donald trump getting off an airplane
Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/flickr

Ever since George McGovern took his shellacking and Jimmy Carter failed to win the release of Iran’s hostages during his presidency, the Democrats have been skittish about looking weak on national defense. That didn’t prevent most of them from voting against the Persian Gulf War, but when that war appeared to have ended quickly and well, the beneficiaries were Democrats like Senator Al Gore who had supported the effort. Without that vote, he would not have become vice president or the nominee for president in 2000. What’s odd about this, though, is that the president who launched that war was defeated. He was defeated despite having enjoyed approval numbers in the nineties in the immediate aftermath of the shooting phase of the conflict. Nonetheless, the Democrats have never quite recovered from the trauma of being “wrong” about the Persian Gulf War, despite winning the next presidential election and despite the fact that they were right that the war would become a giant unending quagmire.

It’s been 10 years or so, so my memory is imperfect, but I recall that Barack Obama made a calculated decision to offset his opposition to the second war in Iraq by contrasting it with “the good war” in Afghanistan. At the time, our mission in Afghanistan was coming apart, but this was blamed on President Bush’s decision to prematurely declare victory and shift our resources to the Middle Eastern theater. I never really thought that Obama wanted to ramp up our commitment in Afghanistan, but he didn’t want to look like a peacenik, either. The early phase of his presidency, I recall, was mired in a dispute with his national security team. They wanted to increase our troop commitments in Afghanistan and President Obama was not satisfied with their rationales and proposed strategies. He felt like he was being pushed into it, and his campaign rhetoric had put him in a bit of a box. In the end, he reluctantly approved an escalation that turned out to work about as well as he feared it would.

It was a demonstration of how a president can get pushed around by the national security apparatus and be whipsawed by the politics of war. But it was nothing compared to what we see now:

The White House said on Wednesday that the United States is committed to continuing to fight the Islamic State in Syria, signaling a retreat by President Trump from his insistence that the 2,000 American forces there quickly return home from the conflict.

“The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, said in a statement issued one day after Mr. Trump met with military commanders to discuss the future of the mission. “The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated.”

The statement indicated that the president’s top military advisers, who have argued that maintaining United States forces in Syria is crucial to defeating the Islamic State and ensuring that the militant group cannot regain a foothold in the region, have succeeded — at least for now — in persuading an impatient commander in chief not to order a quick withdrawal.

It was the latest instance of the president making an unscripted remark with far-reaching implications that prompted a behind-the-scenes scramble by his advisers to translate blunt talk into an official government policy.

This came immediately after Trump announced yesterday that we will soon leave Syria (to the Russians) as he promised on the campaign. While exaggerating how much we’ve spent in the Middle East, Trump is still correct that we’ve spent a fortune. He claimed yesterday that we have exactly nothing to show for it, primarily because we were foolish and didn’t steal all the oil.

He may be crazy and flat wrong on many details, but he is the president and if he wants to end our commitment to the region, you’d think that he could force a change in policy. But he can’t. Obama found himself handcuffed in some respects, too.

If there is such a thing as the “deep state,” this is how it manifests itself. Even presidents have to bow to them on occasion. But that doesn’t mean that our foreign policy establishment is always wrong. In most ways, at the moment, they are showing more prudence and wisdom than the president who seems to craft every policy to the benefit of the Kremlin.

The so-called deep state is currently protecting us from a resumption of torture, a dismantling of NATO, and unraveling of the European Union, Russian interference in our elections, Russian use of nerve agents, and a variety of human rights violations related to the free exercise of religion, immigration, the right of transgender troops to serve, and more. Some of this is being protected by the courts, but the rest is being protected by people in the Pentagon, the intelligence community, and the State Department. That they don’t want to just want Syria over to Vladimir Putin is part of this overall picture.

So, watching them exercise their power is concerning but also instructive. The same tools that they using, currently for good, can be used for bad ends. And our record in foreign affairs is bad enough at this point under the leadership of presidents from both parties that it’s not as if we should trust these forces to look out for our best interests.

It’s just that in our current situation, we need them to prevent one catastrophe after another. Someday we might have a president who knows what he’s doing and finds himself stymied by the deep state and prevented from making wise policy changes. We don’t have that kind of president right now.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at