The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Trump’s Tough Call on Afghanistan

Today on the click-through: Trump’s Afghanistan speech and why he had to take the path he wanted to avoid; why Trump may need a new “ideas guy” with Steven Bannon gone; and the New York Times unintentionally veers into the realm of a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous parody.

Why Trump Had to Make the Decision He Did

For the last couple of years, I’ve kept an eye on reports from the office of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, and the news is rarely good.

Since 2012, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan reconstruction John F. Sopko has done the grim, thankless work of looking at what the federal government’s massive investment in Afghanistan’s future is yielding. He and his team have found taxpayer money spent on soybeans that won’t grow, weapons that Afghan military forces lost, a $2.9 million farming-storage facility that was never used, and a $456,000 training center that “disintegrated” within four months. He’s documented the Afghan government’s inability to pay for basic services, curtail opium production and the drug trade, or utilize the country’s natural resources.

Last year, Sopko attempted to sum up his years of work and declared he saw “evil omens for the future of a desperately poor and largely illiterate country.”

He finds cases of contractor misconduct and misspent funds, but the largest problems remain with the host country: “Afghanistan has had the lead responsibility for its own security for more than a year now, and is struggling with a four-season insurgency, high attrition, and capability challenges. Heavy losses in the poppy-growing province of Helmand have required rebuilding an Afghan army corps and replacing its commander and some other officers as a result, a U.S. general said, of ‘a combination of incompetence, corruption, and ineffectiveness.’”

From 2002 to 2016, Congress appropriated more than $113 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, paying for roads, clinics, schools, civil-servant salaries, and Afghan military and police forces. That total does not include U.S. military spending on the country. Adjusted for inflation, the amount we’ve spent to reconstruct Afghanistan now exceeds the total amount we gave to the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Western Europe after WWII.

In light of all this, and sixteen years of war, it is completely understandable that Americans want to throw up their hands, say to hell with it all, and withdraw all U.S. military forces.

The problem is we know what happens if we do. The Obama administration withdrew from Iraq and assured the public that the departure of coalition troops would not lead to an increased threat to Americans. Then ISIS gradually grew in our absence; Obama was so wedded to the idea that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was the right move and did not exacerbate threats to Americans that he insisted the Islamists taking over Fallujuah were merely the “JV team.”

If our forces leave Afghanistan, it is likely that the Taliban will take over eventually. When they do, it is unlikely that they will be chastened and reformed and unwilling to host other jihadist terrorists like the ones in al Qaeda. If 9/11 had never occurred, the United States never would have invaded Afghanistan. For most of our history, Americans have paid little or no attention to that country, and would be content to let them set their own course, whether it is civilized or barbaric. The Taliban are barbaric, but the world is full of ruthless regimes and rulers that we’re not eager to topple: Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea.

The Taliban are different because they decided to be an Airbnb to the world’s most wanted terrorists and provided the safe haven for guys who killed 3,000 of our citizens. Who knows, perhaps if the Taliban had turned over al-Qaeda’s leaders to the United States or the Hague back in September 2001, a lot of our recent history would have turned out differently. But given a choice between us or them, the Taliban chose them.

This morning, President Trump’s old Amen corner at Breitbart.com is deeply disappointed, accusing him of a “flip-flop” and declaring, “The speech was a disappointment to many who had supported his calls during the campaign to end expensive foreign intervention and nation-building.”

The boss writes, “At the end of the day, this is Trump concluding that he doesn’t want to lose a war on his watch, and if that means jettisoning some of his presuppositions, he’s willing to do it. If only President Obama had handled the question of whether or not to pull out of Iraq the same way.”

Quin Hillyer is downright impressed: “The policies outlined tonight are exactly of the sort that were hoped for by knowledgeable conservatives who backed Trump despite misgivings about his personal conduct and temperament. They are of the sort that some of us did not trust him to make. At least tonight, and at least on this one set of issues, he proved that those of us in the latter camp were mistaken.”

With Bannon Gone, Will Trump Need a New ‘Ideas Guy’?

