War Stories

The Careless Superpower

Four recent events show an administration completely oblivious to the consequences of its statements and actions.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speak to the media in the Oval Office on Monday. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has made the United States into an unreliable ally, a loose cannon on turbulent terrain, and a careless superpower—careless in both senses of the word, meaning reckless and without care, oblivious to the consequences of its conduct.

Four incidents, just this past week, clinch the case. First, and most notorious, was Trump’s comment, during a state visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, about the war in Afghanistan. “If I wanted to win that war,” Trump said, “Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth.” He added, “I could win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people.”

On an obvious level, the remark was merely stupid and callous. On a deeper level, it reflects a profound ignorance about war in general and the war in Afghanistan in particular—and should give ulcers to the leader of any country that depends on the U.S. for its security.

Trump doesn’t seem to realize that the U.S. is not fighting a war against Afghanistan. The whole idea of putting U.S. troops there (however mishandled and probably futile) has been to stabilize the Afghan government and to protect the Afghan people. Killing 10 million of those people and wiping the country off the Earth satisfy no measure of “winning.”

Trump has long believed that the point of war—and the definition of winning—is to kill as many bad guys as possible. Shortly after winning the 2016 election, he boasted that he was filling his Cabinet with “the greatest killers of all time.” He didn’t seem aware—and still doesn’t, 2½ years into the job—that wars have political aims and that they’re won by accomplishing those aims, a feat that has nothing to do with the tactical matter of how many people are killed in the process.

He seems to think that forgoing the mass murder of Afghan citizens is a compromise, struck for humanitarian motives, on the road to victory—when, in fact, it has nothing to do with victory.

Trump’s second blunder came during the same meeting, when he told Khan that he would like to mediate between India and Pakistan in their dispute over Kashmir and that, two weeks earlier, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had asked him to do just that.

Now, the politics of the 70-plus-year-old conflict between India and Pakistan are complicated, which is why presidents should stick to their notes when discussing them—or, better yet, stay away from discussing them entirely. (Of course, Trump has no notes, so it’s a hard rule to enforce.) India, which has in recent years been a far closer U.S. ally than Pakistan, has long insisted that the fate of Kashmir is a matter to be worked out between India and Pakistan, with no outside interference. It is inconceivable that Modi made such a request of Trump—Modi’s spokesman quickly denied the claim—and for Trump to put the idea on the table marked a diplomatic triumph for Khan and has sparked a political crisis within India.

And this was just supposed to be a casual half-hour get-together to discuss the future of Afghanistan in as amiable a manner as possible.

The carelessness extends beyond Trump himself. The third revealing moment came from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said, in an interview on Fox News, that the sole source of current tensions with Iran is the nature of Tehran’s Islamist government.

“This is a bad regime,” Pompeo said. The recent back-and-forth, involving seized tankers and shot-down drones, is happening not because of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and his imposition of sanctions, but rather “because the theocracy, the leadership in Iran, their revolutionary zeal to conduct terror around the world, for now four decades, continues.” He added, “I am ultimately convinced that the Iranian people will get the leadership behavior that they so richly deserve.”

If anyone still needed proof that regime change is the true policy of the Trump administration—or at least of its top diplomat—there it was.

Pompeo’s remarks came amid Britain’s explicit disavowal—more explicit than usual—of Trump’s “maximum pressure” toward Iran. U.K. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jeremy Hunt and other European officials are seeking a diplomatic solution to the escalating crisis. Pompeo clearly is not. If the root problem is the nature of the Iranian regime, then there is no point in returning to the nuclear deal or resuming some other negotiations.

One might have said the same thing about communism and the Soviet Union back during the Cold War, but fortunately, Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush thought it was a smart idea to negotiate with Moscow where progress was possible, while still challenging its ideology and containing its geopolitical ambitions. The ensuing arms talks also provided a forum where, sometimes, tensions could be relaxed, and trust restored, in other realms.

As long as Pompeo’s message is regime-change-or-nothing (and as long as Trump says nothing to contradict this), the Iranians will have no incentive to return to the talks, and EU nations will keep seeking ways to circumvent Washington’s policies. Allies are good to have in wars and diplomatic confrontations; by alienating them, Trump and Pompeo are thus weakening their own position.

For the final exhibit of American carelessness, there is Trump’s meeting last week with human rights activist Nadia Murad, an Iraqi who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out about the plight of her fellow Yazidi and about her own torture while in the Islamic State’s captivity.

In as many ways as body language can allow, Trump conveyed the message that he really didn’t care. He remained sitting while she stood. (Can’t this guy rise in respect for anybody, or if he can’t manage that, couldn’t he have offered her a chair?) He avoided so much as eye contact while she beseeched him to help her people. If he’d been briefed ahead of time on who this woman was, he’d forgotten by the time they met. “And you had the Nobel Prize, that’s incredible—they gave it to you for what reason?” he asked at one point, with what seemed a mix of indifference and envy.

Murad met Trump in the Oval Office along with two dozen other foreign visitors who had suffered persecution because of their religion. (They all stood, too.) Trump treated them with no more courtesy. It’s one thing for a president to relegate human rights to a minor place in the priorities of foreign policy; it’s another to be so blatantly bored while surrounded by some of the most renowned human rights activists, who became activists because of their own hideous treatment. The United States fought ISIS for several reasons, but one of those reasons was to defend people like Nadia Murad, and the least the president can do is acknowledge her bravery.

Even hard-headed adherents of realpolitik concede that ideals play some role in American foreign policy. Trump has no ideals and a ramshackle sense of what U.S. interests are. He is showing both shortcomings all too plainly these days. The other world powers and spectators—allies, adversaries, and desperate individuals—can’t help but take notice. No one could begrudge them if they look elsewhere for leadership.