Like his predecessors, President Trump is now convinced that staying the course militarily throughout the Middle East is our only choice, worrying that a “hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists would instantly fill.” If that is the standard, we will stay forever…
Despite this President’s sometimes confused perspective on international relations, his world view always had a compelling redeeming quality: a seemingly genuine desire to chart a less intrusive, more pragmatic foreign policy. While many neocons and liberals have chastised him for forsaking America’s role in safeguarding the post-World War II economic and political world order, it is painfully clear that our hyper-interventionism of the last few decades has led to more problems than we have solved. But as it turns out, the neocons and liberals have been fretting for no good reason. While President Trump’s verbal barrages against certain allies have been unsettling and some of his trade-related actions with other close allies will prove counterproductive, his military actions to date place him squarely in the same mold as his two immediate presidential predecessors—and this is nowhere more obvious than in his recurring acquiescence to the same Departments of State and Defense that have repeatedly led us into one quagmire after another in the Middle East.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
President Trump is allowing himself to be drawn deeper and deeper into Middle East conflicts that he had sworn he would avoid. Candidate Trump was keenly aware that many of our so-called Middle Eastern allies, especially Saudi Arabia, could not be trusted, and that same candidate seemed to understand that not every conflict required American intervention. This was particularly true of Syria, which he rightly sensed was a lose-lose situation and best avoided. No more.
In Syria, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been no discernible change in our approach since the Obama Administration, except perhaps to ratchet up the rhetoric and further increase troop levels. It is true that Mr. Trump stopped the Obama penchant for setting deadlines for withdrawal, but that is a superficial change of no genuine value. Our policy-makers, who have considerable intellect but are devoid of wisdom, convinced Mr. Trump that setting timelines gives hope to our enemies. Yet, regardless of what we say or do not say, our enemies know that we cannot stay forever. As far as the Taliban, ISIS, Al Qaeda, Iran, and others are concerned, the Crusaders also never gave a timeline for withdrawal, but eventually they did withdraw.
When President Obama left office there were approximately 8,500 US troops in Afghanistan; there are now well over 14,000. Similarly, in Iraq, when Mr. Obama left there were about 5,200 troops—a number that has not dwindled under the “isolationist” Trump Administration, while the number of US troops in Syria has quadrupled under President Trump from about 500 to more than 2000, supporting various local militias whom we deem non-extremists—in much the same way we worked with Afghan resistance groups against the Russians in the Eighties, only later to discover that they were far more radical and anti-American than we had imagined.
Like his predecessors, President Trump is now convinced that staying the course militarily throughout the Middle East is our only choice, even though no one has made a convincing case for the continued squandering of American blood and treasure. As with Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump is worried that a “hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists… would instantly fill.” If that is the standard, we should be prepared to remain in the Middle East until our grandchildren are grandparents.
“…and the big fool said to push on”
It was February 1968, and as we gathered around the lone TV in our house, the Smother Brothers show started. I was excited because I knew Pete Seeger would be on, and only a few months earlier he had been censored and prevented from singing his anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” As he strummed his banjo and started singing, a strange, furtive thought came to mind: If I were that Captain in that song, I would do the same thing. I wouldn’t turn around, I wouldn’t go back. Hell, we were already half way across the river; it would be too cowardly, too weak, too un-American, to turn back. For the first time I understood why President Johnson and then Nixon found it so hard to turn back, and today why President Obama couldn’t and now President Trump cannot bring themselves to correct our colossal strategic failure in the Middle East: Turning back—disentangling ourselves from Middle Eastern conflicts that do not directly threaten our vital national interests—would take more courage and wisdom than can be found in a craven little town like Washington.
Of course, we had good reasons to stick it out in Vietnam: the domino theory, reluctance to betray allies, national pride and prestige, an understandable desire to prevent bloodshed and violent retribution on a massive scale. And one cannot blame our military leaders for not wanting to give up; that is the correct military attitude. I know Vietnam vets who are still convinced that victory was right around the corner had we just given it another year, or if the protesters had been silenced, or if we had followed a more ruthless strategy. I’m sure thousands of German vets felt the same way about Stalingrad—just a little more time, a few more tanks, a better attack plan. We don’t want generals who ever give up, but politicians and diplomats should know better. Not every battle is worth the cost; not every victory leads to a better world.
