Seven months into Trump's presidency, that fairy tale has crumbled. This week, Trump announced he will give the Pentagon authority to increase troop levels in Afghanistan and grant his military leaders more autonomy, presumably to make the rules of engagement more lax. “Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win,” he said.
Even the president himself had to admit this was a remarkable U-turn. In the past, Trump had repeatedly tweeted that America should pull out of Afghanistan, fully and immediately. The Washington Post's Philip Rucker and Robert Costa reported that Trump agreed to the troop increase only after months of divisive deliberations with advisers, and he chose to blame his flip-flop on his predecessor, former president Barack Obama.
“When I became president, I was given a bad and very complex hand," he said during his speech on Monday.
By now, though, it's no plot twist that Trump has looked at the options and ended up on the side of expanded war. Although Trump never served himself (he received several draft deferments during Vietnam), the president is enthralled by soldiers and war. His obsession with military culture goes back to his childhood, which included five years at a private military academy that he considered a formative experience.
“I did very well under the military system,” said Trump to my colleagues last year. “I became one of the top guys at the whole school.”
As our own Ishaan Tharoor previously noted, Trump moved quickly to usher in a new age of militarism once he took office. He filled his administration with generals, both active and retired, and quickly announced plans to extend the Pentagon's budget by $54 billion while cutting other federal agencies, including the State Department.
Since then, Trump's love of warlike rhetoric has become painfully obvious, and he has made a habit of threatening foreign states. He warned that North Korea would meet “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continued menacing the United States. "I'm not going to rule out a military option," he unexpectedly said as the political situation Venezuela spiraled out of control. And although he didn't mention military force when discussing Pakistan on Monday night, his sharp comments still raised eyebrows.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said.
It's possible that such talk is a diversionary tactic or just bluster. But as far back as March, the Wall Street Journal reported, the White House was considering military force as an option in North Korea. The New York Times' David Sanger wrote this week that the option may remain open to Trump as he tries to “solve” the North Korea problem, “rather than hope that sanctions will eventually take their toll.”
The best understanding of Trump's thoughts on war may come from Syria and Iraq. Although — of course — he had warned Obama against attacking Syria, Trump ordered a military strike against a Syrian government airfield in April, reportedly after seeing images of a chemical weapons attack on television. The speed of the move took many aback.
“He seems to have acted without a clear plan in place,” the New Yorker's Steve Coll observed. Later, when explaining the decision during an interview with the Fox Business Network, Trump fixated on the “beautiful piece of chocolate cake” he was eating that evening, rather than his rationale for the strike.
Beyond that, Trump has escalated the U.S.-led coalition's ongoing role in fighting the Islamic State. That has meant more rapid gains against the Islamist militant group but also a stunning rise in civilian casualties. In mid-July, monitoring group Airwars released figures that suggested coalition strikes had killed 360 people on average per month under Trump — almost triple the number who died each month under Obama.
Such statistics are made worse by the fact that Trump had spoken dismissively on the campaign trail of protocols such as the Geneva Convention that aim to protect civilians during wartime. Writing in the Daily Beast, Samuel Oakford of Airwars noted there were indications “that under President Trump, protections for civilians on the battlefield may have been lessened — with immediate and disastrous results.”
There are no easy options in any of these conflicts. Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps' top officer, recently told troops in Afghanistan that he couldn't be sure whether their kids wouldn't still be fighting in the country in 20 years' time. Some in the White House may favor a more limited approach — of particular note was the plan by Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who wanted to use contractors to take over much of America's military role in the Afghanistan — but these policies carry their own risks.
Faced with this complicated situation, Trump seems to have defaulted to a policy that takes a reheated version of his predecessor's strategy, sprinkled it with Trump's own macho spin, and cuts the specifics and the talk of nation-building. It's a move that maximizes the use of American military power and dismisses everything else as irrelevant. Yet again, Donald the Dove has been usurped by a commander in chief who seems to view war as the best solution for everything.
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