In a recent memo advocating a swift U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller gave shape to the fundamental political stand of the Trump administration—realism and restraint.
“We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end,” the memo read. This comes after a rapid purge in the last couple of weeks, in which President Trump dismissed Defense Secretary Mark Esper and replaced him with Miller in what was termed by the leftist media as a takeover of the Pentagon by the National Counterterrorism Center.
Trump also appointed Col. Douglas Macgregor to be a senior adviser at the Pentagon. Macgregor is a fierce opponent of endless wars, and previously nominated to be the ambassador to Germany, but was not yet confirmed.
This has the potential to conclude America’s longest and perhaps most pointless of military engagements. While the idea was to decimate al-Qaeda and punish the Taliban, that was over by 2005. By the time of the surge in 2007, the overall war had morphed into a nation-building process with a sunk cost fallacy.
The war proponents’ argument was circular. Put simply, they claim continuous U.S. engagement is needed so the Taliban doesn’t come to power, because the Taliban is terrible for Afghan women. Therefore Afghan civil society needs indefinite American troops and treasure.
Unfortunately, personnel is policy, and since President Trump was an outsider, he had to rely on insiders at odds with his policy, like John Bolton. His retrenchment instinct was constantly hampered by career insiders, which in an earlier era might have bordered on treacherous behavior.
Consider, for example, that a Washington Post journalist found amusing a career bureaucrat explaining on record how he simply lied about troop numbers in Syria to his commander in chief in order to stop a U.S. troop pullout, despite the fact that the majority of Americans oppose any U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Not only does that directly contravene the chain of command, but it is also a criminal offense. Electoral politics has no meaning in this context when unelected bureaucrats decide foreign policy regardless of public opinion or elections, like Roman Praetorian Guards.
The current Trump nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan, Will Ruger, understands that. As an insider and one of the foremost voices among conservative realist circles, he said what is now evident to a lot of observers, and will be a lesson for future conservative leadership: unless the administrative team is willing to follow through with the president’s policies, there’s zero value in conservative electoral wins.
In a New York Times interview, Ruger was quoted saying, “The president has had difficulty finding personnel who would faithfully execute on his preferences,” adding that now is the last chance for Trump to cement his legacy and stand for what he believed during his campaigning: ending fruitless wars.
But to purely blame hysterical public opinion is also not appropriate. For example, one of the most interesting related phenomena has been the transformation of former liberals into raging, mindless war hawks. That is partly due to the intense polarization of American politics, and partly due to the overwhelming majority of leftists in news media, that even bipartisan ideas like troop pullout get muddied.
Not just Republicans, but also a majority of Democrats desire a U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan. But that is not reflected in the media’s loudest voices. So-called right-of-center voices in national media are also mostly neoconservatives like Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin. So the actual majority is practically unrepresented in the mainstream conversation.
The cumulative effect of this is observable on Twitter replies. The moment a U.S. troop pullout was announced, there were thousands of people, mostly middle-aged liberals, arguing that this must surely be because President Trump is under final orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin to “weaken” the American hand in Afghanistan.
Politics is inherently surreal, but this must be one of the worst aspects of the last four years of resistance drama. A genuine bipartisan attempt to wind down massive wastage was resisted by an entrenched bureaucracy and cheered by media and a hapless social media mob whipped to the extremes of hysteria.
Taking U.S. troops out of the Middle East should have been done a while back, but is a politically prudent thing to do now anyway. That’s because, one, Trumpism is the future of conservatism. Whatever happens, the biggest long-term legacy of Trump is pushing neoconservatives to their former parent party, the Democrats. The future conservative party will be a party of realism and restraint. Meaningless wars will not be a vote winner.
The global balance of power also means other great powers will have more influence in other regions, like the Middle East. Conversely, there will be places where nothing will be in the American interest. Post-Trump conservatives will do good to internalize that. Pulling out troops from Afghanistan and the Middle East is only the logical endgame for that.
Second, this would put the burden for further deployment and conflicts on the shoulders of future Democrat presidents. What could be a sweeter parting gift to the “party of resistance”?