“The Trump administration is defying and lying to Congress.” Oxfam responds to Secretary Pompeo’s lies about Yemen.
An unending U.S. war in Syria. Paul Pillar criticizes the absurd Trump administration policy of staying in Syria indefinitely to oppose Iranian influence.
America was never an honest broker. Dalia Hatuqa describes Trump’s treatment of Palestinians as “clarifying moment” because it represents the “logical conclusion” of U.S. policy.
Emma Ashford reviews Ivo Daalder and James Lindsey’s The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership:
Meanwhile, they reject the pragmatism of Barack Obama, criticizing him for “failing to rebuild American leadership,” and repeating again the idea that Obama actually pursued a foreign policy of restraint. Obama’s policies were undoubtedly better in this regard than his predecessors, notably his realistic and hard-headed approach to Iran. But as others have pointed out here at War on the Rocks, it’s impossible to make the argument that regime change in Libya, support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, or increased deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan qualify as foreign policy restraint.
In short, the authors accept hook, line, and sinker the idea of America as the indispensable nation, the leader of a magnanimous order in which “countries willing to follow America’s lead would prosper.” Their chapter on the birth of the liberal international order cites none of the recent scholarly research on its origins and realities, work which shows that conceptualizing international relations and American foreign policy in this way is profoundly ahistorical.
The cult of American global “leadership” is every bit as ideological and divorced from reality as the “credibility” obsession that so many of its members have. Adherents of this cult don’t feel the need to justify the extraordinary, hyperactive U.S. role in the world, and as Ashford points out the authors don’t bother to do this in their book. Their account of the origins of the present international order seems to be mythology rather than history, and the purpose in telling the story is not to understand what happened but to inspire veneration for the status quo. They simply take for granted that American “leadership” has been and always will be essential for international order, and they are quick to condemn presidents when those leaders show insufficient devotion to the oversized “leadership” role that they unquestioningly champion. Because Obama was not as activist overseas as the authors wished he had been, he is labeled as a restrainer despite ample evidence that the former president brought into all the same major assumptions that the authors hold about what the U.S. should do in the world. There would be nothing wrong with calling Obama a restrainer if that is how he had actually governed, but Ashford points out that he did no such thing.
The title of Daalder and Lindsey’s book tells us a lot about what’s wrong with their view of the correct U.S. role in the world. They refer to a throne that America is supposed to sit on and from which it is expected to rule, er, lead the world, and “failure” to do this amounts to “abdication” of what the authors believe to be our government’s proper, legitimate role. I doubt the authors appreciate how arrogant and megalomaniacal this all sounds, but I’m guessing that the vast majority of nations won’t like the implication that they are viewed for all intents and purposes as our subjects. Obama’s hawkish critics frequently flung the same accusation of “abdication” that the authors now direct at Trump, and in both cases the charge of “abdication” rings false. Obama’s biggest failing in foreign policy was normalizing the waging of perpetual, illegal war all over the world. So far, Trump has made a point of brazenly wielding U.S. power to beat up on and punish weaker nations, but he hasn’t renounced U.S. primacy or the “leadership” rhetoric that comes with it. This is not abdication of “leadership.” It is simply abuse of power. As Ashford says, “He has not rejected primacy, he has instead put it on steroids.” The authors can object to specific decisions and actions that Trump has taken, and there are plenty of terrible Trump policies to criticize, but because they can’t even imagine questioning the virtues of primacy they are unable to offer any alternative besides reverting back to the dead-end post-Cold War bipartisan consensus that prevailed in the 1990s and 2000s.
U.S. primacy is a highly unusual state of affairs. It is almost certainly unsustainable over the long term, and it will become more expensive to maintain as time goes by. Worst of all, the maintenance of primacy comes increasingly at the expense of securing the vital interests of the United States. Adjusting to this reality is not abdication from our required role, but a normal correction to decades of overreach and meddling that have benefited very few while imposing terrible costs on many other nations.
David Wade criticizes Secretary of State Pompeo’s “swagger” P.R. campaign:
The new slogan is the latest indication that the administration is misdiagnosing State’s real problems: understaffing and under-resourcing to the point of wholesale dysfunction, the damage to America’s reputation in the world and a five-letter millstone dragging down our diplomats that’s spelled T-R-U-M-P. #Swagger misdiagnoses one problem—a hollowed out civilian force—and exacerbates another: managing the perception of arrogance and reckless unilateralism.
