I was very late waking up this morning — a sign of how much fun I had with dinner guests last night — so I’m not fully briefed on the fallout from Trump’s Syria withdrawal and the news that he’s pulling half of remaining US forces out of Afghanistan. That, and Gen. Mattis’s resignation as Defense Secretary.
We have been in Afghanistan for 17 years. I noticed this in the Times report about the new withdrawal news:
The president long campaigned on bringing troops home, but in 2017, at the request of Mr. Mattis, he begrudgingly pledged an additional 4,000 troops to the Afghan campaign to try to hasten an end to the conflict.
Washington logic: sending more troops for the sake of peace. More:
Though Pentagon officials have said the influx of forces — coupled with a more aggressive air campaign — was helping the war effort, Afghan forces continued to take nearly unsustainable levels of casualties and lose ground to the Taliban.
Seventeen years. How much sense does it make to keep sending more troops to fight a war that Afghan troops can’t win on their own, and that we can’t win either, only fight to a draw?
I’m trying to figure out why this was a bad move by Trump, but I guess that’s why we have experts.
Yesterday I was cooking most of the day, and running errands to the grocery store, so I listened to a lot more NPR than usual (Terry Gross:conservatives::Rush Limbaugh:liberals). I might have missed it, of course, but in the hours that I listened, I heard lots of talk about Trump’s new Mideast policy, but not a single word from someone saying it might be the right thing to do. Maybe there really isn’t a soul on their contact lists who believes that Trump’s move is defensible. Maybe. I am reminded, though, of a conversation I recently had with a foreign journalist who has spent a lot of time in the Trump years around the US governing establishment, and who told me he has been genuinely shocked by how rigidly conformist they are. This is called “bipartisan consensus” by people who agree with it. This journalist believes it’s blind conformity.
One does not have to believe that good things will come of the US withdrawal in order to believe that it is the least bad choice. Andrew Sullivan has a humdinger of a column:
And it’s worth pointing out that in the last three consecutive presidential elections, the winners explicitly vowed to get us out of Iraq and/or Afghanistan — let alone Syria — and defeated their interventionist opponents. Obama was elected and reelected to end the Iraq occupation, and was then sucked back in by the exact same arguments we are hearing today. Trump was even more adamant in ending imperial overreach, but after two years, guess what? We are still in Syria and we have more troops in Afghanistan (and are currently conducting an air campaign there as ferocious as any in the past) and we have — more than ever before — jumped into the eternal Sunni-Shiite war by supporting the Saudi royal dictatorship. In the Syrian case, there is no constitutional defense at all: no congressional authorization whatever. And if there had been a congressional vote to start a new war in Syria, does anyone believe it would have passed?
But what’s astonishing this time is how the Democrats and much of the liberal Establishment now supports an unending occupation of yet another Middle Eastern country. David Sanger’s New York Times “analysis” is a perfect distillation of such thinking. It contains not a sentence about the costs of long-term occupation of the Middle East or the endless failures in Afghanistan. It reads as if the Iraq War never happened. It even regards non-interventionism as “a contrarian’s view of American military power.” That’s how impenetrable the Establishment bubble is! Then Sanger actually repackages the George W. Bush doctrine that “we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here,” as if it were the key lessoned learned from the Iraq War! Here’s Sanger’s actual paraphrase: “deployed forces are key to stopping terrorists before they reach American shores.” Just let that sink in. According to the New York Times, the lesson of the Iraq War is that we need to intervene more in the Middle East, not less. Seriously.
The Syrian occupation is not a minor thing. The Washington Post reported a week ago, long before Trump’s tweet, that “US troops will now stay in Syria indefinitely, controlling a third of the country, and facing peril on many fronts.” A third of an entire country! How many Americans knew or know this? Very, very few. I didn’t. And this was not designed to fight ISIS. It was explicitly defended as part of a long-term pushback on Iranian and Russian influence in the region. It seems to me that this kind of shift in rationale — again with no congressional approval — is almost a definition of mission creep. We should not be asking why Trump has decided to nip this in the bud, following his clear and popular mandate to get us out of the region. We should be asking how on earth did the Establishment find a way to occupy yet another Middle Eastern country without any democratic buy-in at all. At least there was a congressional debate before the Iraq War and a robust public discussion. This time, they have launched a new war, occupied a third of another country, changed the rationale so they stay for ever, and tried to hide it!
What I can’t figure out is how an administration that has been so heavily focused on ginning up support for war with Iran talked itself into a Syria move that benefits Iranian interests. Maybe this is 32-dimensional Trump chess, and there will eventually emerge a terrible motive for all of it. Still, Sullivan’s (extremely well made) point stands: the American Establishment never met a war it didn’t love.
U.S. troops arguably have justification to battle ISIS as part of the Bush-era war on terror, but Congress has not authorized regime change in Syria, or proxy battles with Iran, or any of the other objectives a permanent Syrian military presence is intended to achieve.
If such objectives are desirable, Congress can debate them, and vote to authorize military intervention. Importantly, the American people can hold their representatives accountable for these votes. To battle everyone, everywhere, without congressional authorization, in defiance of what the Constitution requires and what a war-weary public might desire, is foolhardy. It represents the worst of the bipartisan Bush-Obama elite foreign policy consensus. Trump should end it immediately, and all who fear capricious and unconstrained federal authority should—in this one specific case—applaud him.
UPDATE.2: A reader (whose real name I know) comments:
One of my relatives is part of the 2000 special ops forces that have fought in Operation Inherent Resolve http://www.inherentresolve.mil/. He’s had three deployments. Being his relative doesn’t make me an expert, and none of what I’m about to write comes from him.
Thing is, we’ve had a lot of success in Syria, but there’s still more to be done. ISIS fighters are like cockroaches; they sit tight and emerge when they can. I would hate to see all the good work our special ops have done in Syria go down the tubes because we left a virulent little group to metastasize. And it will.
Remember 2014-15? Have you heard about any ISIS atrocities lately? Enjoy the silence while you can, because when we pull out, and they regroup, they’ll be back at it.
Notice how I don’t specify which relative has been fighting? It’s possible I shouldn’t have said even this much here, because the military warns its troops that ISIS can and will find out more specific information from vague internet postings and come after families.