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Trump Didn’t Shrink U.S. Military Commitments Abroad—He Expanded Them

The President’s False Promise of Retrenchment

President Donald Trump speaks at a ceremony in the Rose Garden, May 2019 Scott Taetsch / Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to extract the United States from costly foreign conflicts, bring U.S. troops home, and shrug off burdensome overseas commitments. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump declared in his 2019 State of the Union address. “We’re bringing our troops back home,” he boasted during a cabinet meeting in October. “I got elected on bringing our soldiers back home.”

But after nearly three years in office, Trump’s promised retrenchment has yet to materialize. The president hasn’t meaningfully altered the U.S. global military footprint he inherited from President Barack Obama. Nor has he shifted the costly burden of defending U.S. allies. To the contrary, he loaded even greater military responsibilities on the United States while either ramping up or maintaining U.S. involvement in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere. On practically every other issue, Trump departed radically from the path of his predecessor. But when it came to troop deployments and other overseas defense commitments, he largely preserved the chessboard he inherited—promises to the contrary be damned.

BY THE NUMBERS

The clearest measure of Trump’s retrenchment efforts, or lack thereof, is foreign troop deployments. In the final months of Obama’s presidency, approximately 198,000 active duty U.S. military personnel were deployed overseas, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center. By comparison, the most recent figure for the Trump administration is 174,000 active duty troops. But even that difference reflects an accounting trick. Beginning in December 2017, the Defense Department started excluding troops deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria from its official reports, citing a vague need to “protect our forces.” When the estimated troop levels for those three countries are added back in, the current total is around 194,000—roughly equivalent to the number Trump inherited.

The main reason Trump has failed to reduce overseas troop levels is that every time he announces a drawdown he reverses himself. Consider Afghanistan. Prior to his election, Trump repeatedly called the war

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