President Trump’s decision-making is defined by, if anything, incoherence. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that, in addition to golfing and undermining the election results, he is spending his last days in office making a hash of U.S. national security policy. He has replaced top leadership at the Pentagon with cronies; reportedly asked for options to strike Iran and its nuclear program; and now is planning to hurriedly withdraw thousands of soldiers from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia before he leaves office.
The dominant reaction in Washington to the latter news has been nothing short of a panicked devotion to the status quo. Trump’s newly installed defense secretary has called the decision “fraught with risk.” Members of both major parties asked the administration to leave deployed soldiers at existing levels. Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth, a veteran who lost both of her legs in Iraq, even went so far as to say that while we should aspire to bring home American troops, she didn’t want them to return “in body bags.” Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, warned on Twitter that “we will be right back in the same place as pre-9/11.”
But the response from opponents of the Forever Wars is more complicated. On the one hand, they are glad to see any movement toward full withdrawal. On the other, they are skeptical of Trump’s motivations and his timing.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress, argued that Trump was acting opportunistically, trying to exploit the chance to please his base on his way out the door. “He has no core guiding principles here,” Katulis said.
“The president expressed his desire to end these wars when he came into office four years ago,” said Barry Posen, the Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT. “Where was he in the last four years?” (Troop levels in Afghanistan increased early in his presidency, then hovered between 13,000 and 15,000 until earlier this year, when the Defense Department began a drawdown after an initial deal with the Taliban.)
America’s nearly 20 years of ceaseless warfare have had devastating effects, not least the growth in terrorist groups across the greater Middle East and parts of West and East Africa. It’s hard to argue we’ve done any good at all, and ending these wars will create another mess entirely. “There’s no real hope that there’s a happy ending that’s possible here,” Posen said. “In my view, there was no hope three or four years ago.”
Trump’s supposed resistance to war was always a canard. Early in his administration, he unshackled the intelligence agencies, installed a torturer at the CIA, and ramped up aerial bombing campaigns, particularly via drones. For the last four years, American soldiers have been busy fighting the Islamic State, and they are now dealing with its remnants in Iraq and Syria, along with proliferating militant groups in Somalia and parts of the Sahel. At the beginning of this year, in a reckless and illegal act, Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. In September, The New York Times reported that the U.S. military’s Africa Command wanted permission to carry out drone strikes against Shabab fighters in Kenya. And the United States still arms and assists Saudi Arabia in its genocidal war in Yemen.
There’s little sign that, if Trump’s shuffling of troops goes forward, these conflicts will definitively end. But his actions, however impulsive, should prompt a conversation less about Trump’s motives than about how to finally stop this disastrous imperial adventurism.
The reality is that ending America’s wars—and campaigning on doing so—is popular with much of the country. The main place it isn’t popular is in Washington, D.C., where Beltway politicos can’t seem to imagine any other mode of engagement with the world. Trump’s ham-fisted diplomacy with North Korea, which occurred between periods of dangerous saber-rattling, was dismissed by most Democratic politicians. Yet on exceedingly rare occasions, Trump can do something approximating the right thing, for the wrong reasons. (In the case of troop withdrawal, he may be indulging his congenital motivation to own the libs: An anonymous Trump administration official told CNN that Trump was looking to set fires that Biden would have to put out.)
Some political organizations approve of the possible withdrawals, even if they are dangerously haphazard. Describing it as a welcome step, the progressive group Win Without War published a statement declaring that it still wasn’t enough: “Maintaining thousands of troops in indefinite occupation is far from a rethinking of the logic of militarism, particularly when past drawdowns have been repeatedly undermined by troop surges, redeployments to nearby countries, increased reliance on private contractors, and the dramatic growth of aerial warfare.”
That logic is unlikely to change with President-elect Biden, who’s surrounded by interventionist centrists and hawkish foreign policy hands from the Obama administration. Michèle Flournoy, almost certain to be his defense secretary, argued for the NATO bombing of Libya, which led to dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s grisly killing in the streets of Misrata and the country’s descent into civil war. If Biden were to serve two terms, it’s very possible there would be American soldiers in Baghdad, Kabul, and Mogadishu—and who knows where else—in 2028.
If the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban proceed as planned, the U.S. will be required to withdraw completely from Afghanistan in the spring. Biden has spoken positively of ending America’s wars, but he has also proposed leaving behind residual counterterrorist forces. “They really mean: I don’t want to leave Afghanistan,” said Posen of this group, who embody a bipartisan consensus that there is no cost in staying forever. “I wish these people would be completely honest and just say that.”
Politicians on both sides have argued we should retain some troops in these countries, which would almost guarantee continued conflict and death—and perhaps a renewed military involvement in them. As Katulis said, “there’s a difference between ending U.S. involvement and participation in a war, and actually ending a war.” And the problem is as much the Democrats’ as it is the Republicans’. Beyond Trump’s lack of imagination, Katulis said, “there’s a paucity of thinking in Democratic Party circles of how we use diplomacy to help those conflicts end.
“We’ve been there 19 years,” he added. “What the hell are we doing?”