In Syria, mission creep is already upon us—our objective in Syria is no longer just to eradicate ISIS, a goal which is now nearly complete. Just as in Afghanistan, where our objective quickly morphed from defeating Al Qaeda to destroying the Taliban to remaking an entire country in our own image, so too in Syria we now are redefining our objectives. We now insist we will stay until the removal of all Iranian military personnel and the establishment of a non-threatening government acceptable to all Syrians and the international community. In other words: We will stay forever.
Two Questions We should be Asking Ourselves
Our new objective in Syria—to help establish a non-threatening Syrian government that is acceptable to all Syrians and the international community is laudable. But is it plausible? Is it realistic? Is it a standard that any Middle Eastern country could satisfy? Is the Saudi regime “acceptable” to its Shi’a minority? Is the Sisi regime in Egypt “acceptable” to the majority of Egyptians who voted for the ousted Muslim Brotherhood government? Are any of the states that comprise the Middle East genuinely non-threatening to their neighbors? By adopting this standard, we are willfully sentencing Syria to long-term dismemberment, where different factions will control different regions with no foreseeable hope of unification.
The second question we should be asking ourselves is even more important, but one that policymakers don’t want to candidly confront: Was the 2003 invasion of Iraq a mistake? That is, do we now accept—albeit however grudgingly—that Iraq and the world were better off when Saddam Hussein was in control? Despite the fact that Saddam was a monster, despite the fact that he waged aggressive wars against Kuwait and Iran, despite his use of poison gas, despite his torturing of political opponents, is it not true that the Iraqi people have suffered more since his demise and that the entire region has become more unstable?
If one agrees with this assessment—that the 2003 invasion was a strategic blunder—then we should accept, as the Russians have, that the only practical solution to the Syrian crisis must include, in some form, the continuation of the Assad regime. This is, of course, anathema to both those lovers of justice on the left and those lovers of Israel on the right, but President Assad remains indispensable to resolving the crisis and ensuring stability, just as Saddam was indispensable to stability in Iraq.
What is happening in Syria is a civil war and it is almost always a bad idea to get involved in civil wars. We understand that and so we sensibly declare that we want a “cooperative approach” with other nations, but then we petulantly insist like a bratty school girl that we won’t invite Iran, Russia, or even Mr. Assad to the party. Not so long ago, President Trump seemed to understand that this approach was unreasonable and announced that our intention was not to depose President Assad, and he seemed inclined to work cooperatively with Russia on resolving the Syrian problem. But now we are back to wanting regime change, although it might be more exactly called “regime change lite.” The State Department’s new “representative for Syrian engagement” recently reiterated that our policy is not that “Assad must go,” then irresponsibly added that “Assad has no future”—it’s just “not our job to get rid of him.” That gratuitous comment was too clever by half; the only thing heard in Moscow and Damascus and everywhere else is that the Americans don’t want Mr. Assad to have any future. Mr. Trump’s advisers, once again, have overturned his directive.
Aiding and Abetting the Wrong Side
There remain approximately 70,000 anti-government forces in Idlib province, many of whom are associated with Al Qaeda and ISIS. Taking control of Idlib is essential to Mr. Assad’s consolidating his power and restoring some semblance of unity to Syria, so this bastion of anti-government forces is now the focus of attention for Mr. Assad and his Russian allies. It is likely that an all-out attack will cause considerable civilian casualties and that the rebels will ruthlessly refuse to allow civilians to depart the areas that they hold. They will refuse to allow the civilians to leave and they will fight against the Assad forces more tenaciously thanks in part to us.
We have now made it clear that we will not tolerate large-scale civilian casualties and we have warned both President Assad and Russia not to escalate the conflict against these terrorist forces. No president wants to look weak or stand by idly while civilian anywhere are slaughtered. No president wants to “lose” a country—if Syria can even be called such a thing anymore. And certainly, messianic fervor—that desire to remake the world in our image—is a disease all presidents are susceptible to. This new (old) U.S. policy unwittingly aids and abets the terrorists that we know are our sworn enemies. Every American warning to President Assad and Russia reassures Al Qaeda and ISIS that we will counter the Syrian regime and they have no need to compromise or retreat. If they stand their ground and ensure a civilian bloodbath, we have unintentionally assured them that we will intervene on their behalf against Mr. Assad. This is not what we intended, but this is what we have ensured.
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