COLORADO SPRINGS: President Trump held his first press conference of 2019 in conjunction with a cabinet meeting. The part mostly broadcast was the question and answer with the press. It was a doozy. The foreign policy establishment must be going apoplectic by now.
One question was on the timetable for withdrawing from Syria. The answer was long and somewhat rambling but he eventually came around to what he thought were the real issues.
He did not answer the timetable question with a specific number, saying only that it would happen over “a period of time.” This is pretty consistent with his previous statements about not telegraphing our intentions to our enemies.
Trump addressed the issue a little later as well. He began talking about inspector general reports and how we make them public. The enemy can read, he said, and they read every line of those reports carefully. It’s fine to write reports, he continued, but we’re not going to be releasing them to the public immediately anymore.
The president is right.
In Vietnam, we set a date for withdrawal. In the Gulf War, we set a deadline of January 15, 1991 for Saddam Hussein to comply with UN Resolutions to withdraw from Kuwait. Our adversaries have all the time in the world. They can wait us out.
He also addressed Gen. Mattis leaving. He said that in his first budget the Pentagon received $700 billion and Gen. Mattis was pleased. He said that in the second budget the Pentagon got even more. Gen. Mattis was incredibly happy with how much they’d been given.
He noted that the military had been hollowed out in the preceding years and that this money was necessary.
Then came the Presidential zinger with President Trump saying (paraphrased)
‘After I gave Gen. Mattis all this money, he continued, what has Gen. Mattis done for me? Have they brought the war in Afghanistan to a close? Have they done so in Syria? I’m interested in results, he said, and I haven’t seen any. Obama fired him, and I guess I fired him, too.’
Actions not words
When you approach these questions from a results-oriented viewpoint as President Trump does, his actions make perfect sense. Why are we still in South Korea? The South Koreans can protect themselves. Why do we still have large forces in Germany and Japan almost 75 years after the end of World War II? Or even 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as he mentioned.
With regard to Afghanistan, he made a number of points. He started by naming countries bordering Afghanistan or close to it: Russia, Pakistan, India. The Russians went into Afghanistan, he said, because they feared terrorists on their border. The Russians have a greater interest in what goes on in Afghanistan than we do.
The reason the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan isn’t quite that simple, but the president was making a point: that the threat to Russia is greater than it is to us, half a world away.
He also talked about overflight rights.
Without mentioning a specific country or leader, he said that we were paying for overflight rights to pursue the war in Afghanistan. According to his storytelling way of relating the situation, the conversation went something like this:
Trump: What would happen if we left Afghanistan?
Leader: The Taliban and ISIS would overrun us. We couldn’t defend ourselves.
Trump: Then why are you charging us to fly over your country? We’re doing your work for you.
Leader (after some confusion): Well, nobody asked me not to [charge you].
Trump: I’m asking.
The result, he continued, is that we no longer pay that country for overflight rights. Brilliant. But it begs the question: why did we pay for those rights in the first place?
When the question came to funding for the wall, Trump again returned to Afghanistan.
“We spend more money in one month in Afghanistan than I’m asking for the border wall.”
Then, as if the comparison had just occurred to him, he repeated it later.
This is not the way Washington thinks. This is not the way the foreign policy establishment thinks. Two issues like funding the wall and fighting in Afghanistan are handled by two entirely different constituencies, each with their own agendas and priorities.
But it is the way the American people think. American families and individuals make trade-offs every day. At the federal government level, it is Congress that can make those trade-offs—but it doesn’t. In his budget proposals and policy agendas, the president can also make those trade-offs, but few presidents have.
This president does. And it’s driving the Washington establishment crazy.
Lead Image: President Donald J. Trump is seen at his desk Friday evening, December 21, 2018, in the Oval Office with a stack of documents awaiting his signature. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)