As always with President Trump, if you don’t like one of his announced decisions, wait a couple of news cycles and he will have rethought, regrouped, and often changed course. And this now appears to be the case with his surprise announcement that all U. S. troops will immediately be pulled out of Syria, so stay tuned.
I didn’t like the decision in the first place, and the way he managed the announcement made the decision itself much worse. No one doubts his authority as commander in chief to have made the decision, but he probably violated every rule of management and leadership protocol in the process, alienating allies, senior staff, and Pentagon military leaders, and it will cost him in ways not yet visible, particularly in the humiliating resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a major loss. And I might add that his resignation letter was a masterpiece, especially in describing the necessity to be “resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours” and that “our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships”.
The pullout decision itself was a mistake for many of the reasons that have been aired by knowledgeable observers–the abandonment of our Kurd allies, who at a minimum we owe protection and support for their self-determination; the creation of a vacuum that will be filled by Russia and Iran; the prospect of Turkey using our departure to inflict brutalities on Syria’s Kurds it sees as terrorists; and the risk that ISIS, although severely crippled, is not yet completely defeated.
So where are we now? Expect a complete review of Trump’s irrational knee-jerk decision and I predict at least a significant delay, but who knows? The bottom line for me is that America is the only honest broker in the region and our presence there at some level will be essential for some time to come, in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Call me a neoconservative if it fits, but I still believe that our power in all of its instruments has a role to play not only in protecting American interests, but in maintaining order, and that our policy should also continue to have space for support of self-determination and a “freedom agenda” without “nation-building”. And in case you’re wondering, yes, we must maintain a close and undiminished strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia, although I am not pleased with Trump’s insufficient condemnation of the Saudi crown prince’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
This is a very difficult and dangerous neighborhood and Trump was left a mess by Barack Obama—the “red line” legacy in Syria, the terrible Iran nuclear agreement, premature withdrawal, etc.—and frankly so far he hasn’t altered the strategic balance of forces, so it remains an area in which American exceptionalism as the “indispensable nation” is most essential.