Trump is breaking one of America's worst habits
Why Trump's policy shift on Syria and Afghanistan was impulsive yet wise
We see it all the time: the projection of American military power around the world, the effort to maintain not just great strength but global primacy, the intervention in conflicts thousands of miles from our shores, the conviction that we can use force to control political outcomes in countries and cultures on the other side of the planet, the unwavering belief that doing all of this places us on the side of righteousness, demonstrating that we are both the world's "indispensable nation" and the defender of all that is decent and good.
Republicans act on these presumptions, and so do Democrats. Any attempt to question or break from them, as Barack Obama sometimes did, is met by a bipartisan flurry of angry denunciations. Appeasement! Weakness! Isolationism!
It is against this backdrop that the furious reaction to President Trump's decision to withdraw American troops from Syria and to significantly cut our forces in Afghanistan must be understood. Like everything Trump does, these decisions appear to have been made in an impulsive way, without consultation with Congress, allies, or Pentagon advisers. That's what policymakers call "process." That the president can't be bothered with process is unfortunate and raises the risk that his change of direction will unfold badly, thereby discrediting it and empowering those who would maintain or expand our military footprint in the greater Middle East and beyond.
But that isn't a reason to reject the policy shift.
Process is good, but it doesn't guarantee wisdom. For an especially vivid example, consider Monday's New York Times op-ed from Susan Rice, national security adviser during the Obama administration. The column's opening lines bring the indictment: "This country's national security decision-making process is more broken than at any time since the National Security Act became law in 1947. Nothing illustrates this dangerous dysfunction more starkly than President Trump's reckless, unilateral decisions to announce the sudden withdrawal of all 2,000 United States troops from Syria and to remove 7,000 from Afghanistan."
What Rice fails to mention is that when she (along with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) helped to lead this much-vaunted "national security decision-making process," it persuaded her former boss to overthrow the government of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, an act that plunged the country into chaos, turning it into a haven for Islamist terrorists and a launch point for refugee flows from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and the rest of the European Union.
And of course this decision was made less than a decade after the "national security decision-making process" during the administration of George W. Bush gave us the invasion of occupation of Iraq — a policy that plunged the country and, eventually the entire region, into chaos. Everything that's happened there since — the insurgency and civil war of 2004-2007, the rise of the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, the battle to take back Iraq from ISIS, the Iraqi government's ongoing and possibly counter-productive efforts at retribution against supposed ISIS sympathizers — follows from the "national security decision-making process" of 2002 and 2003.
And let's not forget that the very same process convinced the Bush administration, the Obama administration, and (for the past two years) the Trump administration to keep fighting a ground war in Afghanistan. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, a military strike on the country to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and destroy al Qaeda's terrorist training camps was inevitable and justified. But here we are, an astonishing 17 years later, with American troops still playing an interminable game of Whack-a-Mole with Taliban insurgents.
It would be comical if it weren't so tragic. The war in Afghanistan has now been underway for longer that the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. And yet the "national security decision-making process" tells us that the only reasonable response to this intractable stalemate is to … continue the stalemate indefinitely.
We heard something similar during the Iraqi "surge" of 2007-2008. It's working! Violence has declined! It was true — so long as the occupation continued. But permanent military involvement in foreign countries isn't a strategy for victory. It's a holding pattern with no end in sight. Like the little Dutch boy trying to avert disaster by keeping his finger in the dyke, the American foreign policy establishment has a keen fear of losing but no plausible plan for winning.
So we're told we must stay, and then stay some more, not just in Afghanistan but also in Syria, to help mop up the remnants of the Islamic State — as if nobody else could do it. Not Russia, even though Syria has been its client for decades and it fears Islamic terrorism as much as we do. Not the EU, which is much closer to the region and faces its own terrorist threat. And not Turkey, despite it sharing a 500-mile border with Syria.
In addition to continuing to fight ISIS, we supposedly need to stay in Syria for two additional reasons: checking Iranian power in the region and defending the Kurds against Turkey.
It may well be that keeping a couple thousand American troops on Syrian territory has had the effect of modestly restraining Iran's actions — though it's hard to see how the removal of those troops could rival the enormous boost we inadvertently gave the mullahs in Tehran when we elected to topple the government of their primary adversary (Iraq) and turn it into a failed state for much of the next decade. The best one could say for this case for staying is that it's been rendered necessary by the catastrophic blunders of the past.
As for the Kurds, they have indeed been useful allies in the fight against ISIS. But what exactly is our role supposed to be here? To act as permanent bodyguards-for-hire for the nascent Kurdish nation? The fact is that giving the Kurds protection only fosters the hope that they might some day get to form an independent state. But as long as Turkey exists, it cannot and will not permit the formation of such a state, since many of its own 14 million Kurds (who constitute 18 percent of the population) would immediately seek to secede and join it.
That makes Kurdish national aspirations a non-starter. Unless, that is, the U.S. wants to midwife such a state and set itself up as a tripwire to assure its protection. But why on Earth would we want to do that, placing ourselves on a collision course with a NATO ally over the political status of a trans-national ethnic group in a region 4,000 miles from our border?
The answer is disconcerting: Nations, like individuals, can be control freaks. The United States, unfortunately, has become one — increasingly defining its national interests in terms of its capacity to exert control over ever-widening swaths of the globe, from Niger, Libya, and Somalia to Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and beyond. The effort is both unwise and unsustainable. Anything that helps to break this bad habit should be welcomed.
Even if that thing is named Donald Trump.