Donald Trump’s speech on Afghanistan will briefly turn the media spotlight onto America’s longest war. Much of the media analysis will undoubtedly be about how the speech impacts Trump politically. Given the events of the past week, it seems unlikely that Democratic pundits will repeat their inane praise of the State of the Union address, in which Trump apparently became presidential for the first time. But this speech should serve as a moment to seriously examine the trajectory of the U.S. war machine from 9/11 to the present.
Amid the deluge of scandal, incompetence, and bigotry emanating from the Trump White House, the relative calm of the Obama era seems like a far-off galaxy. The reality that Trump may not even finish a full term as president, either due to removal or resignation, means that the palace intrigue must be reported on thoroughly by the press. But a dangerous consequence of the overwhelming, obsessive focus on the daily Trump affairs is a virtual dearth of coverage on the permanent, unelected institutions of U.S. power, namely the military and the CIA.
Spend just a moment studying moves of the Pentagon and Langley during the Trump era, and you will find that very little has changed in their post-9/11 course. Covert operations continue unabated throughout the Arab world and, increasingly, in Somalia. The U.S. remains in Iraq and Afghanistan and is becoming entrenched more deeply in Syria. If anything, the military and CIA are less restrained and are in greater control of decisions — that arguably create policy rather than implement it — than they were under Obama. And civilians are being killed at a greater rate under Trump, particularly in Iraq and Syria. There are reports that Trump has delegated more unilateral authority to the commanders than his predecessor and has relaxed rules ostensibly put in place to minimize civilian deaths. He has surrounded himself with generals who have spent their lives studying and preparing for war and know how to marshal the resources needed for overt and covert campaigns. This — combined with Trump’s questionable sanity, his pathological addiction to television and Twitter, and his compulsive need to respond to random pundits and congressmen at all hours — removes a crucial component of civilian oversight of the world’s most lethal force.