OPINION: ‘Fear’ Of Challenging The Status Quo — Woodward’s New Book Unwittingly Exposes Flawed Conventional Thinking

Daniel L. Davis | Senior fellow for Defense Priorities and former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army

In an extended interview on CBS News on Sunday, longtime Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward discussed his new book “Fear,” trying to portray President Trump as being dependent upon his staff to intervene to stop the worst of his bad ideas. What Woodward unwittingly exposed with greater clarity, however, is that a number of Trump’s key instincts are right and the thinking of the establishment figures in Washington is flawed. In some cases, seriously flawed.

Woodward puts forward three examples of what he claims are Trump’s failed logic:

  1. Trump’s complaint that the U.S. pays too much for other states’ security
  2. Trump’s skepticism of the utility of U.S. troops in Korea
  3. The president’s decision to dress-down the generals in charge of the war in Afghanistan

First, Woodward claimed Trump complained many of his advisors “don’t know anything about business. All they want is protect everybody…that we pay for.” This is probably in reference to Trump’s well-known complaints about NATO. Woodward implies the president is dangerously wrong in questioning America’s support for key allies. Yet Trump’s position resonated strongly with the voting public that elected him to the White House and rests on valid fundamentals.

America has a strong and enduring relationship with the democracies of Europe and benefits from a close political and economic relationship with them all. When NATO was formed in the aftermath of World War II, it was in our interest to support it because our European partners were incapable of providing for their own security.  The USSR posed a direct military threat to their security but also actively sought to undermine their form of government. Had they succeeded, it could have posed a direct threat to U.S. security. That is no longer the case.

Today, the majority of NATO countries are wealthy, prosperous and strong while Russia is the economic equivalent of Italy (with a potent nuclear arsenal). European countries have the means to build militaries that can defend themselves and provide for mutual security through NATO. It is not necessary for U.S. taxpayers to pay, into perpetuity, for the security of others who have the ability to provide it for themselves. Trump is right to encourage NATO members to meet the two-percent GDP threshold required of them.

Second, Woodward implied Trump doesn’t get basic geopolitical realities when he questioned U.S. troops levels in Korea. “I don’t know why [U.S. troops are in Korea],” Trump is alleged to have said at a meeting. “Let’s bring them all home.” In response, Secretary of Defense James Mattis reportedly said dryly, “We’re doing this to prevent World War III.” Such fatalistic hyperbole is overly dramatic and rests on almost no evidence.

First, the South Korean economy is the 11th largest in the world, and their army of 625,000 active troops and five million in reserve are a modern force that is capable of defending itself. Second, there is only one U.S. combat brigade in Korea—not enough to make a dent in a tactical fight, and wholly incapable of providing any operational difference in war.

Most important, the assumption that without the small U.S. military presence on the ground in Korea a world war would suddenly break out does not survive even minimal scrutiny. There is no evidence that China, Russia, or North Korea would invade South Korea were it not for U.S. troops—and no rational case can be made that any nation would benefit from starting a war on the Korean Peninsula. Thus, it is entirely appropriate to question the utility of keeping U.S. troops on the ground in Korea forever.

Lastly, Woodward seems to chide Trump because he “lashed out at the generals” in charge of the war in Afghanistan.

When the president was forming his views of Afghanistan, Woodward reported, he wanted to talk not just to the generals, but also the enlisted me who have fought there. “The soldiers on the ground could run things better than you,” the president is claimed to have said. As one who was deployed to Afghanistan twice, I can tell you Trump’s instincts here are spot on.

Since 2001, we have had 18 different commanding generals tell the American public—and three different presidents—that their plans would “succeed” and “win” the war. All have failed.

Trump is right to question consistent failure, and I can confirm that had he placed more emphasis on the input of the men and women who have fought on the ground there, he would have gotten a far more accurate picture of ground truth in Afghanistan and may have chosen against the mini-surge he eventually ordered in 2017.

Trump undeniably has a number of flaws, some of them significant—and even his staunchest supporters couldn’t honestly claim he hasn’t made mistakes. But Trump’s departure from establishment thinking and his willingness to challenge status quo policies is not only right, it is desperately needed.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him on Twitter.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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