On Monday night, Donald Trump commandeered a primetime TV slot to tell America what he planned to do about the long-running war in Afghanistan. Then he didn't tell us anything.
Trump is sending more troops, but won't say how many. "Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on," he declared, while not revealing what those conditions might be—supposedly because getting too specific would be tipping his hand to America's enemies. Trump decried nation-building, but America will continue prop up Afghanistan's struggling government with US aid. "I'm a problem solver," he said. "And in the end, we will win." Yet winning was never defined. The shiny new Afghanistan policy appears to be an open-ended commitment with vague objectives and no hint, at least in Trump's speech, of what happens if those objectives aren't met.
Of course, Trump has never let a lack of steak stop him from selling the hell out of the sizzle. The Afghanistan speech is just the latest time he's promised the media a big, meaty policy before throwing them teleprompter-read platitudes. This guy has plans, wonderful plans that he keeps hinting at, but never reveals.
Trump has always been a big talker, the sort of real estate developer who lies about how many floors his buildings have, but before his presidential run, there was little reason to treat him seriously. Even when he was going around talking about how he could help the Reagan administration with nuclear proliferation in 1987, he was a sideshow. But when you become a serious candidate, people start taking your ideas seriously, even if you don't have any.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump's team had a habit of hyping up speeches about national security, economics, and immigration. Even on these topics, the things he said he cared about, he was so vague that it seemed like he was pulling a bait and switch on the media—promoting these moments as serious, then trotting out half-baked rhetoric short on specifics.
The presidency hasn't changed Trump's habit of over-promising, of hinting at policies that never appear. Remember when he said there could be a "big surprise" on healthcare? (There was no surprise.) Or when he toured the country in June to support his infrastructure plan? (There is no infrastructure bill in Congress; Trump's own plan remains unclear.) Or his eagerly anticipated tax plan? (After it was widely derided and criticized for outright errors, the administration clarified that it was a "preliminary document." They're working on a new plan.) Or when he told the Wall Street Journal the rich weren't taxed enough? (The Trump tax plans we know about do nothing of the sort.)
The problem is that not having a policy doesn't absolve Trump of responsibility. If an infrastructure bill is never passed, important stuff won't get built. If the problems of the Affordable Care Act aren't fixed—and Trump has exacerbated some—insurers will continue to leave the individual market. Even if Trump doesn't define a strategy for Afghanistan, American soldiers will continue to fight and die there.
Another escalation in a seemingly endless conflict is not nearly the most surprising thing about a Trump presidency. Leaders of both parties have continued the Afghanistan war, now America's longest ever; Trump isn't the first president to send troops to Asia despite harboring doubts. Trump's only innovation is in staging the policy decision as an event, a speech so important it cuts into American Ninja Warrior. He hasn't been an effective president so far. But he keeps promising he'll become one any day now.
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