It is no accident that a Secretary of State with no diplomatic experience and little foreign policy experience to speak of would be interested in promoting an attitude most closely associated with arrogant blowhards. The Trump administration has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t value diplomacy or the compromises that it requires, it has no time for the expertise of its career diplomats, and it isn’t going to allocate the resources that the department needs to do its job effectively. When both the president and Secretary of State don’t understand diplomacy and don’t value it, it is unsurprising that U.S. foreign policy is defined by issuing maximalist demands, making reckless threats, and imposing unjust collective punishment on entire countries.
Alexandra Bell sees Pompeo’s slogan and the attitude behind it as the antithesis of real diplomacy:
At this point in his tenure, if Secretary Pompeo has anything, it is obtuse bravado. Telling beleaguered State Department employees that they have gotten their swagger back, while whistling past the graveyard of American diplomacy is the best evidence of that.
Our diplomats have indeed lost confidence over the last twenty months, but that is a direct result of the current President’s behavior and his treatment of the Department of State.
When Pompeo took over from Tillerson, there was a mistaken belief in some parts of Washington that the administration’s mistreatment and neglect of the State Department would end, but the only thing that has changed is the nature of the abuse.
Hal Brands repeats the tired and discredited “credibility” argument about the 2013 “red line” episode in Syria:
Admittedly, it is difficult to say precisely what impact that perceived weakness had on the subsequent calculations of allies and adversaries. But the sense that Washington was wavering in its willingness to honor its commitments [bold mine-DL] surely did not have a stabilizing effect on global affairs just as revisionist actors were starting to test international norms and balances of power in increasingly assertive ways.
Brands’ version of the argument is slightly more nuanced than the “kill Syrians for Ukraine” op-eds that we have seen in the past, but it is based on the same faulty assumptions that backing up an off-the-cuff threat against the Syrian government with military action has something to do with honoring American commitments elsewhere in the world. Other states do not judge these things this way. They find U.S. promises and threats to be credible or not based on the interests that the U.S. has in a particular place. Our formal defense commitments to allies were not damaged in the slightest by the decision not to bomb the Syrian government back then. None of our international commitments was in any way weakened when Obama backtracked on his ill-advised threat. You can agree or disagree with the decision not to follow through on that exceedingly vague threat, but stop pretending that it had any effect on U.S. “credibility” in the world.
The only people that still believe that U.S. “credibility” was damaged at all by the decision not to bomb the Syrian government in 2013 are those that called for that attack and the foreign leaders that wanted the U.S. to take that action for their own reasons. Brands quotes former French President Hollande complaining about this episode, but Hollande has his own axe to grind about this. France was prepared to join in the attack, but had to call it off when the U.S. and Britain dropped out. Hollande is hardly an impartial judge of international reaction to an episode in which he was directly involved. It is hard to believe that our other treaty allies in Europe and Asia were dismayed that the U.S. didn’t attack yet another country in the Middle East. It is impossible to take seriously that our adversaries read U.S. restraint in this instance as proof that our government wouldn’t honor its real commitments to allies.
By his own admission, Brands can’t describe the effects that not bombing Syria in 2013 had on the calculations of other states. The reason he can’t is that there is no evidence that it had any effect. Our government’s willingness to blow up Syrian soldiers because they crossed a line arbitrarily set by a president at a press conference one day is not a measure of our reliability as an ally. All Brands can cite is a “sense” that the U.S. was “wavering,” but the only people that sense this were the ones that thought the U.S. should intervene in Syria years earlier. The only ones casting doubt on U.S. willingness to honor its commitments after September 2013 are the very “credibility”-obsessed pundits that claim to care so much about those same commitments. Brands insists that the “red line” episode “sent just the wrong message about American credibility at just the wrong time,” but there is no evidence that it sent any message about our “credibility.”
The test for whether the standard “credibility” argument holds any water is fairly straightforward: identify actions by adversaries and allies that wouldn’t have been taken if the U.S. had carried out attacks on the Syrian government in 2013. No one can explain how choosing not to attack another government five years ago changed the behavior of a single government anywhere in the world, but we are supposed to believe that it “did inflict real blows on U.S. credibility.” It is perhaps fitting that belief in the “credibility” argument is itself essentially an article of faith for a certain kind of foreign policy analyst: no proof is needed to believe in it and the complete lack of supporting evidence doesn’t lessen the devotees’ fervor.
