When he was running for president, one of the things that made Donald Trump stand out from ordinary Republicans was his willingness to criticize mainstream US foreign policy. As he tends to be when broaching issues—like national security—that he has little experience in, Trump was vague and sometimes contradictory. But at various times, he condemned the Libya intervention that led to Muammar Gaddafi being overthrown and the country getting thrown into chaos, called the Iraq War a "disaster," said "the Middle East is one big, fat quagmire," and threatened to withhold support from Saudi Arabia unless the country did more to fight ISIS. He was never a proper anti-war candidate, though he was sometimes portrayed as one—"Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk" was an infamously bad New York Times headline. In fact, he often called for hyperbolic action against ISIS. But he did seem to have an instinctual desire to avoid sending troops into the desert to die for no reason, which is more than you can say for the previous Republican president.
Even after he won the 2016 election, Trump sounded some of these same notes, decrying the past policies of "intervention and chaos” in a speech promising more military spending in the name of "peace through strength.”
But just as he did in the case of his grandiose promises on infrastructure, Trump has casually walked away from all of that rhetoric. This was driven home during an interview he did with the Associated Press on Tuesday:
AP: Turning to foreign policy, you ran the campaign on bringing American troops home and the America First policy.
AP: But today there are more American troops serving in Afghanistan and in Syria and Iraq, in Africa, in harm’s way than when you took office. How do you explain to people at home?
Trump: The main thing I have to see is, I have to see safety at home and—not a vast difference, by the way—but a little bit more. But it’s not a lot more, it’s a little bit more. I have to see safety at home. And if I think people are likely to do some very bad things in faraway places to our homeland, I’m going to have troops there for a period of time. But we’ve done an excellent job. We’ve defeated ISIS. ISIS is defeated in all of the areas that we fought ISIS, and that would have never happened under President Obama. In fact, it is going the other way. And I think we fought extremely effectively on everything I’ve wanted to do. Now there will be a certain point where that takes place.
AP: [National Security Adviser] John Bolton, though, told us, told my colleague Jon a couple of weeks ago that troops aren’t going to come out, aren’t going to leave Syria, until Iran is fully out of Syria.
Trump: We’re going to see what happens. We’re going to see what happens. I want, No. 1, the safety of our country. And if that means knocking the hell out of them, of terrorists, long before they can ever get here, that’s OK with me.
Trump's insistence that he has "to see safety at home" before pulling troops back sounds like the standard-issue justification for the war on terror. By this logic, America has to hunt and kill almost every conceivable enemy to stay safe, even though acts of terrorism on US soil are exceedingly rare—and even though targeting perceived threats abroad has arguably helped fuel more anti-American animosity and authoritarianism.
Whatever the rationale behind Trump's foreign policy, he's been aggressive about deploying troops worldwide. He recommitted the US to the never-ending Afghanistan conflict and also upped the number of soldiers in Iraq and Syria—though it's now more difficult to keep track of troop levels as the Pentagon stopped providing deployment numbers for those three countries online. Trump has staffed his administration with hawks—most notably Bolton, a notorious Iraq War shill—and seems ready to inch dangerously close to war with Iran. His administration has also continued Barack Obama's secret operations in Africa, expanded Obama's drone strike program, and deepened US involvement in Syria, reportedly against his own initial wishes.
What's striking here is that Trump, who is unlike Obama in nearly every way, seems to be having some of the same difficulties his predecessor did. Obama, too, seemed somewhat skeptical of American power abroad, but couldn't figure out a way to end the war in Afghanistan; in a new book, his national security aide Ben Rhodes recounts the difficulties the two men had in pushing back on the foreign policy establishment Rhodes dubbed "the Blob."
Obama was more thoughtful and better spoken than Trump is—you can't imagine him saying, "I want, number-one, the safety of our country. And if that means knocking the hell out of them, of terrorists, long before they can ever get here, that’s OK with me." But that's just a crude version of the defense Obama once offered for using drone strikes to kill people his administration identified as terrorists in far-flung countries like Afghanistan: "I think right now we’re doing the best that we can in a dangerous world with terrorists who would gladly blow up a school bus full of American kids if they could."
Whether a president engages with criticism—as Obama at least attempted to do on some occasions—or bats it away with a bunch of macho bluster a la Trump, the United States has continued its policy of engaging in open-ended conflicts in the world's most troubled regions. As a candidate, Trump seemed willing to question the wisdom of involving the US in so many wars. As a president, not so much.
Chalk it up to another victory for the Blob.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.