“History is irony in motion,” wrote E.M. Cioran in his 1949 book A Short History of Decay. So could the seemingly unanimous verdict of the chatterati and the professional staffs of both the Departments of State and Defense that President Trump’s abrupt decision to pull U.S. military forces from Syria is a mistake be itself a mistake? Is it possible, in other words, that President Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria will turn out to be a good idea, even if for reasons the President doesn’t understand and can’t possibly be responsible for anticipating?
Before attempting an answer, it is worth our while to review very briefly the arguments made by the distributed system of groupthink that we have witnessed over the past few days.
The main argument is that it is a mistake to think that ISIS has been defeated just because the last town that it held has been liberated. Yesterday’s New York Times made a pretty big deal, on the front page above the fold, of analogizing Trump’s declaration of victory with Obama’s decision to remove troops prematurely from Iraq. There was no mention there of George W. Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” disaster; one supposes that this is a dot much too old to bother connecting in these days of technology-induced memory disorder.
An even older dot makes the same general point: The United States essentially scuttled its army in Europe after the end of World War II, only to have to reinsert very substantial military force into Europe soon thereafter. This is what Americans do, with their very stark Manichean black-and-white way of thinking about war and peace: It is either one or the other, and can never be shades of both at the same time. We don’t do nuance, because nuance has no place in a passion play—which our faith-based way of thinking about foreign policy infuses into every common-man narrative. And Donald Trump epitomizes the common mind, at least in this sense.
No, of course ISIS is not sustainably defeated. Estimates run from about 12,000 to 14,000 fighters and supporters on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Losing its territorial dimension certainly hurts ISIS in terms of reputation and recruiting capability. It also lost a lot of people. But it is capable of recouping territory in a relative vacuum at least temporarily by using swarm techniques, and it is certainly capable of wreaking terrorist havoc all through the Middle East and Europe. Doctors tell you to take all of the antibiotics in a prescription even if you’re feeling better, and they’re right. The same thing applies to rooting out terrorist organizations: You have to finish the medicine, in this case dishing it out instead of taking it yourself.
The second argument is that leaving Syria creates a situation in which Iran and Russia will dominate the political and the military realities of the place, respectively. The argument goes that we have to have “skin in the game,” in the form of military power, in order to gain a place at the table when it comes time to think about a political settlement to the civil war. Beyond that, if the White House means what it says about getting tough with Iran, then leaving the playing field clearly contradicts that objective. The same goes in a slightly different, less direct, way with Russia. If we want to deter the Russians from further mucking about in Eastern Europe, we don’t contribute to that effort by buckling at the knees in the Levant.
But of course contradiction is one of the things that this President does best. On Wednesday he tweeted that we had won in Syria: ISIS is defeated. Less than 24 hours later he tweeted that the Russians, Iranians, and Syrians were upset by his decision because now they would have to fight against ISIS without us. Even a nine-year-old can detect the surreality in this pair of remarks. But of course a narcissist with the attention span of a ferret on speed can’t.
The third argument of the common wisdom is that the decision to leave Syria jeopardizes Israeli equities, and also those of Jordan and Lebanon—all three countries being affected by the centrifugal collateral damage of the civil war. Great powers are basically in the protection business. A slightly less crude way to put it is that local allies are reassured to know that a great power patron has their back in case their security liabilities grow beyond their capacity to manage them. That reassurance frees them to take useful risks than can redound to the advantage of the greater power. The absence of that reassurance does not necessarily mitigate any risk-taking; it can just as easily result in their taking excessive or foolish risks in the panic-driven interest of self-help (think the origins of recent Saudi policy in Yemen). These non-kinetic elements of alliance relationships go far to define how they actually work, but these elements are matters of nuance, and this very American President doesn’t do nuance. He does not understand the concept of non-zero sum relationships, of which alliances are a prime example.
