In keeping with the current administration’s other important policy pronouncements, President Donald J. Trump’s surprise declaration that he will be withdrawing 2,000 combat troops from Syria on Wednesday took nearly everybody, except perhaps the president himself, by surprise. Just when you think he’s going to zig, he zags. Trump might agree, in the unlikely event he’s ever heard of him, with Ralph Waldo Emerson that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. And on Syria, Trump has been anything but consistent. But with regard to yesterday’s decision, he isn’t wrong, even if we suspect his motives.
In July 2017, a mere six months into this seemingly endless presidency, Trump drew fire from both neoconservative and liberal critics alike for ending the CIA’s disastrous train-and-equip program in Syria, which, far from helping to end the Syrian conflict, simply prolonged it. Weapons meant for those elusive moderates among the anti-government rebels ended up in the hands of Sunni Islamist extremists, and thereby strengthened those who sought to violently overthrow the secular Ba’athist government in Damascus and supplant it with a hard-line sectarian state, a kind of Saudi Arabia on the Mediterranean. That the United States has been de facto working to advance such an outcome has been clear for years. As I noted in a report for The Nation at the time, this had been acknowledged as early as February 2012, when Secretary of State Clinton’s top policy hand Jake Sullivan noted in an e-mail to her that “AQ [Al Qaeda] is on our side in Syria.”
Critics then, as now, stomped their feet at Trump’s alleged perfidy. Trump’s decision to pull the plug on the CIA program elicited outbursts from the bien-pensants of the corporate-media world: The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson referred to it as “Trump’s breathtaking surrender to Russia.” New York Times columnist Nick Kristof tweeted that “Abandoning the rebels, especially as vacuum forms in IS areas, is a gift to Assad and Putin for which we negotiated nothing in return.” Noted Washington Post chickenhawk (or is that redundant?) Marc A. Thiessen declared, “We need to restore the CIA’s covert train-and-equip program and lift the Defense Department’s restrictions preventing Sunnis who join us from fighting the Assad regime.”
With apologies to Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again. Then as now, the reaction by our governing and media elites is more a reflection of their visceral dislike and distrust of the current president than a reasoned analysis of the costs and benefits of our presence in Syria. House minority whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said Trump’s decision was “impulsive, irresponsible and dangerous.” “And I would hope,” he continued, “that the president would reconsider. The only people happy today about this decision in my opinion are the Syrians, the Iranians, the Russians and ISIS and its allies.” Republican hawks Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio condemned the move, as did former Obama State Department official Victoria Nuland.
In an op-ed that appeared in The Washington Post yesterday, Nuland, now the president of the predictably hawkish Center for a New American Security, wrote, “With his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria, President Donald Trump hands a huge New Year’s gift to President Bashar Assad, the Islamic State, the Kremlin and Tehran.”
According to Nuland, who herself has firsthand experience playing at regime change, “everything about this mercurial decision imperils U.S. national interests as defined by Trump himself.” This is an exceedingly odd position for a former career diplomat to take, but, alas, it is not in the least bit surprising. Faced with the fact that the United States had been acting not as an agent of peace or stability in Syria, establishment figures like Nuland, Hoyer, Rubio, and Graham simply avert their eyes and recite the credo of American liberal hegemony. If nothing else, Nuland’s op-ed shows that it is past time for some new thinking in Washington.
The good news is that some fresh thinking is already taking place. Fierce Trump critic Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) applauded Trump’s decision, writing that “Neither the Obama Administration nor the Trump Administration had a strategy. Neither Administration could articulate why we were in Syria, what the end state would be, and how we would achieve it.” Another California Democrat, Ro Khanna, also set aside petty partisanship and expressed his approval, noting (correctly), that “Congress never authorized the intervention.” Leftist grassroots organizations like Code Pink and Just Foreign Policy likewise backed Trump’s decision.
In the end, the years-long US intervention in Syria was illegal under international law, unconstitutional, counterproductive, expensive, and damaging to US national-security interests in the region. It failed on moral, realist, and consequentialist grounds. On this, Trump is right. His critics are wrong.