RICHARD BUTLER. Trump’s “Principled Realism” : details withheld

President Trump’s speech on a new Afghanistan strategy was partly designed to mitigate the extreme harm he did by his Charlottesville outbursts.  Apart from claiming that the US would win in Afghanistan, no details were given.  He bashed Pakistan, embraced India and made clear that allies, such as Australia, would be expected to support the new tack by contributing military assets and money.

President Donald Trump’s first major public speech on a policy matter was given on 22 August, at a military base, Fort Myer, to an audience of service members.  Its stated purpose was to announce a ”new strategy” for US action within Afghanistan, where the US has been at war for 17 years, the longest war it has ever fought.

Trump read a prepared text and he seemed not to depart from it, but it was not completely free of diversions, exaggerations, militarist chest thumping and plain incoherence.

On the “exaggerations”, he gave the speech on the day that he passed the 1,000 mark in the Washington Post’s running list of the false or misleading claims he has made since assuming office.  Few of the items on this list are even remotely arguable.  That Trump routinely deals in falsehood is surely a matter of fundamental importance and should weigh heavily upon policy makers, such as our own, on both sides of Australian politics.  As yet, it appears not to.

Trump’s Afghanistan policy speech provided a perfect example of this and related serious problems, especially that of refusing to learn from recent history.

First, although the speech was to be about the war in Afghanistan, it began with a transparent attempt to correct the vast harm his Charlottesville remarks have done within the US, to his Presidency, and to opinion of him, around the world.  It offered no retraction by him, no expression of regret and did not use the word Charlottesville. Instead, the listener was asked to believe that Trump personally has an unflinching commitment to the unity of the American people.  He claimed that the inspiration for that unity can be found by following the unique heroism of the US military which provides “the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal and, to remain one nation under God”.

Secondly, the militarism, the abiding certainty in so many American politicians, obviously including Trump, that the use of military force will always provide a solution to any serious problem.  And, it would now appear, according to Trump, the model provided by the military can be the solution to the persistence of racism in America, which plainly he exploited and stimulated to win the election.  Why is it now so sidelined, to remember that Trump started his run for office by fostering the lie that Obama, an African-American, held the Presidency illegitimately, by falsifying his place of birth.  This was playing the racism card.

Trump said that he’d thought deeply about and studied Afghanistan extensively and had concluded that a new strategy was needed.  This is manifestly fake.  Multiple reports make clear that the generals he has appointed to his inner staff talked him into going on with the war in Afghanistan.  It’s their solution.

But, it seems it had an exquisitely Trumpian moment.  Reportedly, his national security advisor showed him a photograph of young Afghan women wearing mini-skirts in the pre-Taliban period, as proof of the innate decency of Afghan civilization.  Trump accepted this high level intelligence.

Remember, however, one of the justifications given by GW Bush for the US going to war with the Taliban, was that they made men grow beards.  As John Stewart would frequently observe, I am not making this stuff up.

In his speech Trump said he had reached the conclusion that the military now “deserve a plan for victory”.  What on earth motivated them for the past 17 years: a plan to take a dive?  They had a plan for victory in Vietnam, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.  Those plans didn’t work, partly because they were faulty and above all took too little account of the determination of the enemy, in the case of Vietnam, and historic local, ethno-confessional factors, in the case of virtually all of the Middle East.  The US policy community seems determined to ignore history and its lessons.

Thirdly, the speech is shockingly deficient because it focuses entirely on Trump’s notion of US interests, on the US “winning”, and allows no understanding of the interests of others; any other country.  His world is manifestly divided into those who he thinks support the US or should do, and the others, who by definition do not.  This outlook makes failure inevitable because even the interests of a so-called super power, an imperial power, are not played out in a vacuum.  There are always others on the field and, uncomfortable as it might be, they are not pre-disposed to accept the precepts and purposes of US policy and, even so, must be dealt with.

Fourthly, this division of all others into two groups defined by the US had a new sharp edge in Trump’s speech, when he identified Pakistan as a country which must bend much more certainly to US purposes, or face consequences.  While his speech refers to the dangerous enmity that exists between India and Pakistan, he states a decided preference for India and looks forward to developing an enhanced strategic relationship with it.  One can only imagine how this will play in Islamabad, in circumstances where both India and Pakistan have incorporated the use of nuclear weapons into their war fighting strategies.

Finally, and ominously, his speech is devoid of any detail of what the new strategy, which he christened “principled realism”, will mean when applied to the conflict in Afghanistan: no troop numbers, no time lines were given.  Indeed, he claimed that such details will not be revealed because to do so would alert the enemy.  He simply makes the now clichéd claim that the US will use all the means and weapons it has at its disposal.  Very importantly, decisions on what weapons will be used and actions taken are devolved to commanders in the field.

By contrast, he asserted that he expects “NATO allies and global partners to support our new strategy with additional troops and funding increases in line with our own”.  They are expected to buy this pig in a poke.  This is where Australia comes in.

