Let us stipulate at the outset that Donald Trump is a vulgar and dishonest fraud without a principled bone in his corpulent frame. Yet history is nothing if not a tale overflowing with irony. Despite his massive shortcomings, President Trump appears intent on recalibrating America’s role in the world. Initiating a long-overdue process of aligning US policy with actually existing global conditions just may prove to be his providentially anointed function. Go figure.
The Valhalla of the Indispensable Nation is a capacious place, even if it celebrates mostly white and mostly male diversity. Recall that in the 18th century, it was a slaveholding planter from Virginia who secured American independence. In the 19th, an ambitious homespun lawyer from Illinois destroyed slavery, thereby clearing the way for his country to become a capitalist behemoth. In the middle third of the 20th century, a crippled Hudson River grandee delivered the United States to the summit of global power. In that century’s difficult later decades, a washed-up movie actor declared that it was “morning in America” and so, however briefly, it seemed to be. Now, in the 21st century, to inaugurate the next phase of the American story, history has seemingly designated as its agent a New York real estate developer, casino bankruptee, and reality TV star.
In all likelihood, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan would balk at having Donald Trump classified as their peer. Yet, however preposterously, in our present moment of considerable crisis, he has succeeded them as the nation’s Great Helmsman, albeit one with few ideas about what course to set. Yet somehow Trump has concluded that our existing course has the United States headed toward the rocks. He just might be right.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars.” So the president announced in his 2019 State of the Union Address. Implicit in such a seemingly innocuous statement was a genuinely radical proposition, as laden with portent as Lincoln’s declaration in 1858 that a house divided cannot stand. Donald Trump appears determined to overturn the prevailing national security paradigm, even if he is largely clueless about what should replace it.
Much as Southerners correctly discerned the import of Lincoln’s veiled threat, so, too, have Trump’s many critics within the national security apparatus grasped the implications of his insistence that “endless wars” must indeed end. In the unlikely event that he ever delivers on his campaign promise to end the conflicts he inherited, all the claims, assumptions, and practices that together define the US national security praxis will become subject to reexamination. Tug hard enough on this one dangling thread—the wars that drag on and on—and the entire fabric may well unravel.
The Decalogue Plus One
In other words, to acknowledge the folly of this country’s endless wars will necessarily call into question the habits that people in and around Washington see as the essence of “American global leadership.” Prominent among these are: (1) positioning US forces in hundreds of bases abroad; (2) partitioning the whole planet into several contiguous regional military commands; (3) conferring security guarantees on dozens of nations, regardless of their ability to defend themselves or the values to which they subscribe; (4) maintaining the capability to project power to the remotest corners of the earth; (5) keeping in instant readiness a “triad” of nuclear strike forces; (6) endlessly searching for “breakthrough technologies” that will eliminate war’s inherent risks and uncertainties; (7) unquestioningly absorbing the costs of maintaining a sprawling national security bureaucracy; (8) turning a blind eye to the corrupting influence of the military-industrial complex; and easily outpacing all other nations, friend and foe alike, in (9) weapons sales and (10) overall military spending.
Complementing this Decalogue, inscribed not on two tablets but in thousands of pages of stupefyingly bureaucratic prose, is an unwritten 11th commandment: Thou shalt not prevent the commander in chief from doing what he deems necessary. Call it all D+1. In theory, the Constitution endows Congress with the authority to prevent any president from initiating, prolonging, or expanding a war. In practice, Congress has habitually deferred to an increasingly imperial presidency and treated the war-powers provisions of the Constitution as non-binding.
This Decalogue-plus-one has been with us for decades. It first emerged during the early phases of the Cold War. Its godfathers included such distinguished (if today largely forgotten) figures as Paul Nitze, principal author of a famously unhinged policy paper known as NSC-68, and Gen. Curtis LeMay, who transformed the Strategic Air Command into a “cocked weapon” capable of obliterating humankind.
During the 1960s, better-dead-than-red began to fall from favor and a doctrine of “flexible response” became all the rage. In those years, as an approach to waging, and therefore perpetuating the Cold War, D+1 achieved maturity. At that very juncture, the search for fresh thinking to justify existing policies vaulted the likes of Robert McNamara and Maxwell Taylor into positions of authority as secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Vietnam War put the American military establishment’s capacity for flexibility to the test. That test did not go well, with Secretary McNamara and General Taylor prominent among the officials whose reputations did not survive. Remarkably, however, amid the carnage of that war, D+1 did survive all but unscathed. Vietnam was surely a debacle, but as long as the Cold War persisted, asking first-order questions about the basic organization of “national security” appeared just too risky. So the Decalogue emerged with hardly a scratch. Notwithstanding the disappointing presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, so, too, did the Eleventh Commandment.