The fourth argument is less a directly strategic one than a moral one, namely that leaving creates a massive vulnerability for the Kurdish allies who have helped destroy ISIS on the ground. It seems improbable, but the fact is that just 2,000 U.S. ground forces have managed, along with the Kurds and, of course, a formidable canopy of U.S. air power, to control about 40 percent of Syrian territory. That 40 percent is sparsely populated, true, but a look at a map shows that it is not of trivial strategic significance. It is not yet clear if the air power canopy will be withdrawn along with the 2,000 troops, but if it is, then the Syrian Kurdish militias will likely be toast before any onslaught of Turkish military power.
If that happens, it ought to be about as surprising to Kurds as wind damage in a storm. All sentient adult Kurds know that in 1975 and then again in 1991 U.S. policy betrayed Kurdish allies. There were even a few minor episodes of betrayal in between these two major ones. Why any Kurdish patriot should ever again trust a promise made by an American government I cannot imagine.
Those are the four major arguments as to why President Trump’s decision is a mistake. A few other common observations decorate these arguments, however. One is that the decision suggests the waning of Defense Secretary Mattis’s influence over the White House. That suspicion has been quickly validated by Mattis’s letter of resignation. Chatterati groupthink doesn’t like that; no sentient person should like that. But it also suggests the ultimate inability of National Security Advisor John Bolton to control the President’s judgment on key foreign policy issues. Chatterati groupthink can’t make up its mind what it thinks about that. It has admired Mattis but disparaged Bolton. But now that Mattis is leaving, it is this latter matter that may be the most frightening. It’s come down to that.
The other decorative observation is that what has happened shows the almost complete lack of a coherent policy process in the foreign policy domain of this Administration. Now, we like to think that policy outcomes are likely to be improved when the process that produces decisions enhances rationality and deliberation. And that’s generally true. But sometimes the system works and the policy fails anyway—that being the theme of the justly famous book by Richard Betts and Les Gelb on The Irony of Vietnam. And sometimes the system fails and the policy succeeds anyway. That can be because the President actually knows better than the blob-like bureaucracy, the abiding assumption of President Obama. Or it can be more like a Mr. Magoo episode: For example, President Trump’s trade war against China almost certainly did not include an intention to shift supply chains away from China; but that is one of the policy’s side effects so far, and it is both a non-trivial and, in general, a good thing.
Either way, there is no question that the decision-making process in the Trump Administration remains anything but tightly wrapped, at least most of the time. There were no reported NSC Principal Committee meetings between April and July, and PC meetings since July have been few. And those followed a highly unusual written complaint by the Secretary of Defense that NSA Bolton’s cards-close-to-chest methods were staggering the government with self-inflicted opacity. Allies didn’t know what the policy was because most members of the Administration, even at senior levels, didn’t know what it was either.
Alas, not much has changed, except that this time it appears that even Bolton has had to wear the blindfold and earplugs. The President has once again exhibited the monkey-in-the-machine-room phenomenon, which I predicted even before the Inauguration.
This particular antic has been a bit less surprising than most others, for the simple reason that the President sought to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria a few months ago, only apparently to be talked out of it by his senior advisers. That has probably contributed to the tight character of the groupthink this time around, simply because everyone remembers the earlier incident and so is well rehearsed for its second coming.
But Is It True?
Is the almost universal condemnation of the President’s decision justified? Without even trying to be witty, Dean Acheson once said that “things are not always as they seem, but sometimes they are.” This is probably one of those occasions when they are.
I tend to credit the critique; I can hardly do otherwise, since I have made all these arguments and kindred others besides for nearly the past seven years as regards Syria. I argued during the first year of the civil war that benign neglect was going to be anything but benign. I urged consideration of using U.S. military power to influence battlefield dynamics at certain pregnant points in the fight, and of coordinating the use of Turkish power to similar ends. I made as clear as possible my view that Iran was a bigger and longer-term problem than ISIS, and that Iranian-driven sectarian-motivated ambition was the catalyst for the rise of ISIS in the face of the passivity and fecklessness of the Sunni Arab states. Obvious conclusion: If we want to get rid of ISIS we must treat the source of its origin—Iranian policy as manifested in the Syrian cauldron.
