Friday, 20 November 2020
BY MAE CHEW
Even as his presidency comes to an end, Trump has continued to trade in his political credentials and bolster himself instead as an experienced “dealmaker”. But if making deals is the legacy Trump wishes to leave behind, he surely knows that when future generations come to review his presidency, his foreign policy will be first to go under the microscope.
In terms of foreign policy, it is clear the Trump administration is now on damage control. It may seem strange that in the throes of Trump’s election defeat he has decided to turn his focus to Afghanistan, an area of foreign policy which has not recently garnered much attention in either the American press or the president’s Twitter feed. But a discourse analysis earlier this year by Thorsten Wojczewski gave a fascinating insight into Trump’s treatment of foreign policy, helping us to understand the significance of the conflict in terms of his legacy.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump made bringing America’s “forever wars” to a “successful and reasonable conclusion” a key component of his political platform. Wojczewski suggests that this is because Trump’s treatment of foreign policy acted as a tool with which he could unify the two main cross-sections of his electoral coalition – those who were attracted to his populist message and those who were convinced by his ‘America First’ nationalist approach to international relations.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the president’s treatment of conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump successfully characterised these conflicts as both “endless” (constantly reinvigorated by a meddling foreign policy elite) and “needless” (as they didn’t seem to serve America any immediate purpose, invigorating his nationalist supporters). In promising to end them, and in posing himself as the master dealmaker capable of doing what his two predecessors could not, Trump planned to consolidate his platform by winning a victory for both the populist and the nationalist dimensions of his base.
Yet, Afghanistan remains a deal that the president has not been able to close. The ending of America’s “endless wars” is thus significant not only because they were explicitly part of his campaign but because Trump’s successes in these areas are essential to maintaining his custom brand of right-wing nationalistic populism. In many respects, success in Afghanistan will serve as a litmus test for the future viability of Trumpism as a political philosophy in a post-Trump world. Not to mention that the security of his legacy as a ‘master dealmaker’ appears to rest in the realisation of his ambitions in the region.
Hence, in an act of last-minute reputation control, Trump has decided to force a success in Afghanistan by sacking his defence secretary, silencing concerns from his staff, his military & the international community, and pursuing a policy of removing two thousand further troops from Afghanistan before inauguration day. Ironically, however, he risks courting a similar legacy to many of his predecessors who are haunted by the unintended consequences of a poorly conceived foreign policy.
The problem is that Trump’s proposed course of action seems to only fulfil half of his election promise. Trump may be putting an end to the “endless war” by dramatically quickening the process of troop removal, but in doing so he could be wilfully sacrificing the “successful and responsible conclusion”. In fact, the Pentagon has reportedly claimed that Trump’s decision will have the opposite effect: emboldening the Taliban to ignore the peace process and endangering the lives of the coalition troops left on the ground.
Perhaps this episode will remind future generations of the risks of putting a dealmaker in charge of foreign policy. Notably, the principle that you should always be prepared to walk away from the negotiating table. After all, this move does not come as much of a surprise. Trump, who has famously struggled to translate his zero-sum business acumen to the ideological dynamics which complicate issues of political conflict, had for some time expressed disappointment with the Afghan government’s refusal to make concessions to the Taliban. This was made particularly evident in his refusal to release the five thousand Taliban prisoners promised as a precursor to peace talks.
In doing so, the president has truly isolated himself. In response to the criticism, Afghan National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal wrote on Twitter: “To release thousands of terrorists, get nothing in return, and then withdraw, is a failed strategy for war and peace. Such policy blunders don't mitigate the risks and embolden the threat of global terrorist networks to our region and the world.” Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, ordinarily a staunch and reliable ally to the president, expressed his disappointment with the decision. During a statement on the senate floor, he claimed that “a rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm.”
We may already be seeing the results. According to The Washington Post, a Pentagon memo passed on to the White House by then-defence secretary Esper claimed that a retreat would only “undermine efforts to get the Taliban to live up to their end of the peace agreement”, questioning “why the Taliban would continue negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict with the US leaving anyway.” Perhaps as a result, the move has been warmly welcomed by the Taliban. A spokesperson described the decision as a “good step and in the interest of the people of both countries,” adding that “the sooner the foreign forces leave, the more the war will be prevented.”
Only time will tell if Trump’s gamble will pay off. But whether he likes it or not, the future viability of Trumpism will be defined in part by the consequences his policies will have in Afghanistan. If resorting to a cut-and-run strategy ends up having adverse effects later down the line, the fact he honoured his campaign pledges will be overshadowed by the weight of a foreign policy disaster in the final act.
Trump may be done with Afghanistan, but it seems that Afghanistan may not be finished with President Trump.
@Javidfaisal, “To release thousands of terrorists, get nothing in return, and then withdraw, is a failed strategy for war and peace. Such policy blunders don't mitigate the risks and embolden the threat of global terrorist networks to our region and the world.” Twitter, 16 Nov. 2020, 9:18am, https://twitter.com/Javidfaisal/status/1328266150535442435.
@realDonaldTrump, “…Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.” Twitter, 9 Nov. 2020, 5:54pm, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1325859407620689922.
“Afghan Conflict: US and Taliban Sign Deal to End 18-Year War.” BBC News, BBC, 29 Feb. 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-51689443.
Choi, David. “Pulling US Troops out of Afghanistan Would Be as 'Humiliating' as Vietnam War Defeat, Top Republican Says.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 16 Nov. 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/mitch-mcconnell-withdrawal-from-afghanistan-humiliating-2020-11?r=US.
Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan. “Defense Secretary Sent Classified Memo to White House about Afghanistan before Trump Fired Him.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 14 Nov. 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/trump-pentagon-afghan-war/2020/11/13/5ac54c7e-25cb-11eb-8599-406466ad1b8e_story.html.
Dozier, Kimberly, and W. J. Hennigan, “Donald Trump Promised to End the 'Forever Wars.' Instead, He's Leaving Thousands of Troops and Allies Behind.” Time, Time, 18 Nov. 2020, https://time.com/5912938/trump-afghanistan-iraq-troop-reduction/.
Flegenheimer, Matt, and Maggie Haberman. “Trump and Ryan: Health Bill May Test Marriage of Convenience.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Mar. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/us/politics/donald-trump-paul-ryan-health-care-bill.html.
Pickrell, Ryan. “Taliban Cheers Trump's Decision to Pull Thousands of American Troops out of Afghanistan.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 18 Nov. 2020, www.businessinsider.com/taliban-cheers-trump-decision-on-afghanistan-troop-withdrawal-2020-11?r=US.
Wojczewski, Thortsten. “Trump, Populism, and American Foreign Policy.” Foreign Policy Analysis, Volume 16, Issue 3, July 2020, pp. 292 – 311, https://doi.org/10.1093/fpa/orz021.