Written by David E Sanger
President Donald Trump is once again pursuing a national security strategy at odds with the official position of his government, ordering a pullback of US forces just inside the Syrian border. It is a move that his own senior advisers have warned would risk new chaos throughout the region.
He is demonstrating that in his pursuit of ending America’s “endless wars,” no US troop presence abroad is too small to escape his desire to terminate it. In this case, the mission has been to prevent Islamic State forces from reconstituting, and to keep another conflict at bay — a Turkish attack on Kurdish forces, including on those that have been America’s staunchest allies in the fight against the Islamic State.
To the Pentagon and the State Department, that is a traditional role for US troops, honed over 75 years of global leadership. But if there is a Trump doctrine around the world after 32 months of chaotic policymaking, it may have been expressed in its purest form when the president vented on Twitter on Monday morning: “Time for us to get out.”
Just this summer, the State Department’s special envoy for Syrian affairs, James F Jeffrey, one of America’s most experienced Middle East hands, told a public forum not to worry about a precipitous withdrawal. “We plan on having a small residual force to remain on for an indefinite time,” he said. The president, he added, “is much seized with this.” But perhaps not seized the way Jeffrey imagined.
Long before he was elected, Trump had sounded a recurrent theme about Syria — as well as about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the US presence in Japan and South Korea, and other global deployments. Acting as the world’s policeman was too expensive, he complained. Allies played us for “suckers.” Both in the campaign and today, Trump sensed that many Americans share his view — and polls show he is right, even among some who loathe Trump himself.
So when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey spoke by telephone with Trump on Sunday, the Turkish leader likely knew exactly what he was doing: circumventing the US generals and diplomats who sing the praises of maintaining the traditional American forward presence around the world. The Turkish leader could appeal to Trump’s instincts, and clear a path for his forces to fight those he calls “terrorists” over his border, even though they are the same Kurdish troops who have long been allies of the United States.
Trump’s sudden abandonment of the Kurds was another example of the independent, parallel foreign policy he has run from the White House, which has largely abandoned the elaborate systems created since President Harry Truman’s day to think ahead about the potential costs and benefits of presidential decisions. That system is badly broken today. Trump is so suspicious of the professional staff — many drawn from the State Department and the CIA — and so dismissive of the “deep state” foreign policy establishment, that he usually announces decisions first, and forces the staff to deal with them later.
It has happened time and time again on Syria. When he announced a unilateral withdrawal late last year, it was the final straw for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, whose resignation letter was a searing indictment of Trump’s disregard for allies and alliances.
By Monday morning, both traditional US allies and Trump’s staunchest Republican defenders, the ones standing up for him in the impeachment battle, argued that the decision was a victory for authoritarian leaders across the geopolitical spectrum.
Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, said Trump had rewarded America’s adversaries. “A precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad regime,” McConnell said in a statement, a reference to Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator. “And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup,” using a common abbreviation for the Islamic State.
In the most biting line, he urged Trump “to exercise American leadership.”
McConnell was among the Trump allies who cheered the president when, not even three months after his inauguration, he ordered the first military strike of his presidency, a missile attack against Syrian air bases in response to evidence that Assad had, once again, gassed his own people. Trump said he reacted to pictures of Syrian children suffering in the gas attack.
But he also ordered the action while Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, was at his dinner table at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, eating what the president called “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you have ever seen.” It was clearly meant as a message: There was a new sheriff in town.
Xi may have a different view now. Trump’s calls for restraint have often followed his threats of fire and fury. Xi and the North Koreans may both have reason to believe that Trump may pull back from the Pacific — their fondest wish — in return for few concessions. It is a possibility Trump himself has periodically raised with aides while complaining about trade deficits.
After Trump mysteriously suspended military aid to Ukraine in July — now the subject of an impeachment inquiry into whether he was holding the aid hostage in return for politically damaging information on former Vice President Joe Biden — his stated argument was that the United States paid too much, and Europeans too little.
If there was any discussion in the White House about how slowing the military aid might damage efforts to contain Russia’s power in the region, it has not surfaced.
When he pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, it was over the objections of a secretary of state, a national security adviser and a secretary of defense — all since departed — who urged him to build on the past agreement. Sixteen months later, he fired his next national security adviser, the hawkish John R. Bolton, for fear that Bolton would send him down the road to another “forever war.”
In that regard, Trump has correctly read the American people who, after Iraq and Afghanistan, also have a deep distaste for forever wars. It is the one issue on which Trump and former President Barack Obama agree, and a reason for Obama’s decision not to make good on his promise of bombing Assad for crossing the “red line” of using poison gas.
But Trump’s objections go beyond Obama’s. “Like some of those who are running to replace him, President Trump has conflated ‘forever wars’ with an open-ended presence,” said Richard N Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior George W Bush administration official as America went into two wars between 2001 and 2003.
“We’ve had 70 years of open-ended presence in Germany, Japan, South Korea,” he noted. “It’s part of an alliance. And it keeps countries from doing things you don’t want them to do,” like building their own nuclear weapons.
The Syria presence, Mattis had argued, was in that vein — low risk, low casualty, high returns for America’s security. It was a tripwire to keep the Islamic State from rising again, and Turkey from starting a war. Trump’s Sunday night tweet, saying everyone in the region was going to have to work things out themselves, announced an abdication of that role.
Trump may well pull back in coming days; in fact, by lunchtime Monday he already appeared to be pivoting, declaring on Twitter that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey.”
It was a strange threat to utter to a NATO ally. It did not specify what was out of bounds. And most of all, it did not describe how the United States would exercise that kind of power in a world in which America is viewed in many capitals as already getting out.
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