Donald Trump is finally “presidential” again, pundits insist, now that he is ratcheting up another US war.
In a speech on August 21, the far-right US president did an about-face, announcing that the war in Afghanistan, which for years he has harshly condemned, will be seeing a surge in its 16th year. Trump did not reveal many specifics, but reports suggest his administration will deploy 4,000 more soldiers to the country (Fox News, 8/21/17), in addition to the roughly 8,400 US troops and 5,000 other NATO forces already there.
Like clockwork, pundits responded to the news by rushing to praise Trump for his “presidential” decision. There is nothing quite as presidential as expanding an unending war that has left many thousands of Muslim civilians dead.
The response from the commentariat echoes similar proclamations just four months ago, immediately lionizing Trump for launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base in April (in an attack that effectively helped ISIS).
This time, in response to another military escalation, pundits were more aware, even self-critical, of the cartoonishness of reflexively praising presidential violence. But they did it anyway.
In Foreign Policy (8/22/17), Paul D. Miller minced no words, fawning over “Trump’s Presidential Afghanistan Speech.” Miller, who directed Afghanistan and Pakistan policy on the National Security Council for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, declared that Trump’s address “was one of Donald Trump’s finest moments as president.”
“Trump’s nationalism, which I otherwise find objectionable, has led him to a keener and better appreciation of how to speak about war than Obama,” Miller added (a palpable demonstration of the intersection of the far right and establishment center that has been dubbed with tongue in cheek the fish hook theory).
Miller’s obsequious op-ed was republished by the New York Daily News (8/22/17), New York City’s putative “left-wing” tabloid, with the headline “Trump’s Presidential Afghanistan Speech Sticks to the Script, Makes Powerful Argument.”
Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for the New York Times and a political analyst for CNN, tweeted effusively about “one of his more forceful/best lines of address”: “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
"We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists," says POTUS, in one of his more forceful/best lines of address— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) August 22, 2017
Washington think tanks, replete with revolving doors between the US government and so-called civil society, were likewise enthused. Michael O’Hanlon, the director of research for the foreign policy program at the arch-establishment Brookings Institution, published an op-ed in USA Today (8/21/17) with retired Gen. John Allen, who oversaw the war in Afghanistan from 2011 until 2013 before moving to Brookings, praising Trump’s reversal.
“Our new leader made the presidential call,” read the deck of the USA Today article, which had the titles “Donald Trump Making Afghanistan and America Safer” and “Donald Trump Makes Right Moves in Afghanistan.”
“We would especially commend Mr. Trump for making a difficult and very presidential decision about future American policy,” crooned O’Hanlon and Allen.
Rich Lowry, the right-wing syndicated columnist, Fox News commentator and editor of the neoconservative bible National Review, said in his magazine (8/21/17) that Trump’s Afghanistan speech “was quite good.” He noted it “seems a pretty conventionally hawkish policy,” and wrote of “the unifying potential of Trump’s nationalism.”
“It’s hard not to seem presidential when giving a speech like this,” Lowry continued. “If Trump had done nothing but give teleprompter speeches since his inauguration, he’d be about 10 points higher in the polls.”
Some of the most fanatic neoconservatives are warming to Trump. Proud self-declared “American imperialist” Max Boot, who excoriated Trump during his presidential campaign, came out swinging in his defense in the pages of the US newspaper of record. “Back to Nation-Building in Afghanistan. Good,” read Boot’s New York Times op-ed (8/22/17).
Right-wing pundits were not the only ones praising Trump’s Afghanistan surge. Their neoconservative counterparts in Congress were similarly enthused. Hard-line hawk John McCain—to whom Democratic lawmakers just gave a standing ovation—likewise “commend[ed] President Trump for taking a big step in the right direction with the new strategy for Afghanistan,” and called for Trump to “conduct himself as a wartime commander-in-chief.”
Across the ocean, hawkish pundits said much the same. Writing in the UK’s Prospect (8/22/17), retired top general and King’s College London visiting professor Robert Fry applauded Trump’s Afghanistan surge, noting “his behavior bears a passing resemblance to the presidential.” The headline stressed, “Trump’s Afghanistan Policy Shows He’s Finally Thinking Like a President.”
In coverage that was more balanced in cosmetics, albeit not political substance, CNN (8/21/17) portrayed the speech as a largely welcome development, framing it as a matter of the collective good: “Trump to Ask Americans to Trust Him on Afghanistan.”
Just weeks before, the Trump administration had been openly acknowledging the US war in Afghanistan was at least partly motivated by access to the large South Asian nation’s “vast mineral wealth,” nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits (New York Times, 7/25/17). Now, according to CNN, it is suddenly about national security and safety.
“The speech will test the President’s capacity to convince Americans that he has settled on the right course of action on a major national security issue, and to unify the nation around it,” wrote CNN‘s Stephen Collinson.
The Afghanistan address, Collinson added, “represents a chance for Trump to leverage the symbolism of his office to stabilize a presidency that has threatened to spin out of control over the last two weeks.” Escalating war could help Trump “stak[e] out a more conventional presidential posture.”
A handful of journalists, like Huffington Post‘s Marina Fang, joked that Trump is being complimented as “presidential” simply for reading from a teleprompter:
*awaits punditry on Trump being "very presidential" because he successfully read from a teleprompter*— Marina Fang (@marinafang) August 23, 2017
Importantly, some media outlets highlighted Trump’s hypocrisy, drawing attention to the fact that he had campaigned—albeit inconsistently—on a pledge to withdraw from foreign wars, not to ramp them up (LA Times, 8/21/17).
Yet the contrasts between the punditry’s response to Trump’s Afghanistan’s speech and its outrage in July, when the president ended a CIA program that had for years strengthened ISIS, Al Qaeda and other extremist groups in Syria (FAIR.org, 7/27/17), are extremely stark.
One cannot help but observe that, when Trump is unpopular, he can miraculously reverse his fortunes by supporting a war. Trump no doubt understands that after, say, refusing to condemn neo-Nazis and drawing a ludicrous false equivalence between racist fascism and the antiracist resistance to fascism, he need only wrap himself in US military might and pundits—even ones who excoriated him mere days before—will suddenly praise him as a “presidential” imperial leader.
A very few journalists deserve credit for using the term “presidential” in its literal sense, not as a euphemistic stand-in. The Telegraph‘s Rob Crilly (8/22/17), who was critical of the military escalation, wrote: “If Donald Trump sounded presidential on Afghanistan, it is because he is repeating his predecessors’ mistakes.” On Twitter, the Washington Post‘s Radley Balko quipped, “TBH, pledging thousands of troops to Afghanistan *is* the most presidential thing Trump has done. And I mean that in the worst way possible.”
TBH, pledging thousands of troops to Afghanistan *is* the most presidential thing Trump has done. And I mean that in the worst way possible.— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) August 22, 2017
After all, waging war in Afghanistan is a tried-and-true American tradition, going back to President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Oval Office meeting with the mujahideen and the lionization of “anti-Soviet warrior” Osama bin Laden (Independent, 12/6/93).
Trump is indeed continuing a trajectory established by numerous presidents before him. Corporate media could do a far better job of interrogating whether or not that’s a good thing.