A study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government estimated last month that 2,975 people died from Hurricane Maria and its aftermath:
A long-awaited analysis of Hurricane Maria’s deadly sweep through Puerto Rico prompted the government on Tuesday to sharply increase the official death toll. The government now estimates that 2,975 people died as a result of the disaster and its effects, which unfolded over months.
The new assessment is many times greater than the previous official tally of 64, which was not revised for nearly a year despite convincing evidence that the official death certificates failed to take full account of the fatal and often long-range impacts from the storm across the island.
The revision came just hours after the release of a new assessment of excess deaths in the roughly six months after the storm, conducted at the government’s request by researchers at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. Their report found that nearly 3,000 more deaths than expected occurred in the wake of the storm — 22 percent more than the number of deaths that normally might have occurred in that period.
The GWU study estimate was somewhat lower than the Harvard study released in May, but both concluded that there had been a huge number of excess deaths that happened following the hurricane. Puerto Rico suffered from a catastrophic hurricane and then suffered again from a woefully inadequate response from all levels of government. It was one of the largest natural disasters in U.S. history, but the resources and attention dedicated to it by the federal government were insufficient all along. It may be that some of these thousands of deaths could not have been prevented given the severe nature of the disaster, but it is very likely that many could have been with a more effective and sustained response. The people of Puerto Rico were failed by their government, and there needs to be a thorough investigation into how and why that failure occurred. That failure happened on Trump’s watch, and he should be held accountable for it.
From the start, the president neglected the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, boasted about how successful the administration’s inadequate efforts were, and dismissed all evidence to the contrary. Now that another study has shown that thousands of lives were lost because of the hurricane and the terrible conditions it created on the island, the president has predictably resorted to the most petty, disgraceful denials:
3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
…..This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico. If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list. Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 13, 2018
Trump cannot grasp that the massive loss of life in Puerto Rico is far more important than his political reputation, and so he has to make all of it about him and his political enemies. He also apparently can’t understand that the greatest loss of life from natural disasters can sometimes take place after the initial event. The official death toll in Puerto Rico remained artificially low for such a long time because the government there would not certify a death until the body had been seen by the medical examiner, and for the thousands of victims that was not possible when transportation and communications around the island had been made difficult or impossible by storm damage. Many people were losing their lives on account of the shortages in medicine, loss of power, lack of clean drinking water, heat, and lack of medical care. Those deaths weren’t being registered, but they happened nonetheless, and they happened as a result of the hurricane. Even before these studies were released, there were reports of more than 900 deaths following the hurricane. As it turned out, the loss of life was far worse.
Because the official death toll was a low number, Trump seized on it as vindication. He clings to it even now because he still thinks that the inadequate federal response was an “unsung success,” as he said earlier this week. As usual, he is incapable of acknowledging and taking responsibility for the government’s failures that took place under him, and so he tells stupid, easily refuted lies instead.
“This is ridiculous. There is no indication that the coalition has been really trying to improve things. Citizens continue to be taking the brunt of the attacks, civilian infrastructure, hospitals, schools, continue to be hit,” United Nations Director of Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, told NBC News of the U.S. certification.
No one who has been following the war on Yemen closely accepts what the Trump administration is saying. Sen. Warren and Reps. Pocan and Khanna have all stated bluntly that the administration is making a mockery of the requirements contained in the legislation that Congress just passed. Sen. Murphy denounced Pompeo’s certification as a “farce.” Sen. Sanders condemned the decision as outrageous and once again called for halting all support for the war.
Secretary Mattis predictably endorsed Pompeo’s decision, and in so doing he completely discredited his own claim that U.S. support wasn’t unconditional. That claim was extremely difficult to take seriously when he made it, and it is impossible to take seriously now. If the Trump administration is going to certify that the Saudis and Emiratis are meeting certain conditions even when they clearly aren’t, there are no conditions on U.S. support and there never will be without Congressional intervention. Reflexive, uncritical backing of any government is never advisable, and to offer that kind of backing to despotic regimes guilty of countless war crimes is both profoundly wrong and reckless. Unconditional support for an atrocious war not only implicates the U.S. in the many crimes of our clients, but it also ensures that our government fails to use the considerable leverage that it has with these governments to rein them in and end the war.