So when President Trump claims that U.S. troops were in the region just to fight ISIS, and not to “play” on the slippery slopes of Syria’s militarized misery, he is repeating the body language if not the exact words of the Obama Administration. But this was always a delusion. One cannot affect the position of a shadow by doing things to the shadow, and ISIS was and remains the shadow of the core reality in Syria, which is a Shi‘a sectarian onslaught against the majority civilian Sunni population of the Levant, and which in Syria has taken on characteristics of migratory genocide. ISIS or likeminded successors cannot be sustainably defeated or prevented unless and until their raison d’être is removed.
If one were to judge merely from the evidence before us, the Trump Administration acknowledges the severity of the Iranian threat, but seems to think that it can handle it best by means of economic sanctions. This is reminiscent of the Democratic fantasy after August 1990 that the best way to get the Iraqi army out of Kuwait was to “let sanctions work.” Kuwait would today be the 19th province of Iraq had that advice been taken. Trump doesn’t think that the pen is mightier than the sword, as Edward Bulwer-Lytton put it in his 1839 play Richelieu: Or the Conspiracy, but that the trade dollar is mightier than the sword. (Ha, and you thought mercantilist thinking went the way of the dodo centuries ago.) Sanctions will not moderate Iranian foreign policy in the region unless a sanctions regime becomes regime threatening, and sanctions cannot bite that hard even were U.S. relations with its allies much better than they are now. Trump’s misalignment of policy intentions with policy means reminds us of the Obama Administration’s presumption that it could demand that Assad “step aside” and thus position itself on the “right side of history” without having to do anything to operationalize its demand. And both postures remind of Walter Lippmann’s maxim that if you will the end you must will the means—and his warning about what happens when you don’t.
The removal of U.S. troops from Syria, especially if the air canopy is removed with them, will encourage the Syrian and Iranian regimes in their murderous ways, and it will tell the Russian government all it needs to know about U.S. verve generally. It will indeed discomfit the Israelis some, the Jordanians more, and although Lebanon does not share a partnership relations with the United States as do Israel and Jordan, it will smother longer-term hope of freeing its political system from the plague of Hezbollah. It might even deflate the hopes of Iraqi Sunnis, as well, who have looked upon all residual U.S. military presence in the region as a token of a commitment not to let the Shi‘a-dominated government in Baghdad run amok with sectarian hubris.
All that granted, the common wisdom has its flaws, exaggerations, and omissions. First, a flaw.
If “skin in the game” means an ante that gets the U.S. government a seat at the table in some future negotiation over post-Assad Syria, then 2,000 soldiers parked out in the middle of the desert east of the Euphrates is not a remotely serious number. Worse, the assumption that there eventually has to be a negotiation of that sort is simply wrong. The Syrian regime, with its Russian and Iranian allies, means to win the war, not discuss it with its adversaries. Its notion of a negotiation is a diktat following a surrender. Anyone who doesn’t get that by now really ought to be opining on less Hobbesian matters, like Brexit and other such ennui-inducing subjects.
Second, an exaggeration. The presumption that just 2,000 U.S. soldiers amount to “skin in the game” in any actual military sense is a vast exaggeration. The earlier posture, that U.S. soldiers would not leave Syria until other foreign forces, including pointedly Iranian al-Quds units and Iranian-supported Shi’a militias imported from other countries, also left was something of a bluff. Just 2,000 troops have worked to secure a sparsely populated corner of Syria in partnership with Syrian Kurdish forces, but no one ever explained how such a small force was supposed to leverage other foreign forces out of the country in places where Kurdish power is much less relevant. A force of that size can work well militarily in a limited area for limited purposes, and it can be a symbol of a potentially larger commitment. But otherwise it is a number suitable only for taking shock casualties, not for fighting serious forces or coercing them into doing things their masters do not wish them to do.
And third, an omission: The conventional wisdom sharply discounts the implications of a clash between U.S. and Turkish military forces.
It could well be that when the full background to the President’s decision emerges, private discussions between United States and Turkey will be seen to have played a large role in the outcome. It has been no secret that the Turkish government has been planning an incursion into the Kurdish sections of Syria. That would have placed U.S. troops squarely between an enmity composed of two allies: a NATO ally and a non-state ally of convenience.
