Trump Is America’s First Contradiction-in-Chief

The United States has never had a military leader as bold, naive, and arrogant as the current president.

President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, and former President Barack Obama at the Washington National Cathedral on Dec. 5, 2018. (Alex Brandon/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, and former President Barack Obama at the Washington National Cathedral on Dec. 5, 2018. (Alex Brandon/Getty Images)

On matters of war and peace, U.S. President Donald Trump says what he means but rarely does what he says; the result has been his administration’s contradictory combination of hawkish militarism and strategic retrenchment. Alongside Trump’s overt militarism—demonstrated in practice by the expansion of troop deployments and airstrikes in the wars he inherited—he has, paradoxically, repeated a rhetorical preference for reducing certain overseas military commitments, both deployments and wars.

Such hypocrisy has been commonplace since 9/11. Ever since, presidents have regularly made military policy pledges that were rarely reflected in actual military practice. Yet there are at least five important ways that Trump’s approach to serving as commander in chief has been truly different than that of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

First, Trump appears to have actually ordered the removal of a significant portion of military troops from Syria and Afghanistan. (Recognize that any reduction comes only after Trump quadrupled the number of troops in Syria, added 3,900 in Afghanistan, and increased the total number of acknowledged troops and civilian Defense Department personnel in the Middle East by 33 percent.) While some administration officials have claimed that drawdowns will not be based on timelines or conditions, others have given schedules for the majority of troops to exit both countries.

Trump’s willingness to expend political capital on this—in direct opposition to many Republican policymakers—is remarkable and should be welcomed. Both Bush and Obama refused to use their full executive powers to insist on negotiated war outcomes in Afghanistan, in part because of the resistance of Pentagon leaders and congressional hawks, but it was also due to the safe haven myth that dominated post-9/11 foreign-policy conventional wisdom. Trump has taken a limited risk in authorizing some troop withdrawals, and now he will own the subsequent consequences.

Second, and relatedly, the president and his advisors have expressed a belief that improbable—or historically unprecedented—military coalitions will form to do America’s bidding. This judgment has been demonstrated in Syria, where Trump has—with little success—repeatedly called for Russia, Turkey, Gulf countries, Europe, or anyone else to fight Islamic State-affiliated forces, protect humanitarian aid convoys, and establish some sort of buffer zone along the Turkish border. National Security Advisor John Bolton even recently demanded assurances from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that America’s Kurdish partner forces—deemed adversaries of Turkey—would be protected, which, of course, Erdogan refused to provide. There simply are no regional forces capable or willing over the long term to carry out military missions that America will not provide its own forces to fulfill.

Third, Trump may have definitively declared that “great nations do not fight endless wars,” but the wars he inherited will not end. Rather, their composition and objectives will shift from a large acknowledged troop presence doing counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations to smaller covert forces focused on gathering intelligence for partner-led raids and U.S. airstrikes. Syria may soon resemble the escalating bombing campaign on behalf of both the government and proxy forces in Somalia, while Afghanistan—even with the Taliban in the ruling government—may permit a smaller U.S. presence and more proscribed airstrikes against Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates, in exchange for continued billions of dollars of aid. This is still warfare without end, meaning without the commitment of resources needed to resolve the conflicts with America’s adversaries in each country.

Fourth, Trump is uniquely unable to recognize the consequences and benefits of a dedicated troop presence in war-torn countries. While preparing for the withdrawal of troops, officials continue to contend that fewer forces on the ground will carry out the same, or even additional, military missions. For example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed in January that “every last Iranian boot” would be expelled from Syria, while, on Sunday, Trump even tweeted, “The U.S. will soon control 100% of ISIS territory in Syria.” Neither unsustainable objective will be achieved because they would require permanently stationing hundreds of thousands of troops to monitor and control access to Syria. Even fewer troops in country make such fantastical goals even less plausible.

Trump has downplayed any impact of troop withdrawals: “We have very fast airplanes. We have very good cargo planes. We can come back very quickly.” But such unfettered rapid-return access into another country’s sovereign airspace and territory is predicated on sustained diplomatic relations, which are enhanced by U.S. security force assistance and counterinsurgency support. Ground troops are an incredibly powerful and fungible tool for both good and bad outcomes in foreign countries, and Trump appears to be unaware of the unmatched access and influence that they provide. Once the troops are gone, host nation politics will make it inherently difficult to support their reintroduction, either gradually or with very fast airplanes.

Fifth, Trump evidently has no interest in hearing or being influenced by the professional military judgment of Pentagon military and civilian leaders. This was particularly evidence when Gen. Joseph Votel, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told policymakers last week that he “was not consulted” and “was not aware of” Trump’s December announcement that the United States would withdraw its forces from Syria. “Our boys, our young women, our men—they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now,” Trump said in a Twitter video. The president has always believed his military expertise surpasses that of every previous civilian official—whom he derides as “geniuses”—as well that of all uniformed officers. He famously trusts his gut and once told his biographer: “I always thought I was in the military.”

It is now clear, given Trump’s disinterest in military and intelligence officials’ opinions, that traditional, deliberative civil-military processes and formal interagency policy reviews are over. This is the most consequential and dangerous commander in chief distinction between the current president and his two predecessors. Trump’s disinterest in hearing dissenting views and his impulsive decision-making style make it challenging for America’s diplomats and defense planners to make demonstrable progress in winding down the endless wars or better ensure that new ones are not initiated.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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