Like many long-time Trump supporters, I, too, was disappointed with the president’s announcement of a “new strategy” for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. I was hoping to hear Trump had found a responsible way to end our nation’s longest war. But with all of the armchair quarterbacking going on in the wake of the speech, it might be useful to take a moment to place the war in Afghanistan in the larger political context of our day, and to remember the complexities involved for the president in making this decision.
The question of what to do in Afghanistan is not answered in a vacuum, after all. In the grand scheme of things, it is possible that this was the prudent choice.
While I am a critic of the “strategy” (though not as fierce a critic as some others), I am not sure the quality of the plan matters all that much. In the final analysis, the plan’s prudence may have less to do with whether it will actually work than many people presume.
Let’s consider how the president arrived at this decision and think about it in the larger context of American politics today.
Priorities, Priorities . . .
First, the war in Afghanistan is nowhere near the top of the list of problems facing the United States. Second, we must not ignore the politics of culpability. Third, if it is true that everyone but Attorney General Jeff Sessions supported the strategy, then Trump was in a tough spot (maybe an impossible one).
The war in Afghanistan, while a tragic waste of lives and an embarrassing display of our government’s incompetence, is simply not our most pressing matter today. It pains me to say it, but we have been at war there for 17 years and, for the most part, no one at home really cares. Most of the Republican candidates for president, you might remember, had no problem supporting the war. One reason is American voters have little sense the war is still underway; the media does not cover it, and politicians tend not to talk about it. It’s the easiest thing in the world to ignore it. This lack of interest is unfortunate, tragic even, but it does say something about how important the war effort is to the vitality of the nation.
The bitter truth is that the billions of dollars wasted and the precious lives lost in Afghanistan do not make the problem of Afghanistan vital to our national survival in the near term. Americans may not want to admit it, but it is important that our statesmen do. Fighting the administrative state, securing the border, gaining energy independence, fixing trade deals, and generally promoting prosperity at home are far more vital. There are only so many battles Trump can wage at any given moment.
Next, we must remember the politics of culpability and the fickle nature of Americans today. Any negative outcome that could be attached, rightly or wrongly, to withdrawing from Afghanistan will have serious consequences for Trump and the viability of his agenda. This is not an attempt to cast aspersions on the American people as corrupt and incapable of self-government. But it is another bitter pill that in this politically charged atmosphere, Americans would probably abandon Trump and his program if terrorist attacks at home happened to follow a drawdown of our troops abroad. Never mind that the courts have made it nearly impossible for the president to do his lawful duty and control immigration based on his assessment of threats. Never mind that Congress has provided him no assistance or support in his attempt to enforce the laws they passed. Pulling out of Afghanistan at the wrong time would expose Trump to serious political risk.
Trump vs. His Advisors
Finally, consider the position in which President Trump’s advisors put him. Most Americans, it’s fair to say, would want the president to hear unfettered advice from his counselors. And there would be real consequences if Trump rejected their near unanimous advice. While I do not know that anyone threatened to quit over the question, it is not unreasonable to think that key advisors might resign if their advice on a major decision were to be rejected or ignored—not out of pride, mind you, but rather because the president should have advisors whose advice he’s inclined to hear and heed. In those rare cases when nearly every advisor holds to a position in opposition to the president’s inclinations, a careful statesman must consider the ramifications of rejecting their advice.
What’s more, if the president goes against the advice of his counselors, it is all on him. Obviously, “the buck stops” with the president. He’s responsible for decisions of grave national importance. But in this instance, it would have meant Trump had no cover from his advisors. In effect, they told him he was a man alone—with the exception of Steve Bannon (who has since resigned) and Sessions—in his assessment. While I hate our modern addiction to “expertise” as much as the next Trumpist, this is one those instances when expert advice matters (even if the experts in this case have a long track record of failure).
Yes, President Trump might have taken a bold stand for what he believed, but that is an awfully big risk to take. Is it worth it?
Just because most Americans seem to have forgotten the war, that doesn’t mean it’s an abstraction. People are rightly furious over the loss of American lives in what they perceive to be a useless and unwinnable conflict. But there is no easy way to say this: Leaning too heavily on previous sacrifices as a justification to withdraw now, if doing so comes at the expense of a domestic agenda that supports and defends the Constitution, would be a mistake. Remember, Trump walked into a mess of a situation at home and abroad when he took the oath of office. Resolving both sets of problems simultaneously may be impossible. And it may very well be that we cannot fix the latter without first correcting the former.
With the new strategy, President Trump may have the best way out of an unfortunate and challenging problem. He can give “his generals” a chance (say, two years) to pound the Taliban and other nefarious forces in Afghanistan. A few MOABs might set the right tone. The diplomats would have time to work the new strategy as well as they say they can. Together, they might be able to gain enough leverage over our opponents to broker a happy conclusion (leverage we certainly don’t have now).
Notice the caveats? If the generals and diplomats cannot make the plan work, as seems likely, then Trump’s original instincts will have been proven correct and his advisors wrong. Trump and his agenda would be safe and he could still end the war. In a way, this matches Trump’s own advice to “protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself.”
No Expedient Choices, Only Prudent Ones
Trump’s opponents on the Right and Left would likely respond that this is cheap politics. That’s too simplistic an understanding of what I am suggesting. I imagine President Trump would have liked nothing more than to get expert advice confirming his view that it was time to end the war and bring our men and women home. But he didn’t, and Trump was faced with a decision in what, as he points out, are very tough circumstances that he inherited. Under the circumstances, no politically expedient choice was available. The announcement was a bitter pill for his supporters to swallow, and if the president’s tone was any indicator, it wasn’t easy for him, either.
So for those who otherwise like Trump, or who value his agenda, they would do well to consider he may have made the right choice. In the best sense of the phrase, politics may have trumped policy. Going contrary to his initial instincts in this instance may have been an exercise in statesmanship and the humility his critics are so eager to deny is within his capacity. Trump may have weighed in the balance the various parts of his agenda. He may have considered the circumstances and examined what is urgent and what is necessary. We will not know for some time, but the new strategy in Afghanistan may be the most prudent course after all.