(April 5, 2018 / JNS) After eight years of dealing with an American president who considered establishing more “daylight” between the United States and Israel, the last 15 months has been a whole lot easier for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Unlike his predecessor, U.S. President Donald Trump doesn’t think it’s his duty to disregard the verdict of Israeli democracy and “save Israel from itself,” or to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians in the vain hope that they will make peace. Trump’s instinctual contempt for “experts” served him when he corrected a historic injustice on Jerusalem, as well as on his attempt to reverse President Barack Obama’s appeasement of Iran.
But this week, Netanyahu got a different view of the Trump presidency—and he didn’t like it one bit. Accounts of a phone conversation between the two leaders held this week following Trump’s public declaration that he intended to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as soon as possible describe it as “tense.”
Like Trump’s national-security team, the Israelis are alarmed by the prospect of the United States preparing to cut and run in the wake of the defeat of ISIS terrorists. The consequences of such a move are as ominous as they are obvious. Though the White House partially walked back his unscripted promise of a pullout, subsequent accounts of the behind-the-scenes discussions report that Trump is adamant that all U.S. forces leave Syria within six months.
That’s consistent with the president’s campaign promises. While Trump pledged to defeat ISIS, he has always made it clear that he wants no part of “nation-building,” a term he regards with almost as much hostility as “illegal immigration.” The idea that America is being played for suckers by foreigners while domestic needs go begging is a quintessential Trump attitude and one that remains popular with a war-weary public.
Yet it’s also true that what Trump is planning on doing in Syria is virtually identical to the same policies of Obama that he repeatedly condemned.
In short, the rise of ISIS was made possible by two factors.
First, Obama’s decision to avoid enforcing that “red line” concerning Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons was primarily motivated by his desire to avoid antagonizing Iran. The U.S. refusal to take action in Syria created a vacuum in that country that was matched by the one in Iraq after Obama precipitately withdrew all U.S. troops. With America eschewing the necessary (if dirty) work of rebuilding the areas it had reclaimed from terrorists, what Trump would now be doing is to replicate the same conditions that spawned ISIS on Obama’s watch. Another U.S. bugout will mean ISIS or some new Islamist group would almost certainly rise again.
That’s bad enough, but the stakes in Syria are even higher now than they were a few years ago.
Because second, Iran’s successful intervention in the Syrian civil war has led to its establishing a military presence on Israel’s northern border. Though Israel has made it clear that it will not tolerate the creation of permanent Iranian bases, Tehran has continued to dig in despite occasional Israeli strikes intended to take out anti-aircraft installations or to interdict the transfer of Iranian weapons to its Hezbollah auxiliaries in Lebanon. Iran has acted with the acquiescence of Russia, which, thanks to Obama’s decisions and now those of Trump, has become the pre-eminent power in the region.
To date, Iranian adventurism has been checked by the presence of U.S. and other coalition forces in Syria and Iraq, reinforced by the strength of Kurdish fighters who were a key element in defeating ISIS. A U.S. pullout will allow Iran to establish what will be for all intents and purposes a land bridge to Hezbollah and the Mediterranean. That will make Israel’s northern border even more insecure. It will also leave the Kurds, who are under constant attack from Turkey, isolated and vulnerable.
When Trump outlined the details of his “America First” foreign policy in December, his assurances that he would not let the terrorists or the Iranians get the upper hand or leave allies in the lurch proved encouraging. But if Trump’s desire to abdicate U.S. responsibilities prevails over the justified concerns of his foreign-policy team—and his Israeli and Saudi allies—then all of the cogent criticisms he made about Obama’s mistakes will apply with equal vigor to his own policies.
A desire to avoid the perplexing complexities of the long-term struggle against Islamists is understandable. So, too, is being wary of long-term commitments in conflicts that have no end game in sight. But the fight against Islamist terror is a generational war, rather than one that can be quickly ended by a military victory. Trump deserves great credit for unleashing the U.S. military in a way that defeated ISIS after a stalemate under Obama. But if he pulls out of Syria without putting in place a nation-building force to ensure stability, then he will be throwing away his victory—just as Obama threw away the victory achieved by the Iraq surge. Doing so will make life difficult for U.S. allies that Trump cares about, as well as undermine U.S. interests.
There’s no denying that while Trump’s support for Israel is exceptional, his isolationist tendencies are placing the Jewish state in potential peril as it looks to a future in which the Iranians will have a knife at its throat with only an indifferent and possibly hostile Russia there to restrain them.
This is one instance when Trump needs to listen to his advisers and avoid telegraphing—much as Obama did about his planned pullouts—U.S. strategy in a way that will embolden America’s enemies and leave Israel holding the bag. Trump has rightly criticized Obama for dreadful mistakes that made the world less safe. He should think twice about doing the exact same thing.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.