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Trump Tries to Have It Both Ways on ‘Endless Wars’
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Trump Tries to Have It Both Ways on ‘Endless Wars’

Trump decries our presence in Iraq, but he hasn’t withdrawn American forces, either.

During a press briefing alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on Aug. 20, President Donald Trump defended the limited U.S. military presence in Iraq. “We’re down to a very small number of soldiers in Iraq now,” Trump said. He justified the American footprint in both economic terms (oil and military deals), as well as security grounds. 

In response to a question regarding a series of attacks on American interests over the past 10 months and whether the U.S. would fully withdraw from Iraq within the next three years, Trump said this:

So, at some point, we obviously will be gone. We’ve brought it down to a very, very low level. We deal — where there are attacks, we take care of those attacks, and we take care of them very easily. Nobody has the weaponry we have. Nobody has the — anything — of what we have. We have the finest, the greatest military in the world. When somebody hits us, we hit back hard[er] than they hit us. So we handle it.

In addition to that, Iraq has been very helpful, where necessary. But we have been taking our troops out of Iraq fairly rapidly, and we look forward to the day when we don’t have to be there. And hopefully Iraq can live their own lives and they can defend themselves, which they’ve been doing long before we got involved.

Trump’s explanation is noteworthy because it is an example of the disconnect between his political rhetoric regarding the “endless wars” and his own actions. 

Both the president and his opponent in the 2020 presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden, have regularly criticized the so-called “forever wars.” Trump has even impugned the motives of others in his own party, implying that all they want is to keep U.S. forces involved in unpopular conflicts. Similarly, during a recent appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Donald Trump Jr. blamed the Democrats and “neocons” (a smear word that has lost nearly all meaning) for the “endless wars.” 

When given the opportunity to “end” America’s presence in Iraq once again this month, some would say President Trump punted.  That’s not quite right: Instead, he got under center to quarterback another series. He wouldn’t even commit to withdrawing all U.S. forces sometime in the next three years. Trump has been president for three and a half years. If the U.S. is to blame for the continuation of these conflicts during that time, then whose fault is it—really?  

Neither Trump nor Biden should have it both ways. They can’t criticize the much-reduced American presence in Iraq or elsewhere as pointless “endless wars”—essentially blaming the U.S. (as opposed to the jihadists) for keeping the conflicts going—while defending that “small” presence when given an opportunity to “end” it.

This doublespeak is evident in the actions of other senior U.S. officials as well. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dabbled in the “endless wars” rhetoric. In January, Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked Pompeo if the president was pulling America further into the war in Iraq after assassinating Iranian special forces Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Pompeo responded: “Endless wars are the direct result of weakness. And President Trump will never let that happen. We’re going to get it right. We’re going to get the force posture right.”

After a series of meetings with the Iraqi government earlier this month, Pompeo was asked if there is a “timetable” for drawing down American forces, or if he could give “specific numbers.” Pompeo declined to offer any details and then defended the “continued American commitment.” Pompeo said the following on August 19

So we don’t have any announcements to make with respect to numbers.  But I would urge everyone, as we’ve gone through this strategic dialogue, not to focus on that.  The real focus is on the joint efforts that we’re making along every dimension, whether that’s economic efforts, humanitarian assistance efforts, security assistance, all of those things.  We continue to understand that the Iraqi people need that.  The Iraqi people’s sovereignty depends on continued American commitment to support them and to provide that assistance to them.  We’re determined to do that.

Pompeo is far less hospitable to the Afghan government. He is the chief advocate of the administration’s withdrawal deal with the Taliban, which treats al-Qaeda’s longtime ally as America’s de facto counterterrorism partner. As I’ve repeatedly argued, that view of the Taliban is based on an apologetic, revisionist history that is contradicted by a mountain of evidence. We won’t revisit the ongoing Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance here, but it is worth noting a point of contrast. Whereas Pompeo defends the much-reduced American presence in Iraq, he isn’t willing to do the same with respect to Afghanistan. Pompeo told the Senate in July that he expects the U.S. will have “zero” troops in the country by May of 2021.  

In contrast to the political rhetoric regarding the “endless” or “forever” wars, this gets at the real question: Where will the U.S. continue to maintain a small military presence in order to assist local security partners and allies? 

The days of large-scale counterinsurgency efforts have long been over. And no one is seriously advocating for another war similar to the March 2003 effort against Saddam Hussein’s regime. This history is often conflated with current events in a manner that distorts the security dilemmas professionals face today. If President Trump or Vice President Biden think the U.S. should go to “zero” in all of the lands of jihad, from Somalia to Afghanistan, then they should act accordingly. Otherwise, their “endless wars” rhetoric is just dishonest. 

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.