Given the statements our Prime Minister has made about our support, hip by hip, to the US and that, in September 2016, he announced the removal of certain restrictions on the use of weapons and tactics by Australian troops in the Middle East, explaining that the purpose of those decisions was to enable them to kill as many terrorists as possible, presumably we can expect him to make supportive announcements shortly.  And, as usual, without any discussion in Parliament.  It seems too that Bill Shorten will agree.

At the beginning of this analysis, I asserted that Trump’s speech had a transparent US domestic purpose: to distract attention from the disaster he caused by his remarks on Charlottesville.  Are we to be a facilitator in this?

Furthermore the continuing absence of any recognition, so much in evidence in this speech, that US intervention in the Middle East, principally although not exclusively through the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, in which we participated, triggered much of the disaster that region has experienced subsequently, including the rise of DAESH.  Instead, what is again proposed is the wildly illogical remedy of continuing to intervene. What is much closer to logic, and evidence, is that such intervention will fail again, and may indeed cause the further spread of international terrorism.  

The warning given, ever more frequently, by authoritative commentators  must be heeded: that Trump’s recourse to military action to demonstrate his potency, his authority and to fulfil his continual boast that he always wins,  could expand in direct proportion to an increase in his domestic political problems.  On those problems, there are clearly more and greater ones to come.

Our Malcolm needs to protect our hip and possibly seek to understand the meaning of “principled realism”; whose principles, what reality?

Richard Butler AC is a former Ambassador to the United Nations, and Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State University.


Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations; Head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq.

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6 Responses to RICHARD BUTLER. Trump’s “Principled Realism” : details withheld

  1. Avatar John Power says:

    More innocent, not so innocent, ordinary people to die without any “outcome’.

    and understand

  2. Avatar John Thompson says:

    I have to admit that I am frightened. Frightened for my family and frightened for my country.
    Trump’s speech is very alarming for the reasons that Richard Butler has explained so clearly, but I am even more afraid now that the very erratic and incapable Trump has clearly assigned all responsibilities for the war to his generals. This means that our ‘joined at the hip’ role will be entirely directed by the US military command.
    In my view this is an intolerable situation.

  3. Avatar Paul Frijters says:

    I agree with Tony Kevin on this: the key thing to note is how the presidential entourage has become a Mecca for vested interests and how Trump has become their vehicle, abandoning some of his more promising campaign rhetoric. ‘Drain the swamp’ has become ‘hose the swamp’. The Republican leadership have Trump exactly where they want him: unpopular, isolated, dependent on them not to impeach him, desperate and tired enough to go along with the vested interest in exchange for lip-service to his greatness. The generals around Trump will tell him he is great, and then get him to sign what they want for their positions.

    I would also point to the same force at play in Australia. Here too, the military and the secret service have a modus operandi that is very appealing to the top of our political and economic game: they are secretive, suck up to the boss, paint a picture wherein the boss is right and the rest is untrustworthy and in need of control, and promise central information and control at the hands of the bosses. Ask yourself how many former generals and secret service operators are now involved designing the information and control systems of large Australian organisations (universities, ministries, internal party machinery). We now have our own swamp and it is big and scary.

  4. Avatar Peter Goon says:

    “Principled Realism” sounds very much like a euphemism for continuing to do what the ‘business as usual’ mob reckon will work.

    As Einstein said:
    “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting difference results.”

    Meantime, the Taliban like ISIS/ISIL, DAESH, and AL QUEDA, are following a business plan. By any stretch of the imagination, business plans are not the military minds’ strong suite.

  5. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    It is a dreadful but accurate picture Richard Butler paints. Trump has seemingly abandoned the glimmerings of foreign policy realism he at times displayed during his campaign and early months in the US presidency, and has fallen right back into the suffocating embrace of the US bipartisan War Party that needs enemies to go after if it is to go on thinking of itself as top dog on the block. The US , as Richard explains, has no concept of respectfully balancing its great power against others in a multipolar world. It is all about being on top and suppressing all possible competitors.

    And we are tied to this?

    World peace now depends on the wisdom and restraint of the other, great to middling powers – in order of strength, China, Russia, Germany and France as EU leaders, Japan and South Korea, Iran. We will get no such wisdom or restraint from the US, UK or Australia under their present leaders – and in the case of Australia, an opposition afraid to allow any daylight between itself and the Turnbull government on matters to do with the US alliance.

    I would hope Shorten and Wong might heed Keating’s recent words of wisdom on this. But at this point, sadly, there is no indication that they do. America-first disciples like Kim Beazley and the heads of the various strategic institutes continue to drive a heedless Australia along the path of being a satellite of an America now led by a still erratic and increasingly newly militarist Trump, precariously ringfenced by the junta of Generals surrounding him. What a prospect.

  6. Avatar Ramesh Thakur says:

    Can someone persuade our Dear Leader to consider hip replacement surgery before ‘we all fall down’?

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