President Trump’s State
of the Union message last night certainly had its moments. There were the obligatory
calls for unity, horn tooting about the strong economy, recognition of
outstanding Americans, and even a few chants of “USA! USA!” Amid the boilerplate, however, the most disturbing aspect of
the State of the Union was a return to Donald Trump’s isolationist tendencies
and advocacy of a foreign policy that would not seem out of place in the Obama
In a speech that led off by saying, “Victory is winning for
our country,” the president quickly turned to his plans to extricate the United
States from Syria and Afghanistan without ensuring victory.
“When I took office, ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square
miles in Iraq and Syria, just two years ago,” Trump said. “Today, we have
liberated virtually all of that territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty
monsters. Now, as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it
is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.”
“In Afghanistan, my Administration is holding constructive
talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban,” Trump added. “As
we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop
presence and focus on counter-terrorism.”
While he referenced victory over ISIS in Syria, there seems
to be no question that there will be no victory in Afghanistan under President
Trump. Even in Syria, the prospect of bringing troops home goes against
the advice of President Trump’s military leaders and national security
In fact, the reason that the United State is in Syria in the
first place is because President Obama
ignored similar strategic advice and ordered a precipitous and unilateral
withdrawal from Iraq. As American soldiers left, Iranian militias and ISIS
guerillas filled the void. In a matter of years, ISIS had gained control of a
large chunk of Iraq and Syria and the US was forced to redeploy troops to slow
the refugee crisis as well as prevent the terrorist group from having both a
sanctuary and a source of income from captured oil wells.
In Afghanistan, the proposed surrender is even more blatant.
Five years ago, Republicans
blasted Obama for negotiating with the Taliban, the very organization that
had given Osama bin Laden protection after the September 11 attacks. Obama’s
talk of withdrawal dates was said to encourage the enemy to bide his time and
wait until America’s abandonment of its allies in the Afghan government was
complete. Last night, President Trump proposed exactly the same policy that
Republicans criticized Obama for advocating.
The main argument against keeping troops in Afghanistan and
Syria is that the War On Terror has gone on for a long time and people are
tired of it. Those points are true, but it is also true that America has fought
a number of other long wars, most of them forgotten. America was in Vietnam for
20 years, the Philippine insurrection following the Spanish-American War lasted
14 years, and there were numerous actions in Central America and the Caribbean that
required US troops to be deployed for decades. Insurgencies can be defeated,
but doing so takes a long time.
Critics also point to the cost of the wars, but spending in
Afghanistan and Syria pales in comparison to entitlement spending and military
spending seems to be money well spent. There has not been a significant terror
attack in the US since 9/11/2001 even though Europe has suffered a number of serious
attacks in that time. The cost of occupation, in terms of both blood and treasure,
is almost certainly less than the cost of giving Osama bin Laden’s proteges room
to plot against America.
In one of the most ironic
moments of the speech, shortly after calling for withdrawal from the Middle
East, President Trump recognized several American WWII veterans who had
liberated Jewish prisoners of the Nazis. This recognition that America military
might is a force for good in the world that prevents far more innocent deaths
than it causes contrasted sharply with the defeatist strategy that could once
again unleash genocidal killing and spark another refugee crisis in the Middle
East. Incidentally, the US still has soldiers in Germany 74 years after the end
As with Obama’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, there are
other countries who are willing to fill the vacuum that would be left by Trump’s
withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran borders Afghanistan and has client
groups in Iraq and Syria. The removal of US influence in Iraq and Syria would
leave Iran with unimpeded lines of supply and communication all the way to the
Israeli border. This is a disturbing possibility given Iran’s stated goal of
destroying the Jewish state.
Russia has also expanded its role in Syria and the Middle
East. Beginning with forces to help stabilize the Assad regime in Syria,
Vladimir Putin is regaining the Soviet Union’s old footholds in the Arab
countries of the Middle East, positioning himself as a more
dependable partner than the United States.
China is also seeking a broader role in the Middle East as American influence there
wanes. Although China doesn’t have a military role in the region so far, they
are interested in the area for its
resources and as a market for their products.
Along similar lines, President Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate
Nuclear Forces Treaty is another retreat from American world leadership that plays
into Vladimir Putin’s hands. The 1986 treaty negotiated by President Reagan eliminated
medium-range nuclear missiles. The Trump Administration complains that Russia
has violated the treaty, but junking the agreement entirely means that Russia is
not constrained at all in developing new medium-range weapons. The United
States will be forced to develop its own weapons as a result and a new arms
race will ensue.
The worst part about President Trump’s isolationist turn is
that foreign policy is the area where Congress has the least oversight of the
president. If the president advocates bad domestic legislation, it is a simple
matter for Congress to block it or amend it to make it better. However, there
is little that Congress can do stop the commander-in-chief from ignoring his
generals and ordering the troops home. The president can also easily end many
treaties and there is very little that Congress can do to repair the damage. Congress’
only real tool to rein in the president is impeachment.
George Orwell famously said, “The quickest way of ending a
war is to lose it.” President Trump seems to be taking a page from President
Obama’s strategy in deciding that it is better to lose in Afghanistan and Syria
than spend time on ensuring a lasting victory.
Overall, President Trump, like President Obama, seems to think that the world
is a better place if America stays home. I’m not sure how that makes either
America or the rest of the world great again.