Now, there are those who believe that the U.S.-Turkish bilateral relationship is essentially dead and gone for all practical purposes, so that there would be rather little left to lose even should U.S. and Turkish troops start shooting at each other. This is a very shortsighted attitude. It is never a good idea to equate a person with a nation, or a bilateral relationship dominated by a personality with the longer-term benefits and quality of that relationship. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will one day pass the way of all mortals—God be praised. And then things will look different.
That does not mean that Turkish politics will return to the Kemalist Six Arrows norm of the pre-AK Party era, for Turkish society has changed. Specifically, a large chunk of Turkish society has entered the maw of modernity, which, contrary to the flawed imagination of Western modernization theorists of the century past, has made the society as a whole less secular if objectively more pluralist and even modular. But what comes after Erdoğan will offer an opportunity for the natural coincidence of geostrategic interests between Turkey and the United States to reassert itself. It would therefore be very foolish to dismiss the longer-term legacy of a military dustup in northeastern Syria.
And that brings us to a point that has largely been overlooked in the commentary of recent days: The context that has given rise to the decision point under discussion formed during the Obama Administration. Specifically, the Obama Administration made three key mistakes that shaped the problem that President Trump’s decision presumably hopes to solve. Let’s take them in turn.
First, as already noted, the idea that it was possible to fight ISIS successfully without really tackling the mess in Syria was delusional. When the U.S. military begin to bomb ISIS after the telegenic beheading of two American journalists, the question was, “where is the strategy that tells us what this bombing is supposed to achieve?” We never got an answer. And in the absence of a strategy that made sense for the actual problem set, properly defined, it seemed to me that the bombing could turn out to be counterproductive.
It was always difficult for Americans to understand how the members of ISIS understood what was happening at the time, because Americans have difficulty in general crediting the genuine otherness of the other. But let’s just start with some facts.
When the U.S. bombing began, ISIS had not attacked the United States, nor had it threatened to do so. It not unnaturally assumed that the two journalists it had captured inside its territory of control were spies. That is how tribal people with a keen sense of in-group/out-group distinctions tend to think. From their point of view, a foreign tribe with no interests or claim in the territory under dispute then attacked it from afar without provocation. ISIS leaders did not comprehend how the execution of two spies, amid so very many executions for various and sundry reasons, could possibly justify the aggression of the greatest military power on earth against them. So they reasoned that somehow the United States (and Israel) had to be secretly in league with their Shi‘a enemies.
We will never know for sure, but the U.S. bombing, which began on September 22, 2014, probably helped ISIS by stimulating recruitment and burnishing its image in the Sunni world as a noble fighting force against American imperialism. My own sense at the time was that the decision was a rushed one designed mainly to respond politically to the two highly telegenic beheadings. Since no actual coherent strategic rationale for the bombing ever emerged, my initial impression has not changed.
Second, an earlier error, already mentioned as well, set the stage for the one just described: the decision to avoid any engagement in the Syrian civil war. Maybe one day archives and memoirs will clear up the matter, but in my view the decision not to engage turned on three interrelated factors: the belief that Assad would fall anyway; the centrality of normalizing relations with Iran via a nuclear deal, which in the President’s mind obviated any pressure against the Assad regime; and the view that the revolt against Assad was a bad thing that should not be encouraged. This latter factor deserves a bit of elaboration.
The President and other White House decision-makers worried during late 2011 and into 2012 that any arms supplied to the Free Syrian Army might end up in the hands of terrorists. They were transfixed by the supposed mistake of having given arms to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, the supposed origin of al-Qaeda (alas, not true). They also worried that giving support would eventually pull the United States into a combat role, and here the historical analogy was Vietnam—the President’s seminal experience. And getting involved in another Middle Eastern war was the last thing that Barack Obama wanted to do. At the time, remember, he was already smarting from the decision to go to war in Libya in March 2011, which he made most reluctantly and which had not proceeded as cleanly or as quickly as he had been led to expect.
