Last night, Donald Trump did the responsible thing. He reneged on a campaign promise to avoid losing a war. That’s exactly what we want presidents to do when they win elections, learn new information, and begin to fully understand the strategic, cultural, and political ramifications of promises foolishly made. We want them to do what Trump candidly did last night — admit that “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, if there is any such thing as a bipartisan strategic commitment, it’s a commitment to never again preside over a debacle like the fall of Saigon. No president wants to be the man who watches from the Oval Office as the last helicopter lifts off the roof, leaving behind abandoned and desperate allies as sworn enemies sweep into a foreign capital. This is especially true when those sworn enemies have used that same land as base to plan, train, and inspire terrorists to strike targets inside America.
Three consecutive presidents have faced their moments of truth, and three consecutive presidents have made similar decisions (though in different ways). When Iraq teetered on the brink of collapse, George W. Bush rejected immense political pressure to withdraw and instead doubled down with a potent troop surge that for a time decisively tipped the balance of power against al-Qaeda.
His successor, Barack Obama, at first failed his test, pulling troops from Iraq in spite of multiple warnings that the consequences could be catastrophic. But then, he reversed course. When ISIS blitzed across northern and western Iraq, Obama could have stayed out. He could have left Iraq to fend for itself. But he didn’t. He intervened with decisive enough force to halt ISIS’s offensive and then slowly (too slowly) provided indispensable military force to assist counter-offensives that killed ISIS fighters by the thousands and rolled back ISIS’s gains. By the end of his second term, the Nobel Peace Prize winner hadn’t ended any wars. Instead, America had boots on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.
Trump ran as a non-interventionist. He ran as the guy who would decisively end America’s endless foreign wars. But when his moment of truth arrived, Trump kept American troops in Iraq and Syria. In fact, he ramped up American military efforts. And now he wants to reinforce Afghanistan, loosen rules of engagement that have hampered American troops and hurt morale, and place welcome pressure on Pakistan to act like an ally, not an enemy, in the fight against the Taliban.
Why? Why did three different presidents with three very different ideologies reach such similar conclusions? Cynics and conspiracy theorists blame a foreign-policy “blob” or the persistent and allegedly pernicious influence of warmongering generals. But there’s a simpler, more obvious, and I believe more accurate reason: It is plainly and obviously not in America’s national interest for its terrorist enemies to win and maintain safe havens overseas.
It’s a simple reality that when terrorists possess safe havens, they become far more dangerous. Look at what al-Qaeda was able to accomplish when it dominated Afghanistan. It launched terror attacks that destroyed American embassies, nearly sank an American warship, and ultimately did more damage in American cities than any foreign enemy since the British burned Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.
Look at ISIS’s deadly reach once it dominated northern Iraq and northern Syria. Europe has suffered through a deadly spike in terrorist violence, with hundreds of civilians killed and injured. Here at home, terror plots and attacks increased as well. Of at least 96 known domestic plots and attacks since 9/11, more than one-third occurred in the last three years since the rise of ISIS, and the casualty count in deaths and injuries has increased dramatically.
Advocates of an American withdrawal should think hard about the consequences.
As should be obvious by now, when fighting a militaristic theological movement conventional military “victory” simply isn’t attainable. While there may be political settlements in given regions at given times, there won’t be a USS Missouri moment with al-Qaeda, ISIS, or any successor jihadist group. They’re not going to lay down their arms, and thus it’s not really even in our power to truly end the war. Wars end when both sides stop fighting, not when just one side wants to make it stop. We can certainly diminish the jihadist threat, and we can certainly cripple jihadist forces. We cannot, however, extinguish the jihadist impulse.
Advocates of an American withdrawal should think hard about the consequences. They should consider whether a Taliban-led government in Kabul is in America’s best interests or whether it’s worth expending a very small fraction of our military power to keep a jihadist enemy from winning a historic victory. Indeed, denying terrorists safe havens should be the cornerstone of American military strategy, and that requires constant vigilance and potentially a permanent military commitment.
Perhaps one day the Taliban will exhaust themselves and seek peace. Likely not. But we in turn cannot grow weary in our own commitments to our own defense. In his speech, Trump provided an interesting definition of victory — “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” In other words, “victory” is a process, and while the aim is to inflict a “lasting defeat” on America’s enemies, there is no timetable for this war.
Good. Our enemy doesn’t have a timetable. Jihadists have fought the perceived enemies of Islam for more than a thousand years. Our nation’s commitment to its people should be clear. Each and every year that jihadists are willing to fight is a year that we are ready and able to defend ourselves, to deny them safe havens, and to strike them before they can strike us.
Trump’s change of heart is significant, and it’s a signal to our foes. American presidents, when confronted with reality, have risen to the occasion. One more American president has said no to another Saigon. He’s said no to another surrender. Americans can and should breathe easier — President Trump won’t be the president to lose this war.