Donald Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw US troops from the edges of Syria has unleashed horrors there—and a political firestorm here. By justifying the slapdash retreat of US forces under the banner of “ending endless wars,” Trump could well wind up giving peace a bad name. Trump’s fiasco surely deserves the stinging rebuke he has received from both parties in the House of Representatives. The president’s casual green light to the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, though put on hold by a cease-fire after Vice President Mike Pence’s meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has resulted in hundreds of casualties and thousands of refugees, betrayed our Kurdish allies, expanded Russian and Iranian influence, and left American troops both ashamed and at risk. But amid the ruins, it is worth remembering that we should never have been in this position in the first place.
Joe Biden was rewriting history when he sputtered, during the most recent Democratic presidential debate, that “with regard to regime change in Syria, that has not been the policy [that] we change the regime.” In 2011, as a revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s repression spread, President Barack Obama announced that Syria’s dictator must go, froze Syrian assets subject to US jurisdiction, and imposed economic sanctions. By 2012, the United States was sending direct support to various rebel groups. When Assad proved more resilient than expected—and Russia and Iran came to his aid—Obama sensibly chose not to escalate. Instead, the US dispatched a small military force to Syria to recruit primarily Kurdish rebels to take on ISIS, backed by US air raids, while continuing to oppose Assad. The Kurds consolidated control over about a quarter of Syrian territory.
This armed American invasion of a sovereign nation was and is without legal sanction. Syria posed no threat to the United States and did not invite US troops in. The Obama administration had no resolution from the United Nations or any mandate from Congress. Military coordination with the Kurds outraged Turkey, our NATO ally, which considers them terrorist separatists. After ISIS was largely defeated, token US forces remained to deter Syria from reclaiming its territory and Turkey from invading. But the implicit position of the foreign policy establishment—that US forces should stay indefinitely in a sovereign nation without permission—was never tenable.
Bipartisan outrage over Trump’s folly has erased all this from the public discourse. During that debate, Biden called Trump’s act the “most shameful thing a president has done in modern history”—ignoring, say, George W. Bush’s ruinous war against Iraq, the use of state torture in the War on Terrorism, and even the previous betrayal of the Kurds by Henry Kissinger. Pete Buttigieg, a veteran of the Afghanistan War, warned that the betrayal was what happens “when we think our only choices are between endless war or total isolation.” Cory Booker echoed him, arguing that “we cannot allow the Russians to continue to grow in influence by abandoning the world stage.” The notion that Trump (who just dispatched more troops to Saudi Arabia) is “abandoning the world stage” is risible.
Happily, not all of the candidates lost their bearings. Elizabeth Warren argued that we should get the troops out of the Middle East but should do it the “right way,” via a “negotiated solution.” Beto O’Rourke reminded viewers of the importance of diplomacy and “resolving our foreign policy goals not on the backs of 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds anymore.” The billionaire Tom Steyer noted that the “most important international problem that we’re facing…which is climate” can’t be solved by the US alone and requires taking on rapacious corporations.
A presidential debate is hardly the setting for a serious policy discussion. But Democratic leaders have brandished the same bellicosity, rushing to rebuke Trump and join Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on the need for “crippling sanctions” against Turkey. Senator Chuck Schumer even argued for putting the troops back in. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank exalted that Democrats “flipped the script on national security” and were now able to paint Trump’s Republicans as the “party of cut and run.”
Most striking in the presidential debate was the stark contrast between economic and national security policy. On the former, progressives have driven the most radical agenda since at least the New Deal. Medicare for All, tuition-free public college, taxing the rich, the Green New Deal, universal child care and pre-K, fair trade—bold progressive reforms now frame the discussion. Even Buttigieg, the man from McKinsey, embraces a tax on wealth. Steyer says corporations own the government. Andrew Yang says the opioid epidemic is “capitalism run amok.”
On national security, however, the establishment’s death grip is stronger, despite a dismal record of misadventures. Democrats are more comfortable raging about Vladimir Putin and jumping on Trump’s grotesqueries than laying out an alternative vision of how the US should live in the world. This is perilous politically: Americans are tired of wars without end and without victory on the other side of the world, and Democrats should be wary of ceding the opposition to “endless wars” to Trump.
It is also wrongheaded. This country desperately needs to rein in its interventionist appetites, build international alternatives to policing the world, and give far more attention and priority to addressing the present danger of climate change and reversing the ominous lurch into a new nuclear arms race.
The delicious pleasure of branding Republicans as the “party of cut and run” offers a sugar high—one that is surely dangerous to the health of the party and the country.