Home/Daniel Larison/Trump and His Hawkish Critics Have A Lot in Common

Trump and His Hawkish Critics Have A Lot in Common

Trump just can’t quit the illegal mission in Syria:

President Trump is leaning in favor of a new Pentagon plan to keep a small contingent of American troops in eastern Syria, perhaps numbering about 200, to combat the Islamic State and block the advance of Syrian government and Russian forces into the region’s coveted oil fields, a senior administration official said on Sunday.

If Mr. Trump approves the proposal to leave a couple of hundred Special Operations forces in eastern Syria, it would mark the second time in 10 months that he has reversed his order to pull out nearly all American troops from the country.

The president has been desperate to spin his reckless and confused Syria policy as having something to do with ending unnecessary foreign wars, but somehow he never manages to end any of the wars he inherited. Trump has escalated every conflict he inherited, and he has managed to make some of them much worse than they were when took office, but he has never ended a single one. He has benefited from the attacks of his hawkish critics, who are eager to make him out to be the antiwar president that he clearly never was, but opponents of these wars know better. Trita Parsi and Stephen Wertheim explain:

First, U.S. President Donald Trump announced almost a year ago that he would be pulling U.S. ground troops out of Syria. He failed to do so. And then, last week, he blessed an invasion into northern Syria by Turkey, which he is now punishing through sanctions for its conduct. The only constant is that Trump claims to want to end “endless wars” while doing nothing of the sort.

His most prominent critics, for their part, have seized on Trump’s mess to demand an open-ended mission in Syria—and thus another unending deployment in the Middle East.

Both sides have put forward the fiction that Trump, who has sent 14,000 more troops to the Middle East since May, is actually reducing the U.S. military presence there. Neither offers any way for the United States to disentangle itself from the region. Indeed, the only hope of escape begins with identifying the common flaw in their logic.

Hawks have been determined to bolster Trump’s reputation as an opponent of foreign wars, and that has given his political enemies a perverse incentive to assist him in spinning his destructive policies as something other than the hawkish and militaristic mess that they are. If they can misrepresent his incompetent foreign policy as one of withdrawing from foreign entanglements, that makes it easier for them to argue for unending entanglement. The reality of Trump’s record is very different. Parsi and Wertheim continues:

As in Syria, so in the greater Middle East. Trump may lambast endless war in tweets, but he has increased U.S. troop levels by 30 percent since May, in addition to nearly doubling U.S. forces in Afghanistan since taking office. The first two years of his presidency saw 28 percent more drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan compared with his predecessor’s first two years. True, he has so far refrained from launching a new war on Iran, but his “maximum pressure” campaign helped bring the two countries close to the brink to begin with.

In short, the president claims to be ending endless war while only waging more.

A common Trump supporter argument is that he hasn’t started any new wars yet, but the obvious retort is that he hasn’t ended any so far. As in so many other areas, Trump is at best maintaining the status quo that existed before him and in many ways he is making things even worse.

It is worth noting that the troops that may eventually be withdrawn from Syria aren’t “coming home,” but are simply being redeployed to Iraq. As desirable as it is to extricate U.S. troops from Syria, moving some of them to Iraq just perpetuates an unnecessary mission in a different location. If some U.S. troops remain illegally in Syria, it doesn’t really matter that some of them are being removed. Keeping roughly 200 troops is useless symbolism. It is the worst kind of token force. There are too few of them to do anything useful, but their presence is illegal and continues to expose them to threats from other armed groups inside Syria. It would better to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria and make a clean breast of it, but that isn’t going to happen. Trump had the chance to withdraw from Syria responsibly, but he seems incapable of doing anything responsibly. Instead, we get chaotic, incompetent quasi-withdrawal that doesn’t advance any American interests.

Parsi and Wertheim point out that Trump and his hawkish critics have more in common than they think:

Trump and his interventionist critics share a fatal flaw. They fetishize armed force as the acid test of U.S. engagement and influence. As a result, both sides treat the deployment or removal of troops as the only act that really matters. And they denigrate the one tool that’s actually capable of resolving conflicts and comporting with U.S. interests: diplomacy.

In their own ways, Trump and his hawkish critics are equally allergic to diplomatic engagement. Trump has no respect for diplomats or their work, and hawkish interventionists see diplomacy as a distraction from or as an impediment to the aggressive measures they want to use. Deploying troops, making threats, and using force are how the president and his hawkish detractors define U.S. involvement overseas, and they differ only in the frequency and intensity. The president and his hawkish critics obsess about appearing “tough” and they equate militarism with toughness. The result is that Trump and his hawkish detractors agree about far more than what divides them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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