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.