The Trump Tragedy: The President Who Started No Wars Abroad Destroyed His Legacy at Home

For nearly four years the Trump ship of state sailed into storms, crashed into reefs, collided with other vessels, and scraped across sand bars. Again and again it almost went under the waves, barely righting itself and staying afloat by desperate baling by its motley crew. And through it all President Donald Trump racked up one incredibly important success: he did not start one new war, initiate one new military campaign, or attack one new country.

His record remained disappointing. He hiked the number of troops in Afghanistan and failed to force his staff to complete withdrawals from there, Syria, or Germany. He enthusiastically aided Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as they slaughtered Yemeni civilians in a vicious game of power politics. He courted war with Iran and early on almost came to blows with North Korea. He was an enthusiastic fan of economic war, starving Iranians, North Koreans, Syrians, Cubans, and Venezuelans – without achieving anything other than increasing the hardship afflicting already oppressed peoples. And he spent his final year pushing a new cold war with China.

Yet what most discomfited Republican members of Washington’s bipartisan War Party was Trump’s resistance to their constant, endless demand for war, always more war. Given their druthers, one suspected that there was no nation they would not have been comfortable attacking or at least threatening. The only time the GOP opposed him was when he sought to get Americans out of a war Congress had refused to declare. The only vote they would cast on war was to prevent him from ending conflicts started illegally without congressional authorization.

Which highlights the tragedy and lost opportunity of Donald Trump. The first president in decades to not start another war could have refashioned American foreign policy. He proved to be far more frugal with the lives of U.S. military personnel and foreign civilians than his recent predecessors. Had he taken control of his administration’s foreign policy, the American military would have been out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and maybe even Europe. There might have been peace with North Korea. Even if he was still defeated by Joe Biden, the latter could not easily have reentered those wars and redeployed those troops. American foreign policy would have changed dramatically and perhaps irrevocably.

However, Trump tossed away that opportunity. He cared little about the substance of policy. He had the attention span of a gnat. He appointed charter members of the War Party to manage his foreign policy: John Bolton, Elliot Abrams, Mike Pompeo, Jim Jeffrey, H.R. McMaster, and so many more. These are people drawn to conflicts as moths are attracted to light. They did everything they could to keep the US in every war that was raging when the president was inaugurated. So determined to prevent Americans from enjoying peace, Jeffrey even betrayed their trust, admitting that he misled the president and country about America’s force deployments in Syria.

Nevertheless, the president challenged the Blob, as Ben Rhodes called the Washington foreign policy establishment. Every sensible proposal for disengagement triggered hysteria throughout the nation’s capital. Otherwise refined men and women of great stature and reputation in think tanks, editorial offices, and congressional delegations, were subject to paroxysms of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. It was as if the End Times, so long prophesied, had finally arrived. Although the Blob always rose as one to insist that nothing could ever change, that every alliance, guarantee, treaty, base, facility, depot, deployment, garrison, test, exercise, and maneuver was of course more important than ever, the ivory tower warriors and sofa samurai at least felt forced to defend their position.

However, on Wednesday came the mob takeover of Capitol Hill, spurred by Trump. Five Americans died, four of them protesters. The latter were decent people, sadly misled and provoked by the president they trusted. Also dead was a police officer named Brian Sicknick who had served in Iraq. Like Trump, he was a critic of President George W. Bush’s war. Sicknick was killed – murdered, it would seem – defending America’s most famous symbol of democracy by blows to his head with a fire extinguisher. What possible justification was there for such a crime?

Anger against Congress is an American perennial and legislators deserve much of the blame heaped upon them. However, once losing parties resort to violence, democracy breaks down. Yet the president spent two months spinning false tales of massive electoral cheating involving a conspiracy apparently reaching his own attorney general and appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court – who imagined that the evildoers could be that devious! Then he pushed unconstitutional and illegal means to overturn the vote.

Worse, he called a rally for the day Congress was to count electoral votes and stirred up the crowd to go to Capitol Hill. He almost certainly did not have a coherent plan – during four years as president he never did, and calling the Capitol occupation an insurrection or coup gives a disorganized, surging mob far too much credit – but he could not be blind as to what was likely to happen. And it will forever stain his presidency, even if its last few days pass without incident.

Alas, this has irrevocably undermined his most important achievement. To cite his record now is to be instantly discredited. He should, indeed, must, be held accountable for his discreditable actions.

Yet to talk of holding him accountable highlights the fact that those who have plunged America repeatedly into war – needless conflicts both deadly and destructive – have not been held accountable either. Over the last two decades American involvement in multiple wars have cost thousands of Americans their lives and injured tens of thousands more.

Thousands of allied soldiers also have been killed and wounded. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians have died: in Iraq alone the number likely tops 400,000. Millions of people have been displaced in these wars, many driven from their nations. Minority religious communities have been wrecked. The lucky merely have been driven from one warzone (Iraq) to another (Syria); the unlucky have been enslaved, raped, and murdered.

Yes, of course, Americans did not directly commit all these crimes. However, the US created the conditions that made them possible. Washington blew up or helped blow up Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan. The US also lengthened wars, making losses (Syria) and stalemates (Afghanistan) much more costly to other peoples. And these actions were taken in callous disregard for the lives and futures of American service personnel and foreign civilians.

In any other profession such actions would be considered massive, overwhelming, grotesque malpractice. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead because George W. Bush, overflowing with moral fervor and military arrogance, launched a war based on a lie in a land about which he understood little and apparently cared even less. Reflect on that fact: Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead because an American president blundered. Yet who was held accountable for this deadly debacle? Certainly not him: he leads a peaceful, prosperous life in retirement, painting pictures of service personnel injured in his war.

President Barack Obama owns Libya’s civil war, now in its ninth year. As well as the grotesque Saudi/Emirati war against Yemen, about to pass its sixth year. In these Americans did not die. Instead, Americans helped to kill prodigious numbers of foreigners, especially civilians as a result of the consequences of war. Which architects of these endless episodes of murderous madness have paid a price?

None, of course, Indeed, they all seem to have perversely prospered. Someone who voted for the Iraq war is about to become president. Architects of American involvement in Libya and Yemen will be appointed secretary of state and national security adviser. The military and diplomatic bureaucracies will be filled with people who played roles of varying importance in campaigns which killed Americans and especially prodigious numbers of foreigners.

Has even one person been fired, demoted, denied a promotion, lost an opportunity, been dropped from a publication masthead, cut from a TV producer’s "go-to" list, or otherwise inconvenienced for advancing policies which resulted in untold murder and mayhem in other nations? To the contrary, even the most loathsome war advocate can count on a perch with an international organization, think tank, prestigious publication, corporate board, political campaign, and incoming presidential administration.

Donald Trump lost whatever was left of his reputation and legacy last week. He deserves whatever consequences come his way. Nevertheless, on the simple standard of starting wars and killing foreigners, he remains a piker. You’d have to go back to Richard Nixon to top George W. Bush. And Barack Obama’s wars keep on killing. These presidents, and those who did their bosses’ dirty work, also deserve to be held account. Americans have normalized endless war. People around the planet continue to pay the price.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.