On August 20, President Trump delivered a speech outlining what has been touted as his new “Afghanistan strategy.” Much has already been made about the potential dangers of ramping up military action while cutting State Department and development funding, as well as the fact that his speech was a “depressingly normal” approach to the conflict—not the novel departure that he promised during the campaign.
The actual foreign policy implications of the actions Trump outlined are hard to predict. The president promised a conditions-based approach to troop levels—something that both policy experts and senior leadership have been advocating for years—yet was short on the details of what any of those conditions are. Short of “killing terrorists,” the president offered little in the way of measurable goals.
Despite the ambiguity of outcomes in Afghanistan, the outcomes in America are clear: U.S. military service members are going to stay at war, and the president’s core base of support will cheer him for it.
A cornerstone of Trump’s “America First” campaign promises was to strengthen the military. “I’m the most military-based and the most militaristic person on your show,” he once remarked in a Face the Nation interview. “I want to have a much stronger military. I want it to be so strong that nobody is going to mess with us.” The idea of military strength as a symbol of American greatness was cheered in campaign rallies across the country. It’s been manifested in Trump’s budgets, which have been heavy on increased military spending at the expense of diplomacy. Given Trump’s desire to be viewed as the “military president,” his focus on military solutions are unsurprising.
However, it is important to note that Trump’s rise in militarism—and the support he gets for it—come at a time when a historically low percentage of American citizens are serving in the military. Currently, 0.4 percent of the American population serves in the military. That means that 99.6 percent of the population is at little risk of personal hardship as a result of continued military action. Further, the military is becoming a “family business,” increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer families, meaning that the vast majority of American families will not be personally impacted by continued conflict either.
The lack of personal impact isn’t just in terms of human life. Since the conflict in Afghanistan began, Congress has been reluctant to increase taxes to pay for the increased expense. President Trump doesn’t seem to be breaking from this tradition. With no additional strain on the pocketbook, it is easy for the average American to forget that we have young women and men fighting overseas.
This detachment from the actual consequences of war makes being a wartime president relatively easy. Because so few people will actually be impacted by increased troop levels and continued hostilities, tough-talk, and “attacks” in Afghanistan are a way for him to fulfill the promises of strength through military might that packed in stadiums during campaign rallies. With a lack of personal buy-in, his supporters will be able to continue to wrap themselves in the flag to support American strength through military might.
As long as the body count of the terrorists outnumber those of US forces, Trump will have the grounds to talk about “winning,” and likely the support to continue being a wartime president. In democracies, buy-in to the horrors of war, whether in blood or treasure, constrains conflict. Its absence only intensifies the patriotic rally-around-the-flag effect.
Being a wartime president plays to Trump’s strengths. He’s able to fire up his base with patriotic rhetoric, and justify his image of being tough on America’s “enemies.” His speech announcing a “path forward” in Afghanistan allowed him to play up this position.
America needs a strong military, but also needs constraints on its use. Conditions of killing terrorists and continued separation from war will keep us embroiled in seemingly endless conflict for political gain.
This post is part of a series of responses to President Trump’s recent speech on U.S. strategies in Afghanistan. Read the rest here.