Terry H. Schwadron
Aug. 23, 2017
Much seems to being made of President Trump’s reversal of thinking on Afghanistan, a “flip-flop” by any other name. As a candidate, he was for immediate withdrawal as part of pulling in international commitments in favor of spending effort and money on America First. As of his speech Monday night, he now formally favors an open-ended military commitment, along with unspecified efforts using economics and diplomacy to “win” in Afghanistan.
Critics on the left and the right were quick to point out the “flip-flop,” along with the explanation that candidates may have opinions, but presidents must actually make decisions.
Actually, I’m fine with the President changing his mind as he faces actual fact, but what stood out for me, as it has all along, was Donald Trump’s insistence always that that he is painting policy with a consistent brush.
For what it was worth, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson managed to bring more clarity in 10 minutes of questions from reporters yesterday than the whole of the President’s speech: The goal is to get the Taliban to the negotiating table, possibly to accept a role, but not control in Afghanistan, and to get Pakistan’s head on straight about going after terrorists in its borders.
In reality, if we’re having trouble with the PResident’s sense of consistency, imagine that you are one of our overseas allies trying to keep American decision-making in line with your own.
We’ve seen it over and over. Indeed, Mr. Trump is a flip-flop champ — a point that seemed strangely to align Breitbart News headlines with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.
· As a candidate, he wanted a “beautiful” health care program for all, but in real life, that turned out to be backing for standard Republican repeal and replace approaches that would leave millions without health insurance. Of course, those efforts have failed, and, in the end, Mr. Trump must support payments to insurers to keep them selling insurance in rural areas. He wanted lower drug prices, but has done nothing to achieve them.
· As a candidate, he presented himself as supportive of the gay community, until he announced that transgender people have no place in the military. Of course, the military has resisted and ignored the non-order.
· He was against endorsing NATO and foreign alliances until he announced he still favors them.
· Of Charlottesville, in a matter of days, he was against hate, excusing hate, equating neo-Nazis with anti-Nazi protester, for law and order, for retention of statues that are hurtful reminders of Civil War. In other words, he was nowhere, flip-flopping throughout, but gaining no respect as a moral leader.
· Needless to say, there are no infrastructure proposals, no Southern Border Wall, no major tax system changes — at least not yet. The president announced he was adding 5,000 new border patrol officers in January, but has yet to do so.
There are plenty more flip-flops, but then there are many cases in which Mr. Trump has ignored actual information to pursue his campaign promises, from withdrawal from climate agreements to ruinous rejection of all sorts of environmental and consumer protections.
Here’s my question: Does it matter whether the President keeps his campaign promises, particularly if they were promises based on gut rather than some researched fact pattern that can persuade? Maybe not.
What I want from a President is a certain steadiness, something I am not seeing. But I also expect a certain amount of flexibility in position, depending on what happens. We see so much flexibility in the Trump presidency that no one can quite understand what “principled realism” means as a guiding strategy for all things. What I certainly demand from this President is to recognize that some things, like values, are not subject to a “deal” to be settled instantly.
So, coming up with a new strategy for involvement in Afghanistan makes sense — only he didn’t. It’s the same policy, probably to be executed less well with fewer people. But what I don’t like is the insistence from this President that he and only he can solve problems. This is the same guy who said he knows more than the generals about how to fight ISIS, then discovers that he does not.
I’d like Donald Trump to learn a lesson from this Afghanistan review. Maybe he needs a health care review before he has opinions turned policy, or a schools review before he proceeds with harmful spending changes, or a serious environmental view. He has the one job in the country where he can get the full variety of advice just by asking for it. That would reflect a reliable kind of leadership that simply bellowing from the gut does not provide.