This week President Trump reiterated his desire to see American troops exit Syria. Will his civilian and military advisers ever let him?
"I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation," Trump told reporters, echoing his "America First" rhetoric from the campaign trail. This came shortly after the president interrupted an "Infrastructure Week" speech to unexpectedly announce, "We're coming out of Syria very soon."
But from the Pentagon to the White House, much of the rest of our government insists those troops are staying in Syria for the foreseeable future. In November, officials vowed American forces would remain past the apparent defeat of ISIS. By February, that was modified to indefinitely and without congressional authorization.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attempted Wednesday to square the circle between Trump's comments and the repeated statements from officials in the government he ostensibly leads. "The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed," she said in a statement. "The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated."
There is just one small problem: Did anyone ask the president's opinion? Trump was apparently "persuaded" by his national security team to keep Americans in Syria longer, even though he "wasn't thrilled about it, to say the least."
The adult supervision we are constantly reassured professional public servants provide to keep our inexperienced president in check may yet keep us out of wars and other catastrophes. So far, however, it does seem to be keeping us involved militarily in more places than Trump himself would prefer.
"My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts. But all of my life, I've heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office," Trump said in announcing yet another increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Indeed, Trump's advisers convinced him not to just attack ISIS in Syria but also to launch strikes against the country's President Bashar al-Assad — a loathsome dictator who had used chemical weapons against his own people, but one of many competing murderous villains in the kind of conflict that seemed to cause Trump to swear off "regime change" on the campaign trail.
It's all to the good that Trump, a governing amateur with a thin grasp of his office's proper boundaries, appears to (reluctantly) take professional advice. Yet we seem to have allowed his numerous faults to blind us to the long-term downsides of rooting for appointees and bureaucrats to thwart the policy goals of the elected president they are employed to serve.
Whatever your views of the Electoral College versus the popular vote system, literally nobody elected any of the people contradicting Trump's Syria directives. Encouraging a climate in which a president is so easily overridden by his or her subordinates is at least as corrosive to democratic and constitutional norms as any of Trump's daily outrages — and certainly worse than most of his Twitter meltdowns.
Much of our political class also seems to be blundering into more hawkish positions than they would otherwise take concerning Syria, Afghanistan, Russia, and other trouble spots in the world simply as a reaction against Trump.
If this appeared likely to produce a successful foreign policy, it might be easier to justify. But what has staying in Afghanistan longer than the U.S. fought World War II accomplished that wasn't already achieved by George W. Bush's second term? What have our various nation-building exercises — or in the case of Libya, regime change without even bothering — really wrought?
In Syria we have a tiny force with much less ability to influence outcomes than other countries with much more at stake. We could easily get sucked into a civil war in which no side with a realistic chance of victory advances U.S. security interests or values, at the suggestion of people who have regularly been wrong about these matters.
Of course, that is where Trump has invited the mess in which he now finds himself. He has assembled a team that disagrees with his best foreign policy instincts and caters to his worst ones — bellicosity and a fear of looking weak — in order to preserve the status quo.