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Trump’s About-Face on Afghanistan

Photo by The U.S. Army | CC BY 2.0

“So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle.” -Trump, Aug. 21

Somehow I find it hard to imagine Trump studying anything other than the real estate market in great detail. But now the president has been briefed by his generals on the need to sustain the war in Afghanistan (that’s been so good to them all these years). They have turned him around, so easily; he loves his generals and would like to leave details to them.

He has helpfully explained that while his natural instinct was to withdraw from the Afghan battlefield, things look different when you’re president. Gosh.

Specifically, he said (Monday at Ft. Myer, Virginia): “My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts. [This probably means: All my life I’ve liked following my instincts, acting spontaneously rather than reading books and studying things.] But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, in other words, when you’re president of the United States. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle.”

Oh. He’s heard all his life—but presumably, recently more than ever—that people who become president are supposed to change once in office. So it’s okay to drop a key campaign promise (to pull back from unwinnable wars) due to a sudden maturation process and the wisdom that comes from detailed study in generals’ briefing rooms. Maybe some in his base will be fine with that. USA! USA! USA! after all.

And surely many who despise Trump will be relieved to see more hawkish military influence in the administration. For them, Trump is despicable not so much due to his racism and bigotry as to his supposed isolationism and withdrawal from U.S. global commitments.

So even as Trump continues to astonish two-thirds of the people with his outlandishness, he is becoming increasingly normalized as a leader on foreign and military policy. What did CNN’s Fareed Zakaria say after Trump dropped the MOAB on Afghanistan last April? “He just became the president of the United States.” What did MSNBC’s Brian Williams say about the pointless strike on a Syrian military base that same month? “We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.'” Jesus. What is wrong with these mainstream press people?

Military action brings good press, as a rule. What’s amazing is the shallowness of public memory. And—given the determination of cable news directors and anchors steeped in State Department talking points and assumptions to depict the creeping military coup as a return to responsibility—the likely acceptance of a wider war in Afghanistan, as something that just can’t be helped, once you study it in detail from every angle, except for those of the Afghan people.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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