It was in that context that the FSA rebellion against the Assad regime posed a problem: If it seemed to hold the promise of overthrowing Assad, pressure would build for the Administration to help it, which it did not really want to do. Some also predicted that a robust rebellion would end up drawing more Iranian and Russian power and influence into Syria, as in fact happened. There was besides a higher-order question: Were any vital American interests involved in the political future of Syria, and if not, why risk involvement in an open-ended escalation?
So the Administration pretended to help the FSA with a Potemkin Village-like training program that ended up qualifying only a tiny number of soldiers for a huge amount of money. The brass ring it cared about was bringing the Iranian regime “in from the cold,” and any Syria involvement was viewed as running contrary to that aim.
Some Administration policymakers believed, too, that if the U.S. government did not encourage the rebellion, it would not congeal. But they radically underestimated the power of the Assad regime’s murderous ways to spark the rebellion no matter what the U.S. government did, and hence they underestimated the likelihood of that rebellion’s Islamist radicalization over time. Had the Administration aided the rebellion robustly early on, it stood a chance of making it successful and of heading off radicalization over a protracted period.
Granted, any decision with respect to Syria was bound to be very hard. Nevertheless, the Obama White House underestimated what the cost of passivity was likely to be. The longer the war went on the more likely that it would militarize the country’s sectarian makeup beyond hope of reconciliation, radicalize the opposition, draw in external parties, and lead to mass murder on a scale not seen since World War II. All of this was predicted at the time inside and outside of government (not that it matters, but even by me). But the President did not credit the analysis.
The third error, the one key to the present moment, was to rely on a proxy militia to deal with ISIS after it had become clear that air power alone would be unable to do the job. One option was to try to organize the key Sunni Arab states to do the ground fighting by establishing an expeditionary force from their regular armies. There is no evidence that this option was ever seriously considered; instead, the Saudis and the Emiratis elected to fight a war to their west, in Yemen, which instead of meeting and deterring Iranian power in Yemen only encouraged and attracted more of it. The best option would have been to use the U.S. military itself.
Consider that the order of battle in the Syrian civil war at every level may be fairly described as unimpressive, certainly in comparison to what the U.S. military can do. We are talking about relatively small numbers of soldiers with relatively ineffectual equipment and substandard training. Quite possibly the LAPD, suitably armed and motivated, could have taken care of the Islamic State, such as it was. For U.S. Army Rangers or Marines the task would have been fairly easy. It would also have been quick, and arguably that might have headed off a number of ISIS terrorist attacks in Europe. Had U.S. ground forces been used, and Kurdish militias relegated to a minor rear-echelon role, we would not have faced the dilemma of having to choose between two allies. But President Obama elected a “cheap hawk” option, to borrow a term from Newt Gingrich, and cheap hawkery usually delivers the worst of all worlds: a reputation for cowardice combined with a less-than-satisfying battlefield outcome.
When a Decision is Not a Decision
Last I heard, both the State Department and the Pentagon still hold out hope of either slow-rolling or reversing the President’s decision. After all, that worked a few months ago. And as already indicated, we don’t know if the withdrawal order includes the air canopy. If it does, our Kurdish allies are toast. If it doesn’t, then the prospect of a U.S.-Turkish clash remains, just not a clash on the ground. So some salient uncertainties remain at this early point in the drama.
My guess is that President Trump’s main motive is political, as with virtually all of the foreign policy decisions he makes. He wants to boast that he defeated the terrorists, and he wants to play to the deeply isolationist impulse among his core base by “bringing home the troops.” Next in that regard, we have just gotten word, is Afghanistan. George McGovern would be proud, and mistaken. But of course he would also be disgusted, and correct.
We like to say in situations like this that “what’s done is done.” But in this Administration what’s done isn’t necessarily done. It’s usually just half-baked, and sometimes it’s altogether raw. We cannot rule out, as well, the possibility of burnt to a crisp. I suppose we’re bound to find out what’s really on this particular menu—crow or champagne. Don’t touch that dial.