Rarely have two sides fought over an issue so ferociously only for both to get it so wrong.
First, U.S. President Donald Trump announced almost a year ago that he would be pulling U.S. ground troops out of Syria. He failed to do so. And then, last week, he blessed an invasion into northern Syria by Turkey, which he is now punishing through sanctions for its conduct. The only constant is that Trump claims to want to end “endless wars” while doing nothing of the sort.
His most prominent critics, for their part, have seized on Trump’s mess to demand an open-ended mission in Syria—and thus another unending deployment in the Middle East.
Both sides have put forward the fiction that Trump, who has sent 14,000 more troops to the Middle East since May, is actually reducing the U.S. military presence there. Neither offers any way for the United States to disentangle itself from the region. Indeed, the only hope of escape begins with identifying the common flaw in their logic.
To their credit, the president and his defenders seem to grasp a basic truth. They correctly observe that U.S. troops in Syria have not had a well-defined objective since the Islamic State was territorially defeated there two years ago. Withdrawing them serves the national interest. Much the same goes for American soldiers across the greater Middle East and Africa, where the United States is fighting in at least seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
The problem is that Trump’s anti-war rhetoric gives cover to his war-making administration. In Syria, his withdrawal has so far meant moving soldiers from one part of Syria to another so that Turkish forces could invade. Trump currently says about 1,000 of the U.S. troops in Syria will be sent elsewhere in the Middle East. Relocation is not departure. Still less is it ending war, for Americans or for Syrians.
Moreover, supposing the president eventually manages to bring troops home, his reckless behavior was wholly unnecessary. When Trump dramatically announced his decision to pull ground troops from Syria in December 2018, he lacked a plan to follow through. By one count, he repeated the same pledge at least 13 times thereafter. Trump had ample opportunity to withdraw responsibly, namely by engaging in diplomacy to mediate a settlement among the Syrian government, the Syrian Kurds, and Turkey. Even if that effort had failed, he could have pressured Ankara to protect civilians and limit the extent of its incursion, rather than flashing a green light before reversing course to impose sanctions.
Instead, Trump allowed his appointees, including former National Security Advisor John Bolton, to expand the U.S. objective from fighting the Islamic State to ridding Syria of Iranian influence—a certain recipe for a forever war. Before Trump OK’d the Turkish invasion, members of his administration reportedly reassured the Kurds that America would protect them, even though the president clearly disagreed and Congress would not authorize such a mission.
As in Syria, so in the greater Middle East. Trump may lambast endless war in tweets, but he has increased U.S. troop levels by 30 percent since May, in addition to nearly doubling U.S. forces in Afghanistan since taking office. The first two years of his presidency saw 28 percent more drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan compared with his predecessor’s first two years. True, he has so far refrained from launching a new war on Iran, but his “maximum pressure” campaign helped bring the two countries close to the brink to begin with.
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In short, the president claims to be ending endless war while only waging more.
Ironically, the loudest anti-Trump voices in Washington are affirming the president’s claim, using the false idea that Trump is withdrawing from the Middle East to justify further military intervention.
They have seized on Trump’s mistreatment of the Syrian Kurds to push the United States into protecting them indefinitely—a classic case of mission creep. “We must always have the backs of our allies if we expect them to have our back,” asserted Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations. The feeling is bipartisan. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lamented, the president “has sided with authoritarian leaders of Turkey and Russia over our loyal allies.”
That refrain is both incoherent and dangerous. Incoherent, because it is Turkey, a NATO ally, that the United States is treaty-bound to defend. The Kurds, by contrast, were temporary partners in arms, who fought with U.S. troops for the specific purpose of defeating the Islamic State. If the United States should take alliances seriously, policymakers should be troubled that the country has acquired so many allies that they are fighting one another as Washington arms both.
The danger, then, is that out of the latest chaos will come an even deadlier and longer war in which the United States sets out to underwrite Kurdish political aspirations by force (or to counter Iranian influence or to make sure the Islamic State does not return or some other unfulfillable or unverifiable aim). If political leaders want American soldiers to risk their lives to defend Kurdish fighters, they should vote to declare war in Congress, as the U.S. Constitution requires. That they won’t reveals the extent of their moral seriousness. By offering empty words, they continue the United States’ decades-long history of betraying the Kurds.
Trump and his interventionist critics share a fatal flaw. They fetishize armed force as the acid test of U.S. engagement and influence. As a result, both sides treat the deployment or removal of troops as the only act that really matters. And they denigrate the one tool that’s actually capable of resolving conflicts and comporting with U.S. interests: diplomacy.
Early in the Syrian civil war, the Obama administration refused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s offer of talks. U.S. officials convinced themselves that Assad was days away from losing power. That was a massive miscalculation. Later, the administration did participate in a diplomatic process in Geneva, but the condition for those talks, that Assad leave power, doomed them to failure.
Trump scarcely bothers with diplomacy. He abandoned the Geneva talks and allowed them to morph into the Astana process, headed by Turkey, Iran, and Russia. The decision hardly made headlines in Washington. Withdraw diplomats and no one peeps. Withdraw troops, or merely promise to, however, and pundits and politicians howl. (Former President George W. Bush called Trump an “isolationist” on Wednesday, warning of grave consequences “for the sake of peace.”) Without diplomacy, brute force becomes the only instrument left—one that cannot achieve political solutions or allow U.S. troops to exit responsibly.
The abandonment of diplomacy leaves the United States with two bad options: irresponsible withdrawal or endless war. The first might bring troops home. But it leaves disorder and dishonor behind. The second moralizes about saving others. But it tasks the U.S. soldier with the impossible, and it sticks the American people with the bill. This conundrum is entirely self-imposed. The United States’ wars can end—and end decently. Yet as long as militarized mindsets occupy each side of the national debate, destruction will persist.