The desk is filled with bad choices

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There will never be a surrender on the USS Missouri moment.

PRESIDENT TRUMP has discovered what his two most recent predecessors - George W. Bush and Barack Obama - learned before him.

Colin Powell was right: "You break it, you own it."

American military involvement in the Middle East is the never-ending war. Drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq led to the Islamic State extremists taking over vast swaths of territory, with ISIS only now being forced out again through renewed military efforts. Dialing back U.S. engagement in Afghanistan allowed the Taliban to recover lost territory, to the point of controlling nearly half the country.

Hoping Afghans and Iraqis could hold their own without America turned out to be wishful thinking. Hope is not a strategy.

SO TRUMP, WHO RAN on a promise to pull the last Americans out of Afghanistan, has yielded to reality. More likely, he's listening to the steely-eyed generals around him who fully realize the gains won with American blood and treasure would disappear almost overnight if U.S. forces just walked away.

Into that void would move the legions of terrorists still aching to kill Americans on American soil.

Thus, this is a conscious decision - despite any rhetoric about "winning" - to maintain what amounts to a stalemate, fending off enemies to allow a more pro-Western government to consolidate and build its authority. How long will that take? Will a friendly government ever be able to stand on its own so all U.S. forces can leave for good?

On that score, the precedent is not World War II. The precedent is Korea. We're still there, and it's still a hot spot.

THAT'S BECAUSE THERE is no realistic model for a military victory and a complete elimination of the enemy threat.

Here's why. For all practical purposes there is no front. There is no uniformed enemy army. There isn't even a country to consider an armed adversary. There are plenty of enemy fighters in Afghanistan. In Iraq. In Pakistan. In Iran, and all sorts of other places around the region. The enemies dress and look pretty much like everybody else, though. So, seriously, does anyone think America should devise a military solution to conquer and occupy it all?

Trying to win a clear-cut military victory is impossible. Trouble is, walking away could be worse.

So. Stalemate.

IF TRUMP'S INITIATIVE sounds a lot like Bush's near the end and Obama's during his presidency, that's because all three presidents were trying to make the best of bad choices.

What does sound different is Trump's stated unwillingness to set any dates or announce any strategic military moves. And we hope he means it when he says the United States plans to lean a lot harder on Pakistan for providing shelter to insurgent forces. Pakistan has been playing a double game and getting away with it for too long.

No, this is not a satisfying situation. Americans yearn for peace, for safety from terrorism, for a declaration of outright victory and homecoming for the troops.

It's not that kind of war. President Trump, like Bush and Obama before him, faced with the elusiveness of victory, has no real choice but to play not to lose.

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