Trump Recycles Nixon’s “Peace With Honor”

I couldn’t bring myself to watch Trump’s speech last night. I probably wasn’t the only one. But I read some reviews and a transcript.

Most people are dismissing this speech as Trump’s attempt to change the subject. One argument for this is that Trump made a big bleeping deal about a new course in Afghanistan, yet managed to get through the whole speech without revealing a new course in Afghanistan. Chris Cillizza claimed the whole speech really was about Charlottesville.

Maybe, but I think Trump believes he said something significant.  Unlike those past loser presidents who were in charge of the war in Afghanistan, Trump has committed to winning.  Wow, why didn’t anyone think of that before?

Lines that stood out:

I arrived at three fundamental conclusion about America’s core interests in Afghanistan. First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.

Holy shit, we’re back to “peace with honor.” Trump is echoing Gen. McMaster, the National Security Adviser, from a recent interview with right-wing radio tool Hugh Hewitt:

When Hewitt asked McMaster how best to communicate with Americans about the Afghan war, the general replied they needed answers to two questions: what is at stake in Afghanistan and what is “the strategy that secures an outcome consistent with the vital interests of the American people.” To McMaster the outcome in Afghanistan had to be “worthy of the sacrifices that our servicemen and women are making.”

Col. Gregory A. Daddis, U.S. Army (Ret.) continues,

These same words easily could have been spoken by General Creighton Abrams at any point between 1968 and 1972 while in charge of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV). Over the course of those four years, Abrams debated with the Nixon White House — often in private, sometimes in public — over a vast array of tense strategic questions concerning how the United States could achieve “peace with honor” as it withdrew from Vietnam.

This is the second point from Trump’s speech:

A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before Sept. 11. And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS. The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.

I would hardly call what happened in 2011 a “hasty withdrawal,” nor would I blame the withdrawal from Iraq on the spread of ISIS. It was invading Iraq at all, plus Bush’s ham-handed “policies” that amounted to one blunder after another, that encouraged the spread of ISIS. Once that pooch was screwed, no “withdrawal” strategy, gradual or otherwise, was going to unscrew it.

Third, and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.

Of course, we face a more immediate security threat from domestic terrorism at home, but let’s go on … Nobody denies that this is a terrible situation, and it’s a situation that has festered and worsened for a long time. Further, it’s a situation with multinational and bipartisan causes. But what’s Trump’s grand plan for solving this problem? And how does it differ from all the other grand plans announced by the past couple of presidents?

The answer to the second question is, it doesn’t. It’s basically the same old strategy, albeit with more chest thumping than President Obama tended to engage in. Joshua Geltzer writes for The Atlantic,

President Donald Trump’s speech on Afghanistan on Monday night wasn’t remarkable for it’s new ideas—there wasn’t much new to be found. There wasn’t, as administration officials had led many to expect, a new number for the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, or a new approach to Pakistan, or a new regional strategy for South Asia.

Instead, Trump’s speech was remarkable for what was old. It represented a return to themes of the campaign trail for a candidate who insisted that he could and would carry out foreign policy better than his predecessors—George W. Bush and Barack Obama, alike—without actually grappling with how.

Geltzer goes on to describe all the ways Trump’s ideas were not new, in spite of his insistence they were.

What Trump insisted was “new” about his approach to Afghanistan—“the integration of all instruments of American power—diplomatic, economic, and military—toward a successful outcome”; the refusal to “be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat”; and so on—could be ripped from the pages of Obama-era strategy documents. Indeed, not only does the blatant conceptual continuity belie any claim to novelty, but the unanswered question of how again undercuts Trump’s claim to be able to deliver on these elements of his approach. How, for example, does he intend to integrate all instruments of American power when he also appears personally responsible for shattering any attempt by his team to produce a coordinated, interagency approach to foreign policy? Likewise, how does Trump intend to generate new leverage vis-à-vis Pakistan to demand greater counterterrorism cooperation, when he is reported to have unabashedly gushed in his first post-Election Day call with Pakistan’s prime minister about his “amazing work which is visible in every way”?

Fourth, Trump avowed that he would deliver victory by defining it more clearly at the outset: “From now on, victory will have a clear definition.” Now read carefully the very next words of Trump’s speech: “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.” Whatever one’s view of the proper scope of America’s mission in Afghanistan, it is hard to view this seemingly boundless list—especially “attacking our enemies”—as “a clear definition” of victory.

Seriously, this is just replaying the same basic mistake that we’ve made going back to Vietnam — blundering into a war with no clear sense of what “winning” looks like, and with objectives that can only be realized by endless war and occupation. Geltzer continues,

And, underneath all of the campaign trail rhetoric, that lack of a definition of victory may be the most concerning aspect of Trump’s speech. The president who claimed to have “studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle” seemed still not to have grappled with—or perhaps even grasped—the truly big questions that face the United States at its current and critical juncture in Afghanistan. What are U.S. objectives there—countering terrorists who threaten Americans, or defeating the Taliban, or promoting regional stability, or something else entirely? And how much is America willing to invest to achieve those objectives—how many troops, for how long, at what cost, and with what opportunity cost? And, finally, once it has defined ends and means, how will it connect them—in other words, what’s the strategy?

The one thing that I wish everyone would get through his or her thick skull is that “achieving objectives” doesn’t always look like “winning.” If you long for a big, cathartic resolution to conflict that you can celebrate with parades and awards, host a postseason college football game and call it the Victory Bowl.

But especially when dealing with asymmetric warfare or the use of military force to deal with stateless radical movements, there is no “winning.” Maybe in some circumstances military force can achieve some specific objectives that work to support diplomatic, economic and other efforts to reduce the level of threat. But there is no “winning.” No treaties will be signed; no terms of armistice will be agreed on. There will be no one moment that people can call the end of the war so that they can run out into the streets and dance. Modern-day warfare doesn’t work that way.

But this takes us back to “peace with honor.” Nixon wanted a way to end the war that sorta kinda looked like victory, so the U.S. could save face. Just walking away and letting North Vietnam take the whole country was not acceptable, because it was defeat. Of course, that’s what happened, and American hawks were traumatized by the fall of Saigon. However, most of us just didn’t want to hear the name “Vietnam” again for a long time. Peace was honor enough.

Trump wants a resolution to terrorism in the Mideast region that makes him look like a hero. We’ll see how many people he gets killed as he tries, and fails, to achieve that.

See also:

Fred Kaplan, “Killing Terrorists Is Not a Strategy

Susan Glasser, “America Is Out of Ideas in Afghanistan

Charles Pierce, “We’re Addicted to Bad Choices