Last week’s State of the Union — widely predicted to be a boring laundry list better mailed to Congress than recited with pomp and circumstance in the grand chamber of the House of Representatives — turned out to be quite the blockbuster.
For President Trump, it may have been a personal best. He seemed preternaturally calm, comfortable and confident. In tweets and impromptu remarks, he too often asserts and insists. That changes few minds. In this SOTU, he built arguments that open-minded Americans — not a large cohort, I realize — might actually find persuasive.
“Strategic communications” is a term press secretaries and public relations practitioners enjoy pronouncing but seldom understand well enough to implement. This speech, however, was a textbook example.
Most people perceive reality through stories. Mr. Trump told one after another: About patriotism, about what Americans have achieved, about overcoming enemies, about resisting the siren song of socialism, about why a sovereign nation must defend its borders, about welcoming those who want to come to America, asking only that they not arrive as outlaws.
Heroes personifying these tales were in the room — black, white, Hispanic, Jewish, old, young, male and female — ready to rise, cry, laugh and salute on cue for the cameras. Was some of it corny? Sure, but corny can be moving, and that indicates emotional impact. In an era when so many people feel rather than think, that’s a mission politicians need to accomplish.
Usually, when it comes to tugging at heartstrings, the left is more skilled than the right. But what were those color-coordinated progressive women attempting to communicate to the folks out there in TV land? Puzzling over that question, I happened upon an obscure treatise containing this passage: “The Vestal virgin has forever been an image of a woman draped in white priestly garments, carrying herself with an air of purity and near divinity.”
OK, time now to turn to President Trump’s one slip into Obamanian thinking. “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he declared. But of course they do. Because great powers have enemies — always have, always will. As Mr. Trump knows, the enemies who currently want to diminish or defeat America include an ascendant China, a declining Russia, a jihadist Islamic Republic of Iran and any number of non-state terrorist groups.
If we stop fighting them, will they stop fighting us? No. They will march forward, probing with their bayonets. So long as they feel mush, they will proceed. Only if they hit steel, will they halt.
A great nation that lacks the will and endurance of its enemies, soon ceases to be a great nation. The most obvious example: Following World War I, an exhausted British Empire adamantly sought to avoid further conflicts. So British leaders turned a blind eye as Nazi Germany — not exhausted by the Great War — re-armed and achieved military superiority. British leaders told themselves that Hitler was a reasonable man, that he could be appeased, that he would compromise, that he preferred peace to war (endless or not).
Winston Churchill knew that was bunk. He spoke out forcefully. And he was reviled as a “war-monger.” The “avoidable war” was what he would later call World War II, adding: “If the Allies had resisted Hitler strongly in the early stages he would have been forced to recoil.”
I was not alone in being troubled by President Trump’s unsupported theory about great nations and endless wars. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that “withdrawing U.S. forces can invite war. That’s the lesson of Barack Obama’s 2011 withdrawal of troops from Iraq while claiming ‘the tide of war is receding.’ Jihadists used the reprieve to form Islamic State, and by 2014 Mr. Obama was re-sending thousands of troops to the same theater. Staying would have been far less costly.”
Marc Thiessen, a columnist for The Washington Post, wrote: “America’s enemies have a very clear definition of victory. For them, victory comes when we give up the fight before they do. We know this because they have told us so. The 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told his CIA interrogator ‘Americans don’t realize we do not need to defeat you militarily; we only need to fight long enough for you to defeat yourself by quitting.’”
No one is arguing that Americans need to fight all the time and everywhere. A strategic approach to war-fighting requires choosing one’s battles.
If enemies can be deterred, they may not need to be defeated. But, as President Reagan understood and President Trump sometimes seems to understand, “peace through strength” means making sure — and making clear — that we are much stronger than our enemies and that we don’t lack stamina.
That doesn’t necessarily imply remaining in Syria (where a small contingent of highly skilled troops has been demolishing the Islamic State and helping contain the Islamic Republic of Iran), or Afghanistan (where for years U.S. forces have expanded and contracted while goals and strategies remained nebulous).
It does imply, however, that Mr. Trump erred by signaling how eager he is to withdraw from Afghanistan while Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was in talks with the Taliban. (Whether it is wise to negotiate with such jihadist groups is a question we’ll leave for another day.)
When Great Britain tired of being great, when global leadership became too burdensome, it passed the torch to America. More than half a century later, why shouldn’t America pass the torch again? Because today, sadly, there is no good nation that is strong enough, and no strong nation that is good enough.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.