The last week was the Trump presidency in a nutshell. When faced with a situation that called for him to do one of the many easy things Americans expect of their president, he repeatedly failed. But when asked to do something very hard, he succeeded. He showed he was capable of making a tough, smart decision that keeps our nation safe. But it remains to be seen if doing the right thing on Afghanistan will wind up having a greater impact on his place in history than will his inability to get beyond the mess he made for himself after Charlottesville.
Unfortunately for Trump, it may be the easy things — forthrightly and consistently condemning neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other alt-right extremists without trying to assert a false moral equivalence between them and their opponents — that may have more impact on the public’s view of his dysfunctional administration. Not satisfied with last week’s bungled response to the violence in Virginia, Trump launched into another epic rant at an Arizona campaign rally Tuesday night, disingenuously defending himself against criticism while leaving out the part of the story where he treated racists and anti-Semites as morally equivalent to their opponents. He once again sent a dog whistle to hate groups by showing his support for their stand on the Confederacy. And, playing to his faithful base while discounting the rest of the country, he also taunted a cancer-stricken John McCain without mentioning the sailors who were recently killed on board the Navy ship named for the senator and his father.
This Trump was a marked contrast to the adult who spoke about foreign policy just one night earlier. Monday’s speech, in which he signaled his readiness to stay the course in Afghanistan, was delivered with obvious reluctance. As he admitted, he came into office determined to end America’s involvement in what has turned out to be its longest war. He was deeply skeptical of the NATO alliance and of the idea that our security is inextricably linked to our role as the superpower guarantor of global stability. Redoubling our effort in Afghanistan went against his every political instinct, and it showed. His sympathies were clearly with Steve Bannon, the fired chief strategist who fought an ultimately unsuccessful rearguard action trying to keep Trump faithful to his campaign promises to avoid further foreign entanglements.
The reason for his decision seems to boil down to one factor that Bannon and the neo-isolationists who cheered every time Trump spoke of his contempt for the foreign-policy establishment and everything his predecessors had done in the Middle East didn’t take into account: his infatuation with generals.
It is a commonplace insight to note that Trump respects only two classes of people. If you’re not a fellow billionaire or a soldier, sailor, or marine with stars on your shoulders, he regards you as just another reality-show contestant who can be fired with impunity.
Given that the military remains about the only deeply and widely respected institution left in America, Trump’s attitude makes sense. That said, it should be conceded that an infatuation with generals isn’t always a good thing in a commander-in-chief. Presidents must make security decisions taking into account more than strictly military concerns. They can and must overrule their generals when it is in the country’s best interests to either stand down (e.g., Harry Truman’s decision to demand that Douglas MacArthur stop threatening China with nuclear war) or, as is also sometimes the case, push harder than the generals and admirals would like (e.g., President Lincoln’s decision to fire George B. McClellan after McClellan failed to press the Union’s advantage following the Battle of Antietam).
But as much as history teaches us the importance of civilian control of the military, in 2017 we’ve learned that it is the generals — both active and retired — who are the only ones capable of educating Trump about his responsibilities.
An army of the wisest policy experts could not, on its own, have persuaded Trump that a U.S. bugout from Afghanistan would be utter folly. The U.S. has no good options in this case, since even a far larger force than is available for Trump to deploy might not be enough to give him the decisive military victory he craves. Yet had the generals not told him otherwise, he might have succumbed to the notion that Afghanistan would inevitably fall back into the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and that allowing that to happen was preferable to expending more U.S. blood and treasure on the conflict. Their presence in the room was enough to convince him that retreat would return Afghanistan to the pre-9/11 reality in which terrorists could use it as a base from which to launch attacks on the West.
Saying the right thing after tragedies is, unlike making tough military decisions that look far different from the Oval Office than they do from outside it, quite easy.
It must also be acknowledged that Trump’s deference is to be preferred to Obama’s constant second-guessing of the Pentagon. Though few could have predicted it before he took office, at least in this one aspect, Trump has proven to be a model commander-in-chief who understands the need for a president to respect the expertise of his generals and defer to their judgment when it is appropriate.
Learning to listen to your generals and handle the military is a hard thing. Many better and smarter men than Trump have failed at it. But his problem right now is that as much as his acumen as a commander-in-chief will be important to his legacy, history will also judge his failure to do the easy things.
Saying the right thing after tragedies is, unlike making tough military decisions that look far different from the Oval Office than they do from outside it, quite easy. Condemning hate groups by name when the moment calls for it is simple. Moreover, it is a rare president who doesn’t understand that tragedies like Charlottesville are opportunities for them to give speeches that promote national unity rather than fueling discord. Doing so is both good politics and good policy. But Trump, driven as he is by his anger at the media and his critics, and convinced that sounding anodyne themes that might bring people together would be a surrender to his foes, can’t or won’t do these easy things. And every time it seems as if he is moving on from the controversies those failures generate, he can’t resist the temptation to drag us back into the morass. What he said in Arizona about Charlottesville almost immediately erased the good impression his speech about Afghanistan had made.
Trump’s affection for the generals seems to indicate that he can act like a responsible commander-in-chief even if doing so goes against his instincts. But we’ve seen too much of him by now to believe that he can ever completely transcend his anger-management and impulse-control issues. And incidents like Charlottesville may ensure that he will never live down the consequences of those issues, no matter how many wise, difficult foreign-policy decisions he makes.