I wouldn’t necessarily conflate being more aggressive with being more brutal. We can patrol more, embed more advisors, shoot and arrest more insurgents, all without being gratuitously cruel or needlessly overbearing to civilian sensibilities.
Here is what I think happened in Iraq after April 2003. Bolstered by a 70-percent approval rating, and still smarting from all the prewar hysteria from the Left, the Bush administration felt that it could run out the clock, so to speak.
Thus, each time a challenge arose—looting, the Fallujah outbreak, the Sadr uprising—their idea was to finesse the crisis as much as possible. They were afraid to squander the capital of hard-won public support through (unneeded?) escalation, escalation that would increase casualties and only encourage further domestic and international condemnation of the war.
As a result of this policy, public support vanished anyway, in dribs and drabs, each time we did not react strongly and decisively enough to a provocation. The administration thought, apparently, that using more aggressive tactics would only further incite the growing anti-war movement and that the good news of progress in reconstruction would only continue to be ignored by a biased media.
And so with a whimper rather than a bang, our complacency and over-sensitive attention to perceived public opinion made us ever less aggressive and ever more attuned to “force protection”—at precisely the time more and more offensive operations were needed to break the insurgency and win back public opinion.
Now we must shatter that complacency and do in nine months what textbooks warn takes years. It is still not too late; history might still record as a considerable military achievement the removal of Saddam and the creation of a constitutional government in Iraq. The President and the military believe they can pull it off, while the opposition (whose proposals to withdraw are not matched by votes to reduce budget appropriations) remains, to say the least, doubtful. But the American public’s patience will, apparently, tolerate this final effort.
I am tired of reading the latest declarations of moral outrage from politicians and pundits blaming Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, Franks, Sanchez, Casey, Abizaid, etc., for “their” three-year-long occupation that ruined “our” perfect three-week war. What happened in Iraq pales when compared to the horrifying mistakes our government and military made in the Civil War, in World War I and World War II, in Korea and Vietnam. What would this generation of politicians and journalists have said after Cold Harbor and the Battle of the Wilderness, after the two-year-long nightmare of the fall of France, after our World War II losses in the Atlantic, after the debacle in Greece, after the surrenders at Singapore and Tobruk? One can only imagine.
All that matters now is correcting our mistakes, countering the defeatists, and defeating the insurgents. We have to keep firmly in mind the correct notion that a functional democracy in Iraq would be the worst nightmare of jihadists the world over, of Iran, Syria, and the royal Gulf “moderates.” Allowing Iraq to devolve into the Lebanon of the 1980’s or the Afghanistan of the 1990’s, on the other hand, would restore al Qaeda’s lost sanctuary and provide a new base of operations for Iranian-backed terrorists. To paraphrase one commentator, such a failure would inflict “1,000 Mogadishus”-worth of damage on the reputation of the U.S. military and on a nascent and necessary U.S. Middle East policy, a policy seeking to transcend the dangerous (and cynical) “realism” of the past.
Boot and Hanson, Final Round: Fixing Our Mistakes
Must-Reads from Magazine
The real world beckons.
The last three consecutive American presidents all campaigned on promises of humility in the pursuit of American national interests, retrenchment from sprawling U.S. commitments abroad, and an end to the practice of “nation-building.” And then, in office, all three were compelled to retreat from their imprudent campaign trail commitments.
It took ten months for Barack Obama to agree to a surge in Afghanistan. It took eight months for George W. Bush to vow action against those who struck us on 9/11. Donald Trump, who made the most passionate case for a pull back, changed his tune earlier than either of his predecessors.
He seemed uncomfortably aware of the lofty promises he had made as a candidate in his Monday night address to an audience of servicemen and women at Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Virginia. “[A]ll my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” Trump conceded. That’s no cliché. In the course of this bout of public introspection, President Donald Trump positively savaged Candidate Donald Trump.
Full withdrawal from Afghanistan, which Trump said he initially favored, would instead be a disaster, he said. He admitted that America must honor the sacrifice of the men and women who lost their lives fighting to preserve Afghan sovereignty—including the son of his chief of staff, General John Kelly. His initial impulse, the president confessed, would create a vacuum that terrorist actors would undoubtedly fill. Finally, he conceded that isolationism is not an option. The world is a complex tapestry of interwoven interests and overlapping dangers. There is no way to neutralize the threats in Afghanistan without the support of regional partners and the aid of America’s allies around the globe.