The biggest lie that Secretary Pompeo told in his memo was when he claimed that “ending the conflict in Yemen is a national security priority” for this administration. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the administration had been the least bit interested in ending the conflict, it would not have fought so desperately to block every measure that would have put pressure on the Saudi coalition to stop its campaign. If ending the conflict were a priority, it would not be covering for Saudi coalition war crimes and backing their war effort to the hilt. On the contrary, everything that the administration has done since Trump became president has contributed to the escalation of the conflict with an attendant rise in civilian casualties. Trump and his officials have demonstrated beyond any doubt that their priority is in giving the Saudis and Emiratis virtually everything they want while asking for nothing in return.
On the same day that Secretary Pompeo lied about Saudi coalition compliance with Congress’ Yemen conditions, coalition planes blew up a taxi stand full of civilians in Hodeidah:
More pictures of the massacre committed today by Saudi airstrikes on Taxi Stand in Kelo 16 area of #Hodeidah in western #Yemen
Death toll rises to 10 ppl & 20 others were wounded.
Last month Saudi regime committed 3 massacres in Saada & Hodeidah killing & wounding 200+ ppl. pic.twitter.com/Qng4Pz7Sv7
— Fatik Al-Rodaini (@Fatikr) September 12, 2018
Last month, coalition forces attacked the main hospital and fish market in Hodeidah. Scores of civilians were killed in those attacks. Then on Aug. 9 a coalition plane bombed the school bus in Dahyan in northern Yemen and killed 51 people, including 40 schoolchildren out on a field trip. Two weeks later, dozens of displaced women and children fleeing the coalition offensive on Hodeidah were killed by an airstrike. These are just the largest, most notable attacks on civilians by the coalition in the space of one month. It doesn’t count the fishermen attacked and killed late last month as part of the coalition’s systematic targeting of Yemen’s food production, and it doesn’t include the numerous attacks that kill and maim smaller numbers of civilians day after day. All of these attacks form a pattern that proves that the coalition shows flagrant disregard for the lives of civilians and routinely commits war crimes in its bombing campaign. U.S. support makes that bombing campaign possible, and so our government is responsible for the crimes that the coalition commits with our military assistance. The Saudi coalition will take Pompeo’s certification as a signal that they can continue to act with impunity.
The Yemen Data Project has been tracking Saudi coalition airstrikes since the start of the war, and they have measured a significant increase in airstrikes on confirmed non-military targets in recent months:
In August, 39% of Saudi coalition air raids targeted non-military sites compared to 18% targeting military. Similar figures were recorded in July. This marks a significant change to the overall pattern of air raids since 2015 where 31% have been non-military, 36% military.
— Yemen Data Project (@YemenData) September 12, 2018
As we can see from these figures, the coalition is not only hitting non-military targets with horrifying frequency, but there are also far more strikes on non-military targets than there are on military targets. This increase in attacks on civilian targets is tied to the Hodeidah offensive, and the longer that this offensive lasts the worse things will become for the civilian population. The idea that the coalition is making any effort to minimize harm to Yemeni civilians is risible, and all of the evidence shows that it is false. Pompeo’s certification is a lie, and it is a remarkably transparent and shaky one at that.
Sen. Chris Murphy responded to Pompeo’s dishonest certification earlier today in a press release:
How can the Trump administration deny what everyone can see with our own two eyes? It is as clear as day that Saudi-led coalition is recklessly – and likely intentionally – killing innocent civilians and children, and they’re doing it with U.S. bombs and so-called targeting assistance. These certifications are a farce and we should all be ashamed that our government is turning a blind eye to likely war crimes.
U.S. involvement in Yemen will be a black mark on our nation’s history. The facts on the ground all point to the exact opposite conclusions than the ones the Administration certified today. Civilian deaths are increasing, not decreasing, with nearly every year growing more deadly than the last. The horrific attack on a school bus was only the latest in a recent list of atrocities. And right now, the coalition is preparing to encircle the port city of Hudaydah, which will cut off vitally needed humanitarian aid to most of the population. The Saudis continue to attack water infrastructure and obstruct humanitarian aid, and a new wave of cholera is sweeping the country. Diplomacy hasn’t gained serious traction mostly because the U.S. continues to provide a virtual blank check to the coalition’s military campaign.
The U.S. should never have been involved in this war, and ending our involvement is long overdue. Congress needs to rebuke the Trump administration for its arrogance and dishonesty, and it needs to end U.S. complicity in the destruction and starvation of Yemen.
