On April 27, 2016, then-Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump used an invitation-only event at Washington’s ornate Mayflower Hotel to argue that presidents of both parties had gotten the US ensnared in too many costly, grinding foreign wars.
That, Trump promised, would change once he moved into the White House.
“I will never send our finest into battle unless necessary, and I mean absolutely necessary, and will only do so if we have a plan for victory with a capital V,” he thundered. “The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies.”
The speech was part of Trump’s attempt to make a decisive break with the more hawkish and interventionist wings of his own party, which he blamed for the Iraq War and Washington’s icy relationship with Moscow. He wasn’t just trying to argue that he’d be a different kind of president than Democrats like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. He was also arguing that he’d be a different kind of president than Republicans like George W. Bush.
Flash-forward to last Monday night, when President Donald Trump announced that he would be sending more American troops to Afghanistan. He stressed that there would be no timetable for when those troops would come home, guaranteeing that the longest conflict in American history would drag on well into the future.
“Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on,” he said.
The speech was a stark reversal for a man who had spent years railing against the war in Afghanistan and calling for a US withdrawal from the country — a fact that wasn’t lost on some of Trump’s strongest supporters. Before being fired earlier this month, Steve Bannon used his perch as Trump’s chief White House strategist to argue against sending more American forces into Afghanistan. Now out of the White House and firmly back in control of Breitbart News, the hard-right nationalist website, Bannon is running articles accusing Trump of a “flip-flop” on Afghanistan that will lead to “endless war.”
Candidate Trump and President Trump clearly see the world very differently, and have vastly different views of when, where, and why to use American military force abroad. That shift will determine the future course of the Trump presidency — and help shape America’s place in the world for years to come.
Trump was an isolationist, until he wasn’t
Trump voters could be forgiven for wondering what happened to the Donald Trump who roared through the GOP primaries — and later the general election — by promising an America First foreign policy that would shrink the US role on the world stage and spend more money at home than abroad.
Take Syria, where Trump has deployed sizable numbers of American combat forces and directly attacked the military of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. That’s a major change from Trump’s position during the Obama years, when he consistently urged the president to avoid getting the US involved in the country’s bloody civil war and instead use the money to fix what he described on Twitter as the “broken U.S.”
How bad has our "leader" made us look on Syria. Stay out of Syria, we don't have the leadership to win wars or even strategize.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2013
Or take the war in Iraq. Despite his attacks on George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, Trump has not only dispatched hundreds of new US troops to the country but has also put them closer to the front lines and given them more freedom to bombard targets from the air than Obama had.
The president has also repeatedly attacked the Obama administration for withdrawing most US troops from Iraq and claimed that the move led to the rise of ISIS. The problem is that Trump spent years pushing for that exact same type of withdrawal from the country.
BuzzFeed News dug up a string of examples, including a March 2007 interview on CNN (“Declare victory and leave”), a 2008 interview with British GQ (“First, I’d get out of Iraq right now”), and a 2011 interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan where Trump said he’d get US troops in Iraq "out real fast."
And that’s just the beginning. In Yemen, elite US special operations forces are conducting ground assaults while the US wages an increasingly brutal air campaign against al-Qaeda targets there (the Pentagon has carried out twice as many strikes in March alone as it did in all of 2016). In an unscripted moment earlier this month, Trump even mused about sending the US military into Venezuela, though he didn’t offer any explanation of why or what their mission would be.
All of that is overshadowed by Trump’s shifting positions on North Korea, where he has ricocheted from praising North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “pretty smart cookie” in April to criticizing Kim last month for conducting a new missile test and sarcastically asking, “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”
Beyond the personal attacks on Kim, Trump has gone from saying that he’d be “honored” to meet with the North Korean leader to openly talking — and tweeting — about launching a preemptive strike against Pyongyang if it continued to threaten the US and its allies.
"If [Kim] utters one threat in the form of an overt threat — which by the way he has been uttering for years and his family has been uttering for years — or he does anything with respect to Guam or anyplace else that's an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast," Trump told reporters at his New Jersey golf resort earlier this month.
Trump’s top aides have consistently made clear that they’re committed to seeking a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis rather than a military one. It’s also hard to know what part of Trump’s anti-Pyongyang rhetoric is simple bluster and what is part of an actual policy change.
There’s no ambiguity about what Trump is doing in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, or Iraq. Lawmakers and many in the military are divided about the wisdom of stepping up Washington’s counterterror operations around the globe, but that’s exactly what the president has chosen. It’s also the exact opposite of what many of Trump’s core supporters had expected.
During the campaign, Trump told NBC’s Matt Lauer that he’d be willing to take the unprecedented step of firing currently serving US military generals en masse if he didn’t like what they had to say. The Pentagon’s top brass, he alleged, “have been reduced to rubble … to a point where it’s embarrassing for our country.” If he were elected, Trump continued, “they’ll probably be different generals.”
Since taking office, by contrast, Trump has stocked his inner circle with an unprecedented number of current and former generals — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — and deferred to them on issues ranging from torture (Mattis persuaded Trump not to bring it back) to the management of Trump’s White House itself (Kelly took the job less than a month ago but has already fired top aides like Bannon and sharply limited who has access to the president).
The three military men have also worked behind the scenes to reshape Trump’s thinking on an array of foreign policy and national security issues, a reflection of the fact that the president trusts the generals more than many of his other advisers — and that Trump doesn’t seem to actually have many deeply held beliefs of his own.
That’s been evident with NATO, where Mattis and McMaster got Trump to publicly commit to the mutual defense provision at the heart of the military alliance despite months of presidential equivocation. It’s been evident with Syria, where Trump has given Mattis a free hand to deploy US ground troops and step up the air war against ISIS. And it’s been evident with Afghanistan, where the three generals won the administration’s bitter internal debate over how to approach that conflict and persuaded a reluctant president to send more troops to fight, and potentially die, in America’s longest war.
For close observers of the Trump White House, the biggest questions are how much more aggressively the president will intensify America’s current wars and how willing he will be to potentially launch new ones.
North Korea will be the biggest and most dangerous test. Trump didn’t consult Mattis or McMaster before issuing his memorable threat to hit Pyongyang with “fire and fury” if it continues to threaten the US, suggesting there are at least some limits to the generals’ influence over the mercurial president. On the other hand, Trump has softened his language on North Korea recently, which could mean that Mattis and his fellow generals managed to walk him back from the brink.
During a memorable primetime speech at last September’s Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama said that “being president doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are.” She didn’t mention Trump by name, but the comments were clearly directed squarely at the then-GOP candidate.
The first seven months of Trump’s term suggest Obama had it wrong. Trump has clearly changed since moving into the Oval Office, and his willingness to risk war with North Korea while escalating the long war in Afghanistan are directly at odds with what he said on the campaign trail. President Trump promised that he’d govern differently than Barack Obama. Turns out that he’s governing differently than candidate Trump as well.
More about this on the latest episode of Worldly. Listen here.