More striking still, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, D+1 persisted. Thirty years ago this month when the Cold War ended, everyone agreed that a new era of global affairs was dawning. The Soviet Union, the threat that had prompted the creation of the Decalogue, had vanished. Yet without missing a beat, a new generation of Nitzes and LeMays, McNamaras and Taylors devised an altogether different rationale for preserving their predecessors’ handiwork.
That new rationale was nothing if not expansive. During the Cold War, the overarching purpose of D+1 had been to avert the ultimate disaster of Armageddon. Its revised purpose was to promote the ultimate goal of remaking the world in America’s image. With a “sole superpower” now presiding over the international order, D+1 offered a recipe for simultaneously cementing permanent US primacy and securing the universal triumph of American values. So, at least, members of an intoxicated foreign policy elite persuaded themselves.
Yet in the wake of the Cold War came not peace and harmony but unprecedented US military activism. Here was the common theme of the otherwise disparate presidencies of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. During the quarter-century that elapsed between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the election of Donald Trump, the United States intervened in or attacked Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sudan, Afghanistan (again), Iraq (again), Libya, Somalia (again), Yemen, Syria, several West African nations, and, briefly, Pakistan. And given a presidential preference for employing Special Operations forces on highly classified missions, that list is almost surely incomplete. Simply put, reticence regarding the use of force vanished.
As for the 11th Commandment, it now achieved a status comparable to the doctrine of papal infallibility. After 9/11, Congress quickly passed an open-ended Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), empowering the president “to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States.” Of course, “terrorism,” as we are frequently reminded by the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan is very much in the eyes of the beholder. In effect, Congress had simply handed the commander-in-chief a blank check.
That AUMF became law on September 18, 2001, following a unanimous vote in the Senate and with only a single member dissenting in the House of Representatives. In the 18 years since, it has shown both remarkable durability and elasticity. Best illustrating its durability have been the wars launched under its auspices. Best illustrating its elasticity was Barack Obama’s “disposition matrix,” a secret procedure devised by his administration empowering him to order the killing of just about anyone anywhere on the planet deemed to pose a threat to the United States. All of this transpired with the cool deliberation and thorough consultation that was an Obama signature. Acting pursuant to the provisions of that AUMF, in other words, Obama codified assassination as an integral component of US policy. In Washington, war thereby became a permanent undertaking that recognized no boundaries.
In or Out? Old or New?
Read the papers or watch cable news and you might conclude that the pivotal issue of our moment is the fate of Syria’s Kurds, with the United States military deemed uniquely responsible for ensuring their wellbeing. Yet while such a conclusion may play well with our troubled consciences—and troubled they certainly should be—it is radically misleading.
True enough, Trump’s abrupt abandonment of the Kurds qualifies as cruel, callous, and immoral. It also ranks as only the latest in a long string of such American betrayals, as various Native American tribes, Chinese Nationalists, Cuban exiles, South Vietnamese, and prior generations of Kurds (among others) can testify. So Trump has not exactly broken with past precedent.
More to the point, the matter at hand relates less to the Kurds than to a far larger question: Should the United States perpetuate the military enterprise commonly but misleadingly referred to as the “global war on terrorism?” Or should the United States recognize that this so-called GWOT has failed and consider a different approach to policy? Given that the GWOT represents D+1 applied to the Greater Middle East, “different” implies a wholesale reexamination of basic national security policy. It’s that prospect that worries the foreign policy establishment.
With the GWOT’s 20th anniversary now within hailing distance, we are in a position to evaluate just what that war has actually achieved. Honest differences of opinion may be possible, but in my judgment the results rank somewhere between disappointing and catastrophic. This much is certain: We have not won and victory is nowhere in sight.
Granted, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein is gone, as is Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, both of them guilty of terrible crimes (although innocent of any direct involvement in 9/11). For the moment at least, the repressive Taliban do not rule in Kabul. And Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are dead. Proponents of the GWOT and of D+1 can point to these as positive achievements.
