There were two remarkable things about Donald Trump’s speech on Afghanistan. One was that after years of advocating that the war effort be abandoned, he had come to the conclusion that instead America’s military presence needed to be expanded and deadlines for departure scrapped.
You could call this the victory of the generals over Trump’s ousted chief strategist, Stephen Bannon.
The second was that he devoted so much time at the start of the speech to preaching about national unity.
“By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal and to remain one nation under God,” he said. “The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission and one shared sense of purpose.’
He went on: “They transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed, and colour to serve together and sacrifice together in absolutely perfect cohesion. That is because all service members are brothers and sisters. They are all part of the same family. It’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag, and live according to the same law.”
And on: “They are bound together by common purpose, mutual trust, and selfless devotion to our nation and to each other. The soldier understands what we as a nation too often forget, that a wound inflicted upon on a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt.”
And on: “And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together. Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.”
The clear reason for this language, which one veteran tersely described as “five minutes of Ebony and Ivory” was to seek to undo some of the damage that he had inflicted upon his presidency after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
After the outcry prompted by his first equivocating comments, Trump took to the stage to tersely read a hostage video-style statement decrying racism. The following day he retracted that position in an angry press conference.
His refusal to condemn racism in America, and his resentment at being asked to, did untold damage to his presidency, prompting five armed services chiefs – of the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines and the National Guard Bureau – to post statements on social media condemning neo-Nazis and racism.
That it was necessary for Trump to reassure his nation that he shares their proudest values as he calls for an increased commitment to war is problematic for him and for America, just as it is problematic that public positions are so often recanted within days of them being uttered.
It is also a problem for his allies, which he said he would be calling upon for increased support, including Nato, which he mentioned specifically in his speech, and Australia.
In a speech to heads of state of his Nato allies earlier this year Trump removed a reference to his explicit support for Article 5 of the treaty which commits member nations to mutual defence. The only people more shocked than the Europeans were Trump’s own national security staff. Days later he made another statement reaffirming America’s commitment to the treaty.
Trump’s first conversation with an Australian PM has been revealed to have been a near temper-tantrum about the Manus Island deal, which he appeared to know little about.
Trump’s Afghanistan strategy may well be as considered as he says it is, it might even be the right one.
But if he makes it hard for his own military chiefs to trust his leadership, imagine how much harder it is for the leaders of America’s friends.