Trump’s Afghanistan Debacle

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

Trump’s abrupt announcement over the weekend that he was canceling a meeting with Taliban leaders at Camp David has displayed much of what is wrong with the president’s handling of foreign policy:

What would have been one of the biggest headline-grabbing moments of his tenure was put together on the spur of the moment and then canceled on the spur of the moment. The usual National Security Council process was dispensed with; only a small circle of advisers was even clued in.

And even after it fell apart, Mr. Trump took it upon himself to disclose the secret machinations in a string of Saturday night Twitter messages that surprised not only many national security officials across the government but even some of the few who were part of the deliberations.

The negotiations to bring the war in Afghanistan to a close were probably the closest thing to a diplomatic success that the Trump administration has had in the last two and a half years, so it is fitting that Trump himself destroyed the process by trying to put himself at the center of it. Once again, the president has shown that he much prefers a grandiose spectacle to the slow, unglamorous work of patient diplomacy, and he would sooner dynamite a negotiating process than give up a chance at a photo op. Once again, John Bolton gets what he wants on a major foreign policy issue thanks to the arbitrary whims of a clueless, narcissistic president. In the end, it was Trump’s ego that torpedoed the process:

Mr. Trump did not want the Camp David meeting to be a celebration of the deal; after staying out of the details of what has been a delicate effort in a complicated region, Mr. Trump wanted to be the dealmaker who would put the final parts together himself, or at least be perceived to be.

The deal itself left much to be desired. Thousands of American troops would have remained in Afghanistan even after it was implemented. But it did offer a chance to bring our longest war to an end, and if he had had slightest idea what he was doing Trump could have seized that opportunity. As it turned out, he would rather blow up talks than not be able to take personal credit for the result. That is a warning to every other government that tries to negotiate with this administration that nothing Trump’s representatives say can be relied on, and the president may yank the rug out from under their feet at any time.

Trump’s decision to reveal the meeting and its cancellation is more proof that he cares more about putting on a show than he does about governing. If he decided that the meeting should be postponed or canceled, there was no need to broadcast it around the world. Advertising the now-canceled meeting was bound to annoy everyone and please no one, and so it has. Above all, this episode shows that Trump is incapable of following through on anything, and when push comes to shove he will cave and run away. Such a man is unable to conclude a successful negotiation with anyone, and he certainly doesn’t have the wherewithal to defend an agreement in the face of determined opposition. Trump is a provocateur, and he doesn’t have the concentration or discipline to complete any diplomatic initiative. The president had an opportunity to stop more Americans from having to fight and die in Afghanistan, and he squandered it. That is the real scandal here, and the president is the one responsible for it.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.