Yet widen the aperture slightly and the outcome appears less impressive. George W. Bush’s much-ballyhooed Freedom Agenda came to naught. Regime change in Kabul, Baghdad, and Tripoli produced not liberal democracy but chronic instability, pervasive corruption, and endemic violence. In Afghanistan, the Taliban never admitted defeat and today threaten the Western-installed Afghan government. Rather than affirming American military mastery and benign intentions, the reckless and illegal invasion of Iraq, advertised under the banner of Operation Iraqi Freedom, became a gift to our adversaries. If anyone can be said to have won the Iraq War, that honor must surely belong to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Worse still, by upending the existing regional order, US forces created a power vacuum that facilitated the emergence of new terrorist movements like ISIS.
America’s ongoing post-9/11 wars deserve to be called “endless” because, despite contributing to hundreds of thousands of deaths and squandering trillions of dollars over the course of many years, the United States has come nowhere close to fulfilling its declared political aims. The plight of the Kurds in Syria offers a small but telling illustration of the magnitude of that failure.
Now the president of the United States, acting pursuant to the authority granted him by the 11th Commandment, says he wants to call it quits. It’s like Adam in the Garden of Eden: The one thing he’s forbidden to do, he does—or in Trump’s case makes a show of intending to do at least.
In response, in a show of near-unanimity Democratic and Republican defenders of the Decalogue Plus One insist that President Trump may not do what he declares himself intent on doing. Recall that George W. Bush’s doctrine of preventive war—sometimes disguised as “anticipatory self-defense”—elicited only modest opposition at best, largely along partisan lines. Much the same can be said of Barack Obama’s self-appointment as assassin in chief. But Donald Trump’s declared intention to withdraw US troops from Syria as a preliminary step toward reducing our regional military presence has elicited bipartisan condemnation expressed in the strongest terms.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, typically the president’s most stalwart defender, took to the pages of the Washington Post to denounce Trump’s decision in no uncertain terms. Riddled with half-truths and hyperbole, his op-ed qualifies as a model of “fake news.” Yet credit McConnell with this much: He understands that, in the dispute between Trump and the foreign policy establishment, the fate of Syria’s Kurds rates as no more than incidental.
The real issue, according to McConnell, is preserving “the post–World War II international system” that, he asserts, “has sustained an unprecedented era of peace, prosperity, and technological development.” Furthermore, having created that system, the United States remains “its indispensable nation,” a phrase introduced by Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton in the early 1990s. Preserving that system’s benefits requires keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining the US military presence throughout the Middle East, and above all preserving the established framework of national security policy. In short, compliance with the Decalogue is mandatory. Even (or especially) presidents must obey.
Now, if you believe that the world we live in today does not differ in any significant way from the one that existed in the wake of World War II, McConnell’s argument might just possess some merit. Yet back then, the American economy led the pack in every conceivable measure. America’s European allies had been ravaged by war and desperately needed US assistance. Both they and the defeated Axis powers, Germany and Japan, appeared vulnerable to the siren song of Communism.
To some observers, the Soviet Union appeared intent on taking over the world. China was poor, weak, backward, and divided. Imperial powers like Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands still clung to the illusion that they could keep a lid on demands for national self-determination in South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Nuclear weapons offered a source of reassurance rather than concern—apart from the United States no one had them. Finally, that a climate crisis attributable to human activity might one day cause grievous harm on a planetary scale was literally beyond imagining.
Time has rendered every bit of this inoperative. McConnell’s “post–World War II international system” is now a fantasy about as relevant to contemporary reality as belief in the tooth fairy.
In what may be the sole redeeming feature of his otherwise abysmal presidency, Trump appears determined to blow the whistle on this charade. Sadly, his efforts do not extend much beyond making noise. Even the troop withdrawals that he announces with such fanfare tend to result in little more than repositioning within the region rather than redeployment back to the United States. Worse still, the motley band of mediocrities who surround the president consists almost entirely of believers in D+1. In his impulsive and ignorant way, Trump wants change; they oppose it.
As a result, diplomatic initiatives that might actually open a pathway to ending endless wars—negotiating the restoration of normal diplomatic relations with Tehran, for example, or curtailing weapons sales (and giveaways) to nations that use US-manufactured arms to create mayhem, or demonstrating leadership by declaring a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons—don’t even qualify for discussion. So Trump is left to flail about on his own, haplessly posing legitimate questions that he is incapable of answering.
The fears of the Decalogue’s defenders are not misplaced: Syria is the loose tip of a dangling thread. Give that thread a good yank and the entire moth-eaten fabric of US national security policy just might become undone. Yet it will take someone with greater determination, consistency, and strength of character than Donald Trump to perform this necessary task.