IT WAS MARCH 29, a brisk spring day in Ohio, and President Donald Trump was speaking about his infrastructure plan to a crowded arena. But the comment that grabbed many people's attention was not about roads or bridges. It was on Syria, and Trump's message was simple: U.S. troops would soon be packing up their bundles and coming home.
"We're knocking the hell out of ISIS," he said. "We'll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now." A week later, at the White House, he told his national security team that he wanted U.S. forces to pull out as soon as the mission could be declared a success.
If you didn't know better, you might have thought it was 2016 and Trump was still a presidential candidate trying to separate himself from the knee-jerk interventionism that has defined U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Back then, his foreign agenda lacked details but offered a theme: The United States would be tough on terrorists and confront Iran, but American taxpayers would no longer write checks to build schools in Afghanistan or accept the deployment of unlimited troops for unlimited durations with unachievable, unnecessary missions. In short, we would be far pickier in deciding where and how to use military force.
The first 16 months of the Trump presidency, however, have been anything but the clear-eyed pragmatism he promised on the campaign trail. With the exception of his crackdown on free trade, the president's foreign policy has turned out to be exceedingly establishmentarian in its orientation. Diplomats and government officials from previous administrations may have concerns about Trump's curious respect for strongmen, but the fear many hawks harbored about a U.S. retrenchment (and the hope some libertarians felt that this might be the start of a less interventionist era) was apparently misplaced.
Take Afghanistan, a war now in its 17th year, which started as a just mission to eliminate those responsible for 9/11. Years before Trump declared his presidential aspirations, he wrote what many Americans believed about the war: that it had become a strategic blunder. In 2012, he called it "a total disaster" that proved America's leaders didn't know what they were doing. A year later, he tweeted his support for "a speedy withdrawal." Trump, after all, was a...