It was all going to be so easy, candidate Donald Trump seemed to say again and again during 2016: By golly, he’d see to it that the U.S. of A. didn’t get mired in conflicts overseas and that under his administration, it was all going to be about “America First.” He criticized President Obama’s foreign policy – even as he didn’t show much understanding of it – and talked about getting out of Afghanistan quickly, yes indeed.
But Monday, the president announced he was going to extend the United States’ presence in Afghanistan, a country at the core of the battle against terrorism, but a perplexing place difficult to navigate for diplomats and soldiers.
Like so much of foreign policy, the situation in Afghanistan isn’t black and white, and there is no quick and perfect solution – certainly not the immediate pullout Trump advocated on the campaign trail.
He may send additional troops; Trump’s specifics were lacking.
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But at least he reflected the influence of mainstream Republicans on Capitol Hill and that of his military advisers. Said Scott Jennings, a former adviser to President George W. Bush: “I feel a lot better knowing that the advice of these guys (military commanders) was taken over a handful of bloggers.”
Jennings was speaking, of course, of the “America First” crowd to which Trump has pitched a nationalist, even isolationist foreign policy, believed to be strongly pushed by a former top adviser, Steve Bannon. But Bannon is now gone from the White House, and Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired general, along with Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, appear to be asserting themselves more in the shaping of foreign policy.
Trump’s shift should calm the country, even if it offers little long-term assurance that a president completely inexperienced in foreign policy is suddenly engaged. And unfortunately, Trump is given to flights of extreme rhetoric that can undermine his overall policy, such as when he gets charged up by a crowd of faithful supporters in one of his rallies.
That said, this policy change is a good one, and it would be productive if it signals a diminishing role for the president’s more radical right-wing advisers and a rise of mainstream conservatives in the West Wing.
Afghanistan is problematic, without question, and there are no easy answers to get America out. But some foreign policy issues are not fixable under a deadline.