous war-making over the last two decades has had catastrophic consequences. Presidential recognition of the obvious is long overdue.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.