By J.D. Munch
On August 21, Donald Trump read a speech from his teleprompter. All indications are that he managed not to ad lib a single time, undoubtedly to the great relief of his staff. The result was a speech that, if you chose not to think about what he said and did not say, almost sounded respectable. Graded on the curve Trump and his followers have sought to establish for his performances, this qualifies as a success.
Unfortunately, two immutable truths of the Office of the President remain. First, the President of the United States cannot be graded on a curve. The ability to read and avoid sounding stupid for one speech cannot define success. Second, a speech itself does not do anything if it does not provide positive content that actions can support. In this regard, the speech was a collection of empty statements and non-ideas that cannot remove the truth of Afghanistan: it is a war without an end in sight, from which Trump wants nothing more than some way—any way—to claim a victory in his presidency. Just as we must resist Trump in the moments he reveals his worst impulses, so we must continue to resist when his unfitness is more subtle. And this speech, even without including departures from the script, reveals serious dangers to anyone paying attention.
A Word about Unity
Trump paid lip service to the idea of everyone coming together, regardless of “race, ethnicity, creed, and color.” In his fourth chance to respond to the violence in Charlottesville, Trump’s speech struck a decent tone here. But in light of his third effort (the August 15th press conference meltdown), these words do more than ring hollow; they fall into the context of his idea that “fine people” on all sides of the discussion should fall in line and get along. He praises those serving in the military in these terms, but we cannot fool ourselves into believing that his rhetoric means something different from the real support he has given white supremacists and Nazis.
The speech noted that there will be “no tolerance for hate.” And if he hadn’t twice already shown tolerance for hate (when presented with a valid permit) in just the last week, perhaps this would mean something. Given what he has shown us when speaking freely in response to a specific situation, though, the sentiment becomes an empty aphorism. To Trump, “unity” means falling in line. Supporting our troops matters, but doing so in these broad terms does nothing to dispel the truth of Trump’s continued bolstering of white hate mongers.
A Dearth of Strategy
The opening salvo on unity serves as a fitting opening to a military policy speech devoid of any actual policy. While Trump made the remarkable admission that he actually changed his mind based on evidence before him—something all too rare from him in matters of all varieties—he failed to provide any actual strategy for the conflict that lies before us. The speech provided that we will not use timetables or announced strategies, relying instead of an ad hoc approach to warfare. We have no definition of what we hope to achieve, other than that we will not nation-build and will seek an undefined “honorable and enduring outcome.” With no plan for what we want there, what conditions will allow us to end our involvement, we have the very open-ended conflict for which Trump criticized Obama during his campaign. We will “kill terrorists” and use the full might of the United States to find them wherever they will be, but we can only come out of Trump’s speech with a firm understanding that we have no idea what we actually want to accomplish in Afghanistan, outside of so much winning.
Allies, Foes, and Danger Points
Meanwhile, Trump’s failures in international relations continue to rear their heads. With a potential nuclear conflict with North Korea still looming, Trump’s speech could serve to exacerbate tensions between Pakistan and India—two more nuclear powers in the world. Trump threatened Pakistan and our partnership with it in no uncertain terms, a typical blunt statement when real diplomacy should occur. Meanwhile, he discussed developing the partnership with India—a nuclear-armed enemy of Pakistan—immediately after issuing that threat. If Pakistan’s leaders are reading in to what Trump had to say, they will be wary and potentially more dangerous as a result.
Further, Trump’s speech threw a bone to Vladimir Putin, per usual, by suggesting we may be able to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan after we “win.” The Taliban, long supported by Russia in principle and in arms, serves as an enemy force in our Afghanistan conflict. The speech states that it must be prevented from taking over, so the notion that we want to include them in a government feels strange given any meaning other than implicit support for Russia in that country.
Trump wants to win, and win big, and probably most importantly to him, receive plaudits for his inspired leadership in doing so. But his clumsy handling of international relations issues in the area does nothing to put this writer at ease. The President remains uninterested in understanding the nuances of working with other countries in this world, and the result will remain more dangers for the troops in combat zones and for Americans trying to live their lives in as safe a world as they can manage.
The Buck Stops Elsewhere
Given this fundamental lack of understanding or ability to process and deliver nuanced information, one might almost be happy that Trump is pushing responsibility for the direction and management of battle on to the generals in the field. They know battle conditions better than he does, and are better situated in understanding the needs of the troops in harm’s way. Trump is clearly the last person who should be giving direction on strategy in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, Trump remains the Commander-in-Chief. The reason we have that role for the President is to maintain the kind of perspective that troops on the front lines and generals tasked with achieving victory cannot have. There are times diplomatic concerns may arise, or when single-minded military personnel get caught up in the zeal of the battle without thinking of consequences to come after the smoke settles. The Commander-in-Chief must provide that perspective for the good of the nation. Trump has punted on this.
In that light, the ramifications of “removing the shackles” on generals and front-line troops feel ominous. Their strategy is based on killing terrorists, not on any defined objective. The conflict in Afghanistan poses a serious risk of becoming a breeding ground for bloodlust and power-grabs, one in which a terrorist body count—along with any incidental additional bodies present—becomes a goal in itself. Our troops need guidance and perspective on which they can focus even in the heat of battle. If the only reason they are there is to “attack the bad guys,” they lack that essential grounding that every fighter should have.
More Ego Stroking
In short, Trump has conceded that we must remain in Afghanistan, but he has identified no end goal beyond not wanting more terrorists in the world. That matters; no one should want more terrorists. But in this case, he is leaving the door open to a Taliban role in government, and articulating no definition of what winning means. We can be left with only one possible focus Trump has here: he does not want to look like a loser.
Everything Trump does seems to come around to this: he wants to win, and doesn’t want to lose. He celebrated the House passing a dead bill because he wanted to lay claim to achieving something. He has focused on dismantling Obama’s legacy on health care and environmental protections not because he believes anything in particular about those issues, but because he wants to claim wins over the man he has attacked for so many years. And without a timeline or an overarching goal, he has set himself up to claim a meaningless victory every time a non-American dies in Afghanistan.
Donald Trump’s Afghanistan speech demonstrates nothing but his continued effort to find a way to stroke his fragile ego. It feels remarkable even now that this country elected a President who cares so little about the public the office is meant to serve, but we must acknowledge reality for what it is. Resist Trump for his bad policies and his bad temperament, for his racism and his sexism, for his failures politically and personally. But beyond this, we must acknowledge and resist his pathological grasping for power and adulation at the expense of the citizens of this country. Trump cares only about his own power and press clippings, and no way of phrasing that his speechwriters manage to make him follow can change this. In the end, Trump seeks only his own best interests. We deserve better.