Much of official Washington, members of Congress, and members of the press who regard themselves as wise heads on foreign policy are in a state of apoplexy over President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. They make two points: The way he did it was wrong, and the decision itself was wrong — the U.S. needs to stay in Syria.
One can certainly argue about any president’s means and methods. And this president relies, to an alarming degree, on his own gut instinct over eminent advice and empirical evidence. But in this case Trump’s instinct was right. It is time to get out of Syria.
One must start with why we got in. We deployed land forces in Syria to neutralize ISIS and, let’s be honest, topple a bloody regime there. We have largely succeeded at the first goal and failed abysmally at the second.
So, why would we stay on at this point?
Although the political establishment, left and right, Democratic and Republican, and most of the top military leaders say this is not the time to withdraw, none, none, can tell us when the right time to withdraw is.
There is no right time. Look at Afghanistan.
And, of greater significance, no one can explain the current strategic advantage of U.S. ground troops in Syria. They are not stabilizing the country and they are not leading us to a negotiated peace, which is the only possible way to end the war. The war is at a stalemate and no one can win it militarily.
The rationale for staying is that, without a continuing U.S military presence, ISIS will reconstitute itself, Assad will dig in and the Russians will gain an advantage. All of this is possible, if not probable with U.S. troops on the ground.
Why not negotiate with the Russians and Assad? Evil though their regimes may be, they are an inherent part of the equation, and dealing with evil regimes (Saudi Arabia and China are examples) is the task of U.S. diplomacy.
Outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis is fond of saying that the military is only the first line of defense. It makes way for diplomacy. We have done, militarily, what we can do in Syria.
ISIS will surely rise again, in all kinds of places. We are not without options — intelligence, special forces, air power — when that happens. They are the same options we would have if we kept troops in Syria.
While national interest (and there is little pure national interest in Syria) should not be the only calculus of U.S. foreign policy, American military involvement has not advanced the cause of human rights in Syria. To the contrary, arguably.
Our initial involvement in Syria, by the Obama administration, was naive and ignored history. We not only underestimated Assad and the complexity of the situation, but we ignored our own past failures. We said we would bring freedom and democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan, as we said, two generations ago, we would bring them to Vietnam. We failed because we did not understand those places or what it would take to accomplish those ends. Only in Japan, after World War II, did we succeed in establishing a new political order and culture of liberty. That had to do not only with the particulars of that society and the preface of total military victory, but a willingness by Japan to tolerate prolonged occupation and governance, and a willingness by the U.S. to sustain it.
Donald Trump ran for president on a promise to end U.S. military adventurism, world policing and nation-building. He meant it. Many Americans who did not agree with Trump on much else agreed with that. Trump made this pledge part of his “America First” foreign policy. And whatever else one might think of the president or that policy, he holds fast to the unique notion that the promises he makes as a candidate, he must keep.
Finally, there is the not insignificant matter of the U.S. Constitution. It says that a president must have a declaration of war from the Congress to go to war. But Presidents Bush (II) and Obama ignored this basic norm, which is not only a primary constitutional one, but a sound political one. (Congress passed resolutions approving action in Afghanistan and Iraq, but this fell short of the constitutional standard for a declaration of war).
If we are to send our young people into harm’s way and ask them to risk their lives for us, the case for war must be made and won with the American people. That was not done for Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, just as the Vietnam-era presidents did not do it. Mr. Trump felt that no good case could now be made for a young American to die in Syria. This time his gut was right.