In his speech Monday about Afghanistan, President Donald Trump admitted that he once opposed the very strategy he was proposing. “My original instinct was to pull out,” he said. “I like following my instincts.”
Credit where it is due: These may be the five truest words Trump has ever spoken. Harder to credit is his explanation for why he changed his mind and ordered more troops. His policy may well be the right one, but he owes his supporters - and the country - a fuller accounting of his thinking.
Trump’s main point was that the world looks different once you become president. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Taken to its logical extreme, it is a rationale for abandoning any inconvenient campaign promise.
This is not to say that candidates should be held to every stupid thing they say during a campaign, or that they shouldn’t give up on a goal when it’s clear it cannot be realized. Nor is it to say that elected officials should never admit error. When the facts change, to paraphrase Keynes, you change your mind.
When an elected official does go back on his word, however, he has a heavy burden of proof. In this case, Trump failed to meet it. Withdrawal, he said, would dishonor those who died fighting in Afghanistan; it would open the door to a Taliban takeover and possibly allow dozens of terrorist groups to operate in Afghanistan with impunity; and it would destabilize the wider region, including nuclear-armed Pakistan.
All these points are perfectly defensible. Each is also completely familiar to anyone who has been paying attention for the last 16 years. Does the president have new facts that bolster his position? If so, he should share them. It’s not enough for him to simply recite arguments; he needs to better explain why they are more convincing now than they used to be.
This need for clarity is even greater in life-or-death decisions such as whether to send more American soldiers to war. That is essentially Trump’s policy on Afghanistan: several thousand more U.S. troops -- Trump did not give an exact number -- along with greater pressure on both Pakistan (to stop harboring the Taliban) and the Afghan government (to be more honest and accountable).
Again, not an unreasonable poliy. But, like his justification for it, the policy itself is vague. More details would have allowed Trump to say, in effect: I know this sounds a lot like the policy I have long criticized. Here’s why and how it’s not.
Trump didn’t do that. He outlined the risks of withdrawal without explaining the benefits of remaining. What’s the goal going forward? Trump has clearly convinced himself that staying is better than leaving, but he hasn’t tried very hard to convince the American people. Until he does, he can expect them to be skeptical - like he used to be - of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.