Trump becomes a reluctant hawk

Jules witcover

WASHINGTON — In laying out in general terms his path as a wartime president, Donald Trump has done his best to paper over his decision to follow his generals and stay the course in Afghanistan. He has accepted a policy basically identical to the one he consistently condemned in the hands of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

In Trump’s latest military policy speech, he did not specify how many additional American soldiers will be dispatched there to hold the line against the Taliban troops who have waged the war for nearly 16 years. He simply pleaded that he has a better understanding of the peril faced there from his new perch in the White House.

“My first instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” he said in his first televised speech on the war as president. “But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”

So, he said, “I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle,” and after meeting with his generals at Camp David he came to three conclusions. They were, not surprisingly, the same that Obama had previously reached.

We must seek “an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made” (by American forces); we must acknowledge “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable” and that “the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense.”

One did not have to sit behind the Oval Office desk, of course, to have perceived these glaring facts. But Trump seemed needful of saying so to explain his sharp flip-flop from his long-held view that America had no business fighting in Afghanistan and South Asia.

“When I became president, I was given a bad and very complex hand,” he lamented. “But I fully knew what I was getting into, big and intricate problems. But one way or another, these problems will be solved. I’m a problem-solver, and in the end we will win.”

Trump defended his lack of specificity on troop numbers and timelines for success, saying: “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”

At the same time, Trump clearly signaled an end to foreign nation-building. “We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image,” he said. “Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.”

The latter observation doubtless was well received by nationalist champion Steve Bannon over at his old perch, Breitbart News, which devoted much of its daily internet file to bashing his old boss in the Oval Office.

A particular target was Trump’s national security adviser, former General H.R. McMaster, said to be in bitter internal dispute with Bannon in his final days as Trump’s chief strategist. A Breitbart editorial upon Bannon’s return asked, in a play on an old phonograph record label slogan: “His McMaster’s Voice: Is Trump’s Afghanistan Policy That Different from Obama’s?”

Bannon on leaving the Trump White House took pains to say he was not breaking with his old friend the president, but rather just moving to another political platform to work for the Trump agenda.

This strange arrangement offers another bizarre dynamic in the unorthodox Donald Trump presidency. A combative subplot pits the old mainstream media of print, radio and television against the new digital journalism upstart, with the public left to ponder anew: What’s true news and what’s fake?

It’s certainly some kind of commentary on the state of politics and the news racket when the right-hand man of an American president trades that job to become today’s version of the old ink-stained wretch of news reporting, albeit no doubt for much better take-home pay.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at