Sometimes, wisdom means understanding that not all promises ought to be kept. The problem is that when you make multiple promises, you’re going to find that some of them are mutually exclusive.
That’s what happened when U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. In doing so, Trump kept his promise about limiting American military involvement in the Middle East. Distaste for such entanglements is at the heart of Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy, and even his most fierce critics have to admit that such a stance is broadly popular. Americans are sick of the inconclusive 17-year-old struggle still being waged in Afghanistan. Few protested when President Barack Obama abandoned Iraq in 2011.
But the problem was that the contradiction at the heart of Trump’s “America First” mentality was made obvious with the president’s announcement of the troop withdrawal.
As much as Trump could sound like a neo-isolationist when critiquing the Iraq war or talking about wanting to avoid confrontations with Russia, there was a basic contradiction in his approach to the Middle East. While he deplored such wars and “nation-building,” he understood that the withdrawal from Iraq had directly led to the rise of ISIS, which filled the vacuum left by the pullout, and that defeating those terrorists was an imperative. He promised to “kick the ass” of the terrorist group, leading some of his followers confused as to whether he meant what he said about opposing foreign wars.
Trump also seemed to understand far better than Obama the danger of allowing Iranian influence to go unchecked by the United States. He rightly denounced the 2015 Iran nuclear deal concluded by his predecessor as a disastrous giveaway that made the world less safe, and a cruel and dangerous regime richer and more powerful.
Though Obama had reluctantly begun a military effort against ISIS, it was inconclusive and pursued with restraint. Trump changed the rules of engagement and unleashed the U.S. military to do what was needed to be done free of Obama’s micromanagement that sabotaged the campaign. That led to a rout of ISIS that cost it most of the territory the so-called caliphate had ruled.
In May, Trump also pulled America out of the nuclear deal, and then went on to order a reinstatement of sanctions on Iran that has the potential to cripple Tehran and halt its quest for regional hegemony.
ISIS has suffered crucial defeats, and for that Trump deserves some of the credit. Yet by declaring victory in Syria and ordering the pullout, the president may well be setting in motion a series of events that will undo the progress made against ISIS and strengthen Iran just at the moment when, for the first since Obama’s appeasement began in 2013, the regime’s leadership seems to be faltering.
In assessing this decision, we have to face up to something that Trump avoided while boasting of what the American military would do to ISIS. In a war against terrorists, you don’t get to just declare “we won” and then leave. Americans don’t like the idea of “nation-building” when there is so much to do at home. But if the United States doesn’t stay in Syria and ensure that the terrorist insurgency doesn’t immediately erase the victories that were won by our military, the talk of “winning” rings as hollow as President George W. Bush’s infamous “mission accomplished” moment in Iraq.
Trump also needs to understand that while those 2,000 or so troops weren’t fighting Iran, they constituted a vital piece of leverage in our efforts to get Tehran’s forces and their Hezbollah auxiliaries out of Syria. Without an American presence, the brutal Bashar Assad government that has already largely won the Syrian civil war with Iranian and Russian help will become even more entrenched. That ensures that the Islamist insurgency will continue in one form or another since Sunni Arabs will inevitably look to someone to defend them against Assad’s regime.
While Assad, Iran and ISIS benefit from this decision, the list of those who are hurt by it is even longer.
Leaving aside the Syrians, who may fall back under ISIS control, and Sunni Arabs elsewhere who will be weakened by Iran going unchallenged, an American retreat undermines the Kurds—America’s most reliable and courageous allies in the fight against Islamism. They will now be vulnerable to attacks from both Iran and Turkey, two countries that would like to extinguish that brave people’s long-lasting hopes for freedom.
The U.S. withdrawal, coupled with Trump’s seeming acquiescence to Russia assuming the guise of regional superpower in the Middle East, also makes Israel’s strategic position more dangerous. Deterring Iran and Hezbollah from attacking Israel