For all of us who worry about misguided groupthink in the Washington foreign policy establishment, the last 24 hours have been validating and demoralizing. The reaction to Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw U.S. forces from Syria has been reflexive horror that Trump is going against the great traditions of U.S. foreign policy. When in fact those traditions are the discredited ideas of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives who (somehow still) believe that the projection of U.S. military force in conflicts far from our shores will make the world a better place. Those ideas aren’t even traditional, but generational, rooted in post-cold war globalist hubris– which Trump promised voters he was going to reverse.
Indeed, Trump’s commitment to ending the role of the U.S. as a gunboat reformer surely played a much larger role in his winning the election than any interference by Russia. His stance was an important departure from Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness. Her surrogates were prattling on about “regime change” in Syria and ignoring the antiwar feeling of swing voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
Now Trump says he will follow through on the commitment, and the horror echoes through the mainstream media. Marco Rubio, Richard Blumenthal, Nancy Pelosi, and Lindsey Graham are all chagrined by the announcement and the departure of Defense Secretary James Mattis. Andrea Mitchell and Mara Liasson both expressed the concern that we are abandoning our allies in the Middle East.
Susan Glasser at the New Yorker dutifully echoes what she characterizes as a “bipartisan freakout.”
He is, as we now know definitively, a President who is more willing to flout process and partners, and the norms of politics, than any other modern American leader.
The signature problem with the Trump era is that there are so many Syrias, so many mornings when the President distracts us from the previous day’s controversy with yet another outrage of his own making.
Dan Byman of Georgetown said the move would only produce more conflict in the region as regional rivals contend for influence– as if we have the power to sort out regional rivalries:
you’ll see lots of regional actors trying to increase their influence. And we’ll probably see more conflict in a region that already has more than enough.
Clinton’s would-be Defense Secretary Michele Flournoy went further. She called the disengagement “foreign policy malpractice” that will take “many administrations to correct” in works to reassure our allies about our reliability, and put our “enemies” in their place.
ISIS will almost certainly resurge, and it plays right into the hands of Assad and Russian and Iran, our enemies. It’s a terrible decision.
Flournoy speaks of Israel’s interests. So does Martin Indyk: Trump “just helped to dismantle the virtual wall in Syria preventing Iran and Hezbollah approaching Israel’s northern border.”
While I can’t say that any of this is really surprising, it is dismaying that the media are so dominated by these voices. You’d think that after nearly 20 years of failure in the Middle East, more light would be breaking in through the holes in the walls.
After all, these same idealists-willing-to-send-other-people’s-kids-to-war were deeply wrong about the biggest foreign policy blunder in recent memory/US history: the Iraq war. Yet our foreign policy braintrusts are still dominated by interventionists.
Thankfully, a few leftists and realists have made it on to the airwaves, or into the blogs anyway. “It’s very telling that the war party in DC is furious,” Jeremy Scahill writes. The neoconservative-liberal interventionist establishment will never say no to a war, Andrew Sullivan says. “Maybe it takes an impulsive, dangerous nutjob like Trump to finally do it, to end the wars the American people want to end.”
Robert Ford, former ambassador to Syria, was on NPR to explain that the President’s decision was the wise one. “[T]he mission of the American forces is mission impossible.”
Former UK ambassador Peter Ford writes at Patreon that the US decision is actually a victory for international law and human rights.
Trump’s critics, including those in London… will have the vapours about ‘losing ground to Russia’, ‘making Iran’s day’, and ‘abdicating influence,’ but their criticism is ill-founded. Contrary to their apparent belief, the US does not have a God-given right to send its forces anywhere on the planet it deems fit. Withdrawal will see the US in one respect at least follow the international rules-based system we are so fond of enjoining on others, and will therefore be a victory of sorts for upholders of international law.
But those voices are few and far between. It’s particularly galling that two leading realists have books out this fall about this issue– the folly of US interventions– and no one is asking their opinions.
In “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities,” John Mearsheimer writes that the U.S.’s “deeply interventionist” approach to “countries it knew astonishingly little about” has had disastrous consequences, including in Syria.
Obama “played a central role in escalating the conflict” in Syria, and that conflict in turn helped to send masses of refugees to Europe. “[The] war in Syria, which the United States helped start, has the potential to do serious damage to the EU in addition to the horrendous costs it has inflicted on the Syrian people.”
Mearsheimer notes that Syria also made a liar of Obama. “He… went to great lengths to disguise how deeply involved the United States was in the Syrian civil war, and to divulge as little information as possible about drone strikes.”
Stephen Walt published a book with a similar theme, “The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy.” He argues that the Washington “blob,” the Beltway establishment sustained by thinktanks, professors, lobby groups, media, and government institutions, has promoted an ideology of “liberal hegemony,” exporting our political traditions to other countries by force. And it has repeatedly failed.
“Instead of building an ever-expanding zone of peace united by a shared commitment to liberal ideals, America’s pursuit of liberal hegemony poisoned relations with Russia, led to costly quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq and several other countries, squandered trillions of dollars and thousand of lives, and encouraged both states and non-state actors to resist U.S. efforts.”
That last idea has been utterly absent in the discussion of Syria: that U.S. intervention leads to terrorist attacks here.
When Trump did the Beltway-approved thing and used cruise missile strikes on Syria in 2017, Walt notes, it “had no impact on the war itself–indeed, Assad’s position continued to improve throughout the war–but it won Trump enthusiastic plaudits from Republicans, Democrats, and prominent media pundits. As CNN’s Fareed Zakaria put it, ‘I think Donald Trump became president of the United States [last night].'”
That interventionist establishment isn’t going anywhere. “As the nearly unified opposition to Trump has shown, the consensus behind this approach transcended party lines and survived repeated disappointments,” Walt observes.
So that Beltway crowd is predictably responding in horror today. Or as John V. Whitbeck puts it, “President Donald Trump has shocked the world by doing something intelligent and constructive.”