American Power After Afghanistan
How to Rightsize the Country’s Global Role
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.
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 in Afghanistan a “terrible mistake” and declared that it was “time to come home!” But once in office, Trump increased the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by around 50 percent. The Pentagon has since withdrawn some troops, but roughly 12,500 troops remain in Afghanistan, up from about 8,500 when Trump took office.
A similar story played out in northern Syria, from which Trump ordered the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops in December 2018. “We have won against ISIS,” he claimed in a video released on Twitter. “Our boys, our young women, our men—they’re all coming back.” But after military officials and members of Congress pushed back and several administration officials resigned, Trump shifted gears and agreed to keep about half of the roughly 2,000 troops deployed to northern Syria in place. In October, the president announced that he would withdraw the remaining 1,000 troops, paving the way for a Turkish invasion of northern Syria and an assault on the United States’ Kurdish allies. But once again, Pentagon officials prevailed on the president to leave close to 90 percent of the troops behind to guard nearby oil fields. The remainder will be redeployed in the region instead of coming home.
Trump’s vacillations have led to cosmetic redeployments and chronic confusion about U.S. priorities—but not to a meaningful reduction in troop levels.
One place where Trump has successfully pressed for troop reductions is Africa. The Pentagon announced the phased withdrawal of hundreds of U.S. troops from that continent beginning in 2018. But the U.S. military footprint in Africa was relatively small to begin with, at roughly 7,200 troops, and because counterterrorism operations remain active in West Africa, military commanders have recommended slashing the proposed reductions by half.
Moreover, Trump has stumbled into new military commitments in the Middle East and Europe. In response to rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, he authorized the deployment of some 14,000 additional troops to the Persian Gulf, including around 3,500 to protect Saudi oil facilities. Trump also agreed to expand the U.S. military presence in Poland with an additional 1,000 troops, and his administration is in talks to build a permanent military base there in the future. In short, Trump’s vacillations have led to cosmetic redeployments and chronic confusion about U.S. priorities—but not to a meaningful reduction in troop levels.
As a candidate, Trump promised to reduce the fiscal burden of U.S. foreign policy, in particular by demanding that ungrateful allies pay more for American security assistance. He claimed that the United States had been “disrespected, mocked, and ripped off for many, many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher.” (He cited Japan and South Korea specifically.) And as president, he used his first NATO summit to complain about how “many of these [European] nations owe massive amounts of money from past years.”
Yet Trump has had limited success pressing NATO countries to live up to a 2014 pledge to spend two percent of GDP on defense within a decade. When he took office, just four of the 29 NATO members (Britain, the United States, Estonia, and Greece) met the threshold. Four more countries (Poland, Romania, Latvia, and Lithuania) have hit the target since then, but mainly because their spending was already trending in that direction. At the same time, British defense spending actually fell and is expected to flat-line at around 2.1 percent. French defense spending is slated to rise from 1.8 percent of GDP to two percent, but not until 2025. Germany won’t hit the two percent target until 2031. Even on the flattering but unrealistic assumption that these modest shifts are a response to Trump, together they will amount to no more than a $38 billion increase by the end of 2019, from $261 billion in non-U.S. NATO spending in 2016 to an estimated $299 billion this year.
Crucial American allies outside of Europe have resisted Trump’s appeals for burden sharing.
Crucial American allies outside of Europe have also resisted Trump’s appeals for burden sharing. Japanese and Australian military expenditures hover around one percent and two percent of GDP, respectively—roughly the same as in the pre-Trump era. South Korea did significantly increase its defense spending in 2018, when tensions flared on the Korean Peninsula. But as a percentage of GDP, South Korean defense spending has hardly shifted during Trump’s tenure. Saudi Arabia’s defense spending has decreased dramatically in recent years, from $87.2 billion in 2015 to $67.5 billion last year, and there is no evidence that Saudi reimbursements to the United States have increased during Trump’s presidency.
With U.S. allies reluctant to chip in for defense, the Trump administration has been forced to foot most of the bill. Over the last three years, the United States has boosted defense spending by more than $139 billion, from $611 billion in 2016 to a near-record $750 billion in 2019. And that was after Trump called the military budget “crazy” in 2018. By almost any measure, the president has left the United States more financially overstretched than when he took office.
Trump’s self-professed dealmaking prowess was supposed to free the United States from costly foreign entanglements. Despite his claims to know more “than the generals do,” however, Trump has yet to end any U.S. war—and his actions have squandered U.S. leverage in Afghanistan and Syria. After ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, he failed to replace it with anything, much less anything better. In early November, Iran announced that it would begin to enrich fissile material beyond the caps it agreed to in the agreement.
The president’s controversial courting of Russian President Vladimir Putin proved similarly ineffective: arms control stalled and U.S.-Russian relations remained frosty, pushing Russia and China closer together. Whatever one thinks of Trump’s outreach to North Korea, he has no durable concession or deal to show for it. In fact, North Korea has tested more missiles on Trump’s watch than on Obama’s. In short, the master dealmaker has come up empty again and again: not only has Trump failed to end the United States’ “forever wars” but his botched diplomatic efforts in Iran and North Korea have arguably made yet another war more likely.
Trump has been quick to blame these setbacks on “the deep state.” The president is committed to retrenchment, according to this narrative, but his advisers and bureaucrats are blocking him. Yet the president has had no trouble forcing out legions of advisers who didn’t perform as desired. Trump’s preferences may be unstable, but he appears to get what he wants from his employees. A related defense trotted out by supporters of the president is that elected officials such as Senator Mitch McConnell have stymied Trump’s retrenchment efforts. But apart from the Syrian retreat, which was a dispute over a small number of troops, Republicans have given the president sufficient support to pursue his foreign policy goals.
A more compelling explanation for the persistence of a large global U.S. military footprint, and the concomitant creep of overseas commitments, is to be found in domestic politics. Trump’s rhetoric can diverge sharply from reality without consequence because few in his party have an incentive to hold him accountable. In this hyper-polarized political moment, most voters will stick with their party regardless of how many campaign pledges are broken or foreign policy initiatives end in failure. With an all-volunteer military, flattening taxes, and deficit financing, the vast majority of Americans are insulated from the costs of American foreign policy. So long as most Americans want to look tough and influential without paying for it, politicians won’t be punished for living in the same fantasy world as voters. They can promise big changes, avoid making hard choices, and keep muddling along. That may be a way to get elected, but it is no way to run a superpower.