It will come as no surprise that the Trump administration has certified that the Saudi coalition is meeting the requirements imposed by Congress in the NDAA. The evidence clearly shows that the Saudi coalition doesn’t meet any of them, so Pompeo just lied and said that they did. When given the choice between telling the truth and ending refueling of coalition planes or lying to keep that refueling going, the administration was always going to choose the latter. They have defended U.S. support for the war with dishonest and misleading claims before, and they have done so again. The Trump administration is lying to Congress in order to continue support for the war on Yemen, and Congress has to hold them accountable for that. Oxfam responded to Pompeo’s certification this morning:
With Secretary Pompeo’s certification, the State Department demonstrated that it is blindly supporting military operations in Yemen without any allegiance to facts, moral code or humanitarian law [bold mine-DL]. As Oxfam earlier reported, August was the bloodiest month so far in 2018 for civilians in Yemen. There were brutal attacks from both sides, but the majority of civilian casualties were caused by Saudi Arabia-led coalition attacks. The coalition even dropped a US bomb on a school bus killing 40, including dozens of children. Rather than take “demonstrable steps” to curtail these atrocities as Secretary Pompeo certified, the coalition defended them, [calling] the bus a “legitimate military target.” Now, this administration is doubling down on its failed policy of literally fueling the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
The Trump administration is openly defying and lying to Congress. Members of Congress must act to end the United States’ complicity in this war.
Rep. Ro Khanna, one of the leading critics of the war in the House, had this to say:
Pompeo’s ‘certification’ is a farce. The Saudis deliberately bombed a bus full of children. There is only one moral answer, and that is to end our support for their intervention in Yemen.
If this executive will not do it, then Congress must pass a War Powers Resolution. https://t.co/VlYVMChrjA
— Rep. Ro Khanna (@RepRoKhanna) September 12, 2018
We know that the administration and the president are not concerned with evidence or expert opinion, and they were always going to do what they wanted to do. Gregg Carlstrom made a good observation about this earlier today:
If you’re keeping score at home, the US refuses to certify that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal, which the IAEA says it is, and certifies that the Saudi-led coalition is protecting civilians in Yemen, which the UN says it is not.
— Gregg Carlstrom (@glcarlstrom) September 12, 2018
Trump and the Iran hawks around him were determined to renege on the deal no matter what, and it didn’t matter to them that Iran was in compliance with it. Likewise, they are determined to keep fueling the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by backing the Saudi coalition to the hilt, and they aren’t going to be dissuaded from this no matter how many atrocities the coalition carries out against innocent Yemenis with our help.
Leaving an opening for the administration to continue support for the war was the flaw in the Young-Shaheen approach from the start. That is why the war powers challenge back in the spring sponsored by Sens. Sanders and Lee was the best and only effective way to halt our involvement in the war. This is what I said in March:
The conditions that the Young-Shaheen resolution would impose on U.S. support for the war are a woefully insufficient response to the disaster engulfing Yemen, and we have to assume that the incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will always find in favor of the Saudis and their allies [bold mine-DL]. We already know that the coalition isn’t engaging in an “urgent and good faith effort” to negotiate an end to the war, and their “aid” efforts are poorly-disguised efforts to perpetuate a blockade aimed at starving Yemen into submission. Instead of constraining executive overreach and reasserting Congress’ proper role in matters of war, Young-Shaheen would once again defer to the executive and leave it to the administration to decide how long support for the war goes on. Three years of uncritical backing for the Saudi-led war on Yemen proves that the executive won’t do anything meaningful to rein in the coalition or pressure them to end the war.
Pompeo’s phony certification is an insult and shows contempt for the law, but it should also cause more members of Congress to oppose our indefensible policy in Yemen. The administration won’t agree to stop enabling Saudi coalition war crimes, so Congress will have to stop them.
Tomorrow is the deadline for Secretary Pompeo to determine whether the Saudi coalition has met the requirements laid out by Congress in Section 1290 of the National Defense Authorization Act. If he cannot certify that they have fulfilled all of the conditions listed in that section, the law requires that U.S. stop refueling coalition planes in their operations against the Houthis in Yemen. The Yemen Peace Project has reviewed the evidence and concluded that the coalition completely fails on three counts and only partly meets the requirement on the fourth:
The Secretary of State cannot plausibly certify that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are taking appropriate measures to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, reduce harm to civilians, or respect UNVIM, and can only tenuously certify that the coalition is supporting some diplomatic efforts to end the civil war.