In sum, Trump’s campaign trail persona was a grossly irresponsible affectation. If only someone had warned us.
In policy terms, Trump’s about-face means American troops will be in Afghanistan in augmented numbers. That isn’t news. As far back as June, the president revealed that he had handed operational authority over to the Pentagon, which subsequently announced an additional 4,000 troops would be deployed to the Afghan theater. We can assume more soldiers will be traveling to Central Asia soon enough.
What was news was the extent to which the president abandoned the pretense of Fortress America, even amid rhetoric designed to reassure his credulous supporters that he was still the same old Trump.
“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” Trump insisted. “We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over.”
We’ve heard it all before.
“I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, ‘we do it this way, and so should you,’” George W. Bush averred in 2000. “Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times,” Barack Obama insisted just months after ordering the ill-fated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” This sounds lovely, and voters eat it up. But it’s unfeasible.
Trump pledged to secure a “win” in Afghanistan, but the most he can hope for is not losing. That means, first and foremost, leaving behind a functioning central government that controls both the capital and its provinces. It would be nice if that government was endowed with a strong civic culture and politicians not so corrupt that they alienate the public and make a fashionable alternative out of Islamist radicals. Whether we like it or not, tomorrow’s Afghanistan cannot be today’s Afghanistan. Not if Trump is to have peace with honor.
Trump spoke the truth about Pakistan’s clandestine support for rogue actors and organizations, and he should be praised for it. That behavior will ultimately confound America’s mission in Afghanistan if it persists. Unspoken by the president, however, was the problem of Iran’s and Russia’s ongoing efforts to assist insurgent groups. For its part, Moscow is open about its support for the Taliban. The Kremlin insists it is only trying to prevent the Taliban from being subsumed into an even more terrible organization like ISIS, but America’s generals believe Moscow’s efforts amount to little more than material support for an insurrection.
If Trump is serious about securing a noble peace in Afghanistan, that strategy will force him to engage in both nation- and coalition-building. Killing bad guys is all well and good, but the conflict in Afghanistan is being exacerbated by foreign governments, not insurgents hiding in caves.
This is not the first time that Donald Trump has unceremoniously repudiated his shallow, semi-isolationist pronouncements on the stump. “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS,” Trump said in October 2016. This necessary evil looked a lot less necessary from behind the Resolute Desk only months later, particularly after Damascus was implicated in a chemical attack on civilians this past April. The cruise missile strikes Trump ordered on Syrian regime targets may have been limited in scope, but they communicated Trump’s willingness to intervene on behalf of civilians. Samantha Power would have been proud.
Obama, Bush, and Trump surely entered office truly believing that a more humble application of American hard power around the world was in the best interests of the United States. They abandoned those beliefs not because these politicians were disingenuous or irresolute, nor because a cabal of military-industrialists corrupted these respective presidents. Retrenchment fails and is ultimately abandoned because it is a fantasy—one whose pursuit only results in chaos, instability, death on a scale that cannot compare to the alternatives.
American power projection remains a hobgoblin in the minds of many. Even today, Trump is drawing fire from the ranks of idealists who would, if confronted with the stark choices facing the president, do precisely as he did last night. Given the right conditions, we all become interventionists. Some of us are just more honest about that than others.
Missing the moment.
For die-hard Trump supporters, there is no reprieve. The president’s achievements are eclipsed by the consistency of his bad judgment. For those Trump fans that have not tuned out the news entirely, a cottage industry of reassuring hot takes has taken the place of dispassionate analysis.
In the name of challenging the conventional wisdom, the Wall Street Journal’s James Freeman took a peek at this emerging trend. “Could Trump possibly be winning this week?” his article’s subhead asked. The premise sounds absurd on its face, but it’s really only phrased inelegantly. Trump most assuredly did not “win” the week that followed the traumatic events in Virginia. Nor, though, did the president’s Democratic opponents.
Freeman’s desire to check in with a few “contrarian observers” is a noble one. The individuals he chose are a testament either to the paucity of contrarianism or the absurdity of contrarian arguments.
Don Luskin, the CIO of Trend Macrolytics, speculated that Americans succumbed last week to a “clinical case of mass hysteria.” He suggested the consternation over Donald Trump’s devouring 96 hours of news by issuing three distinct and occasionally contradictory pronouncements about the relative virtue of white supremacist marchers versus violent socialist counter protesters was a media fabrication. “His sin is that he has failed to express his outrage at the event in a particular way,” Luskin wrote, “or, more precisely, that he has expressed it in a way that doesn’t kowtow to the identity politics lobby.”
