The president was Barack Obama. The speech was his announcement on Dec. 1, 2009, of his intention to commit another 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan. It was a decision that Obama was so ambivalent about that even after he reached it, he and his closest advisers determined to add language to his speech discussing the United States’ plans to exit the country.
In my book “National Insecurity,” I called Obama’s remarks the “Hello, I Must Be Going” speech. It confused the world by announcing both the escalation and the intended exit at the same time. It was a sign of worrisome things to come in Obama foreign policy, in which ambivalence was commonplace. That said, Obama’s problem was often that while his powerful intellect allowed him to see complexities and search for nuanced solutions, sometimes his inclinations led toward analysis paralysis.
These traits have never been ascribed to President Trump. He is famously allergic to thorough analysis. He is so unfamiliar with nuance, you probably could convince him it was a new cologne. His stock in trade has always been bold and overly simplistic prescriptions.
That is why it was so surprising that Trump’s Afghan review process was so much like Obama’s and thus ended up producing a conclusion so much like Obama’s.
Both presidents ended up accepting the advice of the generals that more troops were needed. Both Obama and Trump attempted to minimize that fact — Obama by announcing that an exit was his goal, Trump by not announcing the number of troops and through emphasizing the condition-driven nature of his policy. Trump emphasized his resistance to giving the Afghan government a “blank check,” essentially leaving the door open to exiting at any moment. Both Obama and Trump reached contradictory conclusions in part because their views were at odds with those of their war-fighters. But ultimately, neither Obama nor Trump wanted to be the president who “lost” Afghanistan.
This is the tragedy of Afghanistan 16 years later. We continue to fight there without any real hope of victory or even without any real achievable material goals, primarily because our leaders are so fearful of being blamed for defeat. It is a tragedy because it has resulted in sacrificing thousands of American lives in a futile undertaking that will almost certainly end up with the Taliban continuing to be a powerfully influential force in the country from which we once hoped to rid them. Certainly, the Obama years saw a deterioration in our situation in that country, and gains for the Taliban and extremists (as well as the failure of efforts to help the Afghan government and military really effectively assume responsibility for stabilizing the country).
But Trump, as is his nature, was not content to merely mimic the contradictory nature or policy errors of the Obama speech. His was much more contradictory and muddled. He repeatedly referred to a new strategy, but it never mentioned clear new goals (beyond killing bad guys) or a coherent new way of achieving them. He referred to a policy that was a change from the past, but essentially what he was doing was carrying forward Obama strategies with minimal changes. He spoke of a commitment to the mission and the troops, but he hedged so much there was clearly no real commitment. He spoke of principled realism, but it was clear that there were no underlying principles to his plan and that, in fact, it was wildly unrealistic.
He said we were out of the business of nation-building but that economic development and political reform were key to success. He also suggested those goals were important, but he neglected to address why his administration shut the office in the State Department responsible for strategy for the conflict and why he has failed to appoint key leadership in the State Department who would be needed to achieve these goals. He said our allies would help foot the bill, but he neglected to mention the degree to which he has alienated them. He said he wanted India to become more involved in helping to resolve regional tensions, despite the fact that this will enrage Pakistan. In fact, inflaming Pakistan through embracing India seemed to be the biggest shift in the speech. While there is merit to embracing India more closely, there was no word about how it might be achieved in a way that solves more problems than it creates.
Trump read the speech as though he hardly understood a word of it. While some, including Trump, might say that he showed maturity by listening to his generals and setting aside his original view that we should get out of Afghanistan, he actually did nothing of the sort. He agreed, vaguely, without specifics, to increase troop level for a vague period of time.
Obama was conflicted. Trump is incoherent. Both are culpable for extending the United States’ longest war and will share the blame for its failings. Both had the right instinct — to leave — yet lacked the courage or vision to effectively act on it. Given the human, economic and political costs that such flawed approaches have already produced, continuing them under the leadership of a man who is less capable than any of his successors at managing or even understanding a problem as complex as Afghanistan should make us deeply uncomfortable.