If Secretary Pompeo certifies Saudi and UAE compliance with these requirements, or if he otherwise waives the certification on national security grounds, the Yemen Peace Project urges members of Congress to introduce standalone legislation withholding funds for US refueling of coalition aircraft.
As I said last week, Pompeo cannot honestly review the record and choose to certify that the coalition has met Congress’ conditions. The president has already included this section among those parts of the bill that he intends to ignore. I assume that the Trump administration will do whatever it can to evade the restrictions that Congress is trying to place on U.S. support for the war on Yemen. Members of Congress need to be prepared to fight back when that happens. An op-ed from Sens. Shaheen and Young earlier today suggests that this might happen. The senators write:
For the sake of the United States’ interests and our humanitarian principles, we hope the administration complies with the law and submits a good-faith certification by Wednesday. If that does not happen, support for the coalition in Congress may reach a breaking point as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis deteriorates further.
The administration will either ignore Congress’ conditions entirely, lie about coalition behavior to justify a phony certification, or invoke a waiver to get around the law. Congress cannot count on the administration to withdraw support for the Saudi coalition, and it is up to members of Congress to put an end to that support on their own. That will mean voting to halt all U.S. involvement in the coalition’s war effort, and that means pulling all military assistance and arms sales to the Saudis and Emiratis. The U.S. should never have been involved in this war, and Congress never authorized that involvement. It falls now to Congress to put a stop to this indefensible policy because no one else will.
Update: As I feared, Secretary Pompeo has ignored the evidence and certified that the Saudis and Emiratis are meeting the conditions required by Congress:
It's official. Pompeo certifies that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are "undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations of these governments." Support for war effort in Yemen will continue. pic.twitter.com/OEspsU8bk9
— Samuel Oakford (@samueloakford) September 12, 2018
This should teach members of Congress that this administration will use any loophole they are given to continue their indefensible support for the war on Yemen. Congress must vote to halt all military assistance and arms sales to the Saudis and the UAE.
Paul Pillar objects to the Trump administration’s policy of committing the U.S. to oppose Iran’s military presence in Syria, and he observes that this decision has been made without any debate or Congressional authorization:
That shift warrants much more scrutiny and debate than it is getting. U.S. service members are being dispatched to a foreign war for the purpose of somehow getting one Middle Eastern state that has had a longstanding security relationship with another Middle Eastern state to remove its personnel from that second state [bold mine-DL]. Exactly how are U.S. interests supposedly affected by whether those personnel stay or go? The only Americans who might be harmed under one scenario but not the other are the very soldiers who are being dispatched. The Syrian-Iranian alliance has existed for decades, going back to when the two states shared an adversary in the form of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. The issue is not only whether U.S. interests are affected but whether they are affected enough to justify the participation of the U.S. military in a foreign war—which should entail a higher standard.
Pillar’s description of the administration’s policy shows us how absurd it is. It makes no difference to U.S. vital interests if Iran keeps some military personnel in Syria, and it certainly isn’t something that we should be risking the lives of American soldiers to change. If Syria’s hostile neighbors don’t like that, it is not the responsibility of our government to fix it for them. The Trump administration’s Syria policy is just one of many parts of its foreign policy that make a mockery of the idea that Trump puts American interests first. No U.S. interests are served by an endless, illegal war in Syria, and by risking a larger conflict with the Syrian government and its patrons this policy poses a threat to U.S. and international security.
A continued U.S. military presence in Syria has nothing to do with protecting Americans or the citizens of our treaty allies, and so it has nothing to do with self-defense or the defense of allies. There is no international mandate for a U.S. military mission in Syria, and our forces are in Syrian territory in defiance of the Syrian government’s wishes. Our forces have no legitimate reason to be there, and there is no legal basis for keeping them there. The Trump administration is risking war with as many as three governments in order to occupy part of someone else’s country indefinitely for the sake of an unachievable goal that has no connection to U.S. security in the first place. Congress has not voted for any of this, and the public is probably only vaguely aware that there are U.S. forces in Syria. Americans did not vote for any of this, they haven’t consented to it, their representatives have never debated or authorized any of it. I doubt that most Americans would support it once they were made aware of it, but the point is that the question has never been put before the voters or their representatives.