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President Trump did something both wonderfully presidential and terribly rare for a president: he admitted he was wrong. On Monday he delivered an address articulating his Afghanistan strategy, making clear his decision to listen to his generals instead of his own earlier instincts. There is, of course, no shame in this. His calls throughout his campaign to abandon the fight in Afghanistan were made when he took his morning coffee outside the Oval Office. That he can change his mind when he has access to better—including classified—information and top-notch professional military counsel is reassuring.
The president argued for the continuing importance of the effort in Afghanistan and, thereby, for committing to find an “honorable and enduring outcome” that refuses to allow the tremendous sacrifices made by our military men and women to have been in vain. One could almost hear the lamentations about fallacies of sunk costs. But, as Providence contributing editor Paul Miller wrote in response to Trump’s address, “it was Abraham Lincoln who insisted that the nation rededicate itself to its purpose so that ‘these dead shall not have died in vain.’ The meaning of soldiers’ deaths depends on whether we continue their fight.” The emphasis, Paul rightly notes, is that we continue the fight to “secure the cause for which they gave their lives.” It is not an error of sunk costs to continue a right fight that we have reason to believe can still be won.
Some have lamented the paucity of details in Trump’s speech. But if this is a course correction, then well to the good. Surely, there are occasions where public discussions on aspects of both strategy and tactics are warranted. But it’s also true, as the old WWII posters made plain, that loose lips sink ships. The American public should be given enough information to have confidence that a proposed military action meets the conditions for a just cause—that it protects the common good by punishing evil and correcting a sufficiently grave injustice, that it takes back what has been wrongly taken, and that it protects the innocent—and to confirm our trust in our administration’s ability to prosecute the war effectively and morally—taken together, that we will fight in such a way as to give due regard for mission effectiveness, discrimination, and force protection.
But the American public has no right to information that can scuttle the war effort or bolster the resolve of our enemy. “I will not say when we are going to attack,” Trump insisted, poking at Obama’s habit of telegraphing punches. “But,” he reassured us, “attack we will.” A corollary of this is Trump’s refusal to discuss timelines: “our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.” America’s enemies, he said, must never believe they can simply “wait us out.”
Paul, who in his excellent American Power & Liberal Order defends strong American leadership and engagement in support of a global liberal order, found much to like when Trump refused to simply claim “that the failure of the war in Afghanistan validated his critique of the ‘globalist’ foreign policy establishment and proved the wisdom of his call for stronger borders and a more realistic, tough-minded outlook on the world.” After so much anti-interventionist rhetoric, Trump might have been expected find an excuse, any excuse, to declare defeat—pin it all on Obama and Bush—and cut and run.
Instead, Paul happily concedes, he “deserves credit for making an unpopular and hard decision.” I agree. The president recognizes the calamity that would surely follow a premature American exit, which “would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11. And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq.” Exactly right. Some might not like American leadership and the expenditure of American blood and treasure abroad, but, very often, the alternatives are even more unacceptable.
Paul is less sure, because Trump didn’t get into the weeds of his strategy, that the president’s commitment to “use all instruments of national power” will include “the instruments of foreign aid, technical assistance, diplomacy, development, and democracy promotion” where necessary to support the ability of justice, order, and peace to take root. Trump’s insistence that we are finished with “nation building” might mean that such instruments are left to the side. It remains to be seen whether a reluctance to build nations leaves us unwilling to give the Afghans the tools and assistance they need to build their own.
Two final thoughts before closing. First, like Paul, I’m nervous about what this president means when he vows to “expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan.” On the one hand—good, wars can only be won when they are actually fought. America’s warfighters shouldn’t be unduly—unduly—constrained when they go to battle. On the other hand, this is the president who as a candidate didn’t seem to show any appreciation for the idea of non-combatants and, thereby, target discrimination. I’m not sure whether Trumpconsiders probity a martial virtue. Of course, I think the generals with whom he has surrounded himself do, and they know the costs that can come with trigger-pulling. One thing I fear is that the president’s detractors will unscrupulously use civilian deaths to attack good policy. But if we ratchet up this war against those who hide and store arms among the civilian population, who fight our forces from commandeered homes, and who shield themselves with children, then more civilians will die. But so long as we take the cautions that we can, the wrong will not rest on us.
Nevertheless, second, the price, if not the wrong, might well fall on us. Our military men and women risk terrible costs in fighting our wars. The president was right to insist a part of what we owe them is a home worthy of being redeployed to. For those few who give so much for so many, the least we can be is deserving. Those who claim to love our country should do our part in making the country worthy of such love. Here the president touched on the domestic scene:
When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry and no tolerance for hate. The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other…Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name, that we they return home from battle, they find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us as one.
If the president was short on details for how to achieve this, well, perhaps that is a place for Americans to fill in the details on our own.
Marc LiVecche is managing editor of Providence
A U.S. Army soldier assigned to Charlie Company, 82nd Airborne Division shakes the hand of a young Afghan child while on a dismounted patrol at a village in southern Afghanistan on Feb. 5, 2010. The U.S. Army and Canadian Forces Land Force Command are helping the Afghan National Army clear several villages of improvised explosive devices, weapons caches and illegal drugs. source: US Dept. of Defense