While Luskin is handing out psychological diagnoses, he might do well to look up the definition of dissociation. Yes, Trump got himself into hot water by declining to condemn avowed racists and anti-Semites without caveat following a murderous terrorist attack (only to backtrack amid pressure and then to backtrack from the backtrack). In doing so, he wasn’t rejecting identity politics but embracing it.
In Trump’s estimation, a variety of foreign forces was responsible for the lot of the silent but angry majority: illegal immigrant labor, Chinese trade practices, America’s allies who should be expected to pay for the privileges of the U.S.-led world order, Europeans that sacrifice Western culture upon the altar of multiculturalism, etc. Trump wasn’t abandoning this white identity politics last week; he was reaffirming fealty to it.
Freeman’s second contrarian is a predictable one. The cartoonist Scott Adams has found a second career in reflexively ascribing brilliance and foresight to every presidential synapse. On Thursday of last week, Trump reacted on Twitter to an ongoing terrorist attack in Spain by alluding to the utterly apocryphal story of General John Pershing’s crimes of war. The story—one Trump knows is false because it was attacked as false when he used to tell it on the campaign trail—alleges that the American war hero discouraged Islamist terrorism in the Philippines by burying Muslims with the bodies of pigs so they might find no peace in the afterlife.
You might not be surprised to learn that Adams thinks this is yet another masterful example of public persuasion. You see, Trump is communicating his toughness on terrorism. By lying, he will compel media to fact-check him, amplifying his persuasive persuasion.
Trump has persuaded himself right into history as the most unpopular president at this point in his presidency in the history of modern polling. There’s no honest way to claim a week that resulted in the broadest critical reaction among Trump’s Republican allies since the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape was a great week for the president. Even if Trump spent a week skipping through a minefield, though, that doesn’t mean his opponents’ fortunes were advanced.
An online poll commissioned by Axios found that a “remarkable” 40 percent of adults signed on to Trump’s assertion that both demonstrators on the left and the right were responsible for the violence in events in Charlottesville. They see members of the academy defend political violence, even as liberals pen hallucinatory love letters to themselves congratulating their movement on its restraint. They’ve watched with apprehension as an agitated mob tears down a statue of a nondescript Confederate soldier in North Carolina as though it were a likeness of Felix Dzerzhinsky.
They watch as liberal commentators call for an end to the veneration of figures like Washington and Jefferson, just as Trump said they would and (have been doing for years), even as coastal elites insist that no one advocates such things. On Monday, Baltimore awoke to see a 200-year-old monument to Christopher Columbus destroyed by a vandal with a sledgehammer. They know that this is not some isolated event but an extension of the madness they’ve seen take hold of the country, even amid lectures about how connecting these dots is woefully unenlightened.
“The people asking these questions (over and over and over) are not racist,” wrote Senator Ben Sasse. “Rather they’re perplexed by the elite indifference to their fair questions.” Liberals dismiss these sentiments at their peril. Despite a Republican president’s unpopularity and the dysfunction of his party in Congress, Democrats have so far been unable to capitalize on the environment. Even by its own modest standards for success, the Democratic National Committee’s fundraising has been bleak. On Thursday, Cook Political Report shifted the race for Senate in four Democrat-held states in the GOP’s direction.
Attributing Donald Trump’s wink and nod in the direction of white supremacy last week to strategic genius is simply deluded. That does not, however, suggest that Democrats are benefiting from Trump’s recklessness. Liberals have given the public no assurances that they can govern from the center, or that they even see that as a desirable enterprise. And yet, Democrats still appear convinced they are the default beneficiaries when Trump falls on his face, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
How far–how low–do religious leaders end up going when they decide that, in public life, the end justifies any means? Consider the case of Jerry Falwell, Jr. For the Liberty University president, the end was the advancement of social conservatism. The means: Donald Trump.
Falwell endorsed Trump for the GOP nomination ahead of the Iowa Caucuses last year, and soon he emerged as one of the New Yorker’s most ardent evangelical backers. Trump’s dissolute personal life didn’t make him an ideal avatar for the evangelical cause. Nor did his transparently opportunistic change of heart on social issues such as abortion. But Falwell reminded his flock that Trump was running for president, not “pastor-in-chief.”