Writing in Politico, NRO contributor Tevi Troy offers the unexpected advice that Trump needs “another Steven Bannon” – i.e., an “ideas guy” to ensure the political fight du jour is connected to the broader agenda and to coordinate and articulate, where possible, the Trump agenda and the traditional conservative agenda align and overlap.

Trump likes to think of himself as the whole show – his own strategist, his own communications guru, his own political whisperer. And he’s had some successes in those arenas. But this is one area in which Trump really does need the help: He doesn’t have the patience, the background, or the interest to be able to articulate a consistent conservative-friendly vision and to get other conservatives on board. Bannon’s absence means the White House lacks someone who can attempt to create a coherent narrative for the administration’s efforts. A post-Bannon idea person adviser could attempt to articulate a larger coherent message, and at the same time galvanize supporters with outside media platforms to pass on the administration’s messages and goals.

Not filling the role would be a self-inflicted wound, while filling the role with the wrong person would be a missed opportunity. But finding the right person to serve as a White House intellectual, one with real credibility and a larger vision that Trump might listen to, could help chief of staff John Kelly in his effort to right a troubled administration, and provide an idea conduit both to and from a White House that manifestly needs one.

Pssst. You know who’s really smart, thinks a lot about history, public policy, military and foreign affairs, cultural and social issues, can be erudite, sophisticated and combative all at the same time, AND who’s usually sympathetic to Trump, even when most of his colleagues are not?

Victor Davis Hanson. Just putting that out there.

Almost As Bad as When the Guy in the Next Limo Won’t Pass His Grey Poupon

Dear New York Times: I know you have a wealthy readership, perhaps the wealthiest of any American newspaper, and I realize that “elitist” is not necessarily a slur in the circles of your newsrooms. And yes, sometimes those of us who are not in the seven-figure trust-fund lifestyle are amused by the problems that come with the perks of that life. But it’s a fine line, and when you’re not careful, you can leap right past it into a tone of Hamptons one-percent snooty self-parody:

For many people, summer means time for family vacations at the beach, on a lake or in the mountains.

But for some, summer signifies a time to return to a family vacation home, a place they went as children and now take their children. They see their parents, perhaps even old friends.

It’s idyllic, unless the conversation turns to what happens to that summer home after their parents are gone. Will it be shared as part of an inheritance or will it be sold?

For wealth advisers, the fight over the summer home is one of the most common – and vexing – family conflicts. Such battles can be as high in emotional stakes as fights over philanthropic giving or the future of a family business.

Boy, we’ve all been there, right? Muffy can be so unreasonable about the summer estate. But the article’s proposed solution is an even more perfectly distilled essence of Times snobbery:

Enter transformative mediation, an ambitious but often lengthy process with a single goal: to get the people involved to think differently. If siblings are successful in changing their thoughts about each other, practitioners say, the present conflict will be resolved and the relationships that the siblings have with each other will be altered.

News you can use!

ADDENDA: If you’ve ever wondered how long Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) can talk about music, now a new podcast on NRO will attempt to answer that question. Jeff and Scot Bertram are unveiling “Political Beats,” where figures from the world of politics discuss the world of music and their passions.

NRO now has TEN regular podcasts: Political Beats, Mad Dogs and Englishman with Kevin Williamson and Charles C.W. Cooke (you can figure out which one is which); Radio Free California with Will Swain and David Bahnson; Need to Know with Mona Charen and Jay Nordlinger; Q&A with Jay; Ricochet with Rob Long, Jon Gabriel, and James Lileks; the Bookmonger with John J. Miller and interviews with authors; The Editors with Charlie, Rich Lowry, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Dan McLaughlin; The Liberty Files with David French, exploring current stories of battles for liberty; and of course, the daily Three Martini Lunch with Greg Corombus of Radio America and myself, summing up the day’s headlines in about fifteen minutes or so with frequent references to Die Hard, the tears in the eyes of Defense Secretary James Mattis, and how the state of Nevada must forever be punished for the crime of electing Harry Reid.

I chatted about Trump’s Afghanistan speech and being a soccer dad with Hugh Hewitt this morning; he insisted I share this short video with the world.