Hindsight, at least in the context of American politics, is a fickle thing. It is basically widely accepted now that the Iraq War was a terrible idea. Donald Trump, in 2016, harnessed 15 years of American pain and claimed that he would end it, castigating George W. Bush in particular, saying the 2003 invasion of Iraq “may have been the worst decision” in presidential history.
And yet, four years later, the president who made that decision has settled into the warmer role of a gratefully retired leader. Here he is swapping sweets with Michelle Obama, chatting with Ellen DeGeneres. Here are his paintings of immigrants. Here are his gentle words against partisanship. In hindsight, some think, Bush wasn’t so bad, especially compared to the various monstrosities of the past four years.
In reality, of course, the reverse is true. The Bush administration, and perhaps the Obama administration as well, accounted for death and pain on a global scale that greatly overshadows Trump’s impact in four years. But this is not for lack of trying. Like all of Trump’s promises on the campaign trail, the desire to bring troops home has become little more than empty symbolism, which will do almost nothing to end the ways in which our global empire snuffs out human life abroad.
In the past few weeks, Trump has reportedly stepped up plans to remove significant numbers of U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. From the New York Times:
Under a draft order circulating at the Pentagon on Monday, the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan would be halved from the current deployment of 4,500 troops, officials said.
In Iraq, the Pentagon would trim force levels slightly below the 3,000 troops that commanders had previously announced. And in Somalia, virtually all of the more than 700 troops conducting training and counterterrorism missions would leave.
Like almost all of Trump’s decisions to date, this plan has been decried by the foreign policy establishment — the usual cadre of former officials, defense contractors, think-tankers, and military officers who are often known as “the Blob.” Trump’s own military leadership has been strongly against him in this effort, as he’s pushed out two successive defense secretaries after clashing about troop withdrawal plans (Mark Esper, most recently, over Afghanistan; and James Mattis over Syria). In general, leftist thinking goes, the Blob feeds on perpetual war, so actions that go against it are good.
In one sense, that’s correct. It’s hard to view any decrease in America’s military commitments abroad as a negative thing. After 19 years, there’s no reason we should be in Afghanistan anymore. But what we have to accept, and own, is that even in leaving we further our legacy of blood. Almost as soon as we leave, military officials and Afghani civilians alike expect the Taliban to retake functional control of most of the country, beginning with a “wave of hit-and-run assassinations” in Kabul and other major cities. The best possible outcome, then, is that we leave Afghanistan back in the hands of the totalitarian theocracy we overthrew in 2001, allowing them to brutally remake the country’s society for the second time in as many decades. The Blob claims its plan for withdrawing mitigates this, but the reality of our failure there means any other outcome would require the permanent presence of some U.S. forces.
A complete exit of ground forces in Afghanistan is desirable, but it won’t end the bloodshed we cause there. If anything, it will just move it even further out of our sight. That, in the end, is the core deceit of Trump’s lame-duck pacifism: it does almost nothing to reduce the American empire’s ability to kill.
For the most part, the ground troops we have in Iraq and Afghanistan are not frontline fighters. The exception of course are the special forces units, which the military has increasingly leaned on for years now as it seeks to reduce overall numbers while still projecting force. It seems unlikely that these units missions’ will change much: we’ll still send the SEALs into Afghanistan whenever we want, we’ll just base them outside the country’s borders. And even these troops’ worst crimes pale in comparison to the unending, unstoppable, indiscriminate campaign of death the U.S. and its allies have waged from the air for decades.
Contrary to general public conceptions of war, infantry soldiers armed with rifles and trucks and tanks don’t really kill that many people anymore. Instead, the greatest military in the world largely relies on overwhelming air power to bomb, strike, strafe, and shell targets from above. And like both his predecessors, Donald Trump has taken to this strategy with relish, increasing the frequency of airstrikes against targets in close to a dozen countries while simultaneously decreasing the meager accountability measures put in place by Barack Obama (something he did only after enormous public pressure because he wouldn’t stop killing civilians). Absolutely nothing about Trump’s lame-duck interest in troop withdrawal suggests he will have a change of heart here. In fact, it’s almost certain he won’t. From the Times:
The plan under discussion to pull out of Somalia is said to not apply to U.S. forces stationed in nearby Kenya and Djibouti, where American drones that carry out airstrikes in Somalia are based, according to officials familiar with the internal deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
For years, the Department of Defense refused to admit it was killing civilians in Somalia, despite the fact that it had conducted well over 100 airstrikes in the country, until it finally came (sort of) clean in 2019. In Afghanistan, as ground troops have slowly left the country, the air war has only escalated, while investigations into the civilian death toll have declined. The is the future of Trump’s peace plans, and almost certainly of the Biden administration, which will be able to take full advantage of Trump’s erosion of federal accountability. The best we can hope for is that Biden will feel bad about it, like Obama did. From Business Insider:
In his new book, “A Promised Land,” Obama reflected on the task of ordering such killings, stating that he “took no joy” in doing so. …
Obama said his first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was “obsessed” with keeping track of what was essentially a kill list, or a list of top terrorist targets. The former president said Emanuel had “spent enough time in Washington to know that his new, liberal president couldn’t afford to look soft on terrorism.”
“I took no joy in any of this. It didn’t make me feel powerful. I’d entered politics to help kids get a better education, to help families get healthcare, to help poor countries grow more food — it was that kind of power that I measured myself against,” Obama wrote. “But the work was necessary, and it was my responsibility to make sure our operations were as effective as possible.”
Hindsight is fickle. Perhaps Trump is hoping that the Biden administration will do enough “necessary work” of bombing Yemeni weddings that Trump’s decreases of troop numbers will be remembered as pacifism, despite the fact that he seriously considered starting a new war with Iran multiple times throughout his one term, and that his air campaigns were some of the most savage of the era. The decline of U.S. warmaking is something to celebrate, but it takes an incredibly naive form of stupidity to believe that’s what Trump is offering. The only thing dumber would be expecting things to change once he’s gone.