In a March 2016 interview with a Liberty campus newspaper, he even compared the Donald with David. Hadn’t David, though an adulterer and a murderer, found favor with God? (Yes, who can forget that marvelous Psalm, in which the king cries out to the Lord, “I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness. I’ve had great relationships and developed even greater relationships with ministers”?)
Judging by his Twitter and TV blitz in recent days, Falwell has kept the Trumpian faith through the first eight months of the Trump administration. Trump’s response to Charlottesville, Falwell tweeted, had been “bold” and “truthful.” He added: “So proud of @realdonaldtrump.” Note that Falwell’s praise came after the president suggested that there had been “very fine people” among the Nazis, Klansmen, and neo-Confederates who marched in Charlottesville.
Pressed by ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday to identify these very fine people, Falwell descended to absurdity: “I don’t know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statutes, I don’t know. But he had inside information that I didn’t.” And more: “He saw videos of who was there. I think he was talking about what he had seen, information he had that I don’t have.” The president gets into trouble, Falwell concluded, “because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct; he says what’s in his heart.”
By now, these are familiar tropes of the Trumpian mind.
If the president says something untrue or absurd, it must be because he has secret knowledge about the matter at hand (in this case, about the supposedly innocent subjective views of people who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us”).
If Trump undermines presidential norms, if his careless rhetoric inflames rather than calms the nation in a moment of crisis, get over it. He isn’t PC–as if the political incorrectness of a statement guarantees that it is also true or worthwhile.
If you object to Trump’s lack of personal grace, his narcissism, his refusal to disavow support from the basest elements of his base, well, he isn’t the pope–again as if only pastors of souls are expected to possess grace, selflessness, and moral discernment.
It didn’t have to be like this for Falwell. One of the great blessings of a faith in a loving, personal God is that it liberates the faithful from the populist leaders and impulses of the moment. As Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention noted in his contribution to National Review’s “Against Trump” issue, “Trump can win only in the sort of celebrity-focused mobocracy … in which sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power combined with promises of ‘winning’ for the masses. Social and religious conservatives have always seen this tendency as decadent and deviant.”
Moore might have added self-degrading.
Podcast: What to expect in a post-Bannon world
The first COMMENTARY podcast of the week finds us—me, Abe Greenwald, and Noah Rothman—wondering at the grandiose plans of Steve Bannon after the White House. A new news channel! War in the Republican party! Etc! All this leads into speculation about 2020, because why not, and why Joe Biden might be the guy to challenge Trump. And then we descend into more crushing morosity as we contemplate whether our divisions nationally are just too large to heal. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Sobriety in September.
August is traditionally the silly season in American politics and journalism, and this August is living up to the sobriquet.
Apparently, not even celestial mechanics is exempt from the necessity to be politically correct. To wit, there’s an article in The Atlantic complaining about Monday’s solar eclipse. The author says that not enough black people live along the path of totality. While it’s true that the northwest and high plains states at the start of the eclipse have very low black populations, that’s not true of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina at the end of the path.
Horses are in the same category as celestial mechanics. The mascot of the University of Southern California has been for decades a white Arabian horse named Traveler. The current horse is the ninth to bear the name, and he charges across the field every time the team makes a touchdown, ridden by someone dressed up as a Trojan. The problem? The horse’s name is Traveler.
So what, all but serious Civil War history buffs might well ask? But that was, almost, the name of General Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller. Traveller rests in peace near the grave of his master at what is still called, I think, Washington and Lee University. Up the road, Stonewall Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, is buried at Virginia Military Institute, although his mounted hide can be seen in a glass case. Stonewall Jackson was a lousy horseman, by the way, and Little Sorrel was a placid creature almost guaranteed not to throw him.
Speaking of horses, the equestrian statue of Joan of Arc in New Orleans, inexplicably left standing, was defaced with graffiti calling for it to be torn down. I hadn’t realized that she fought for the South.
And speaking of General Lee, the statue of Lee in the chapel of Duke University will be removed. However, the statue of George Washington Duke—Confederate sailor, slave owner, and tobacco magnate in whose factories worked poorly paid black labor—will surely not be. His son gave Trinity College $40 million in 1924, and it was promptly renamed Duke University in the old man’s memory.
Oh, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in which “temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever” has been defaced with four-letter graffiti.
To paraphrase Shelley, when the silly season comes, can Labor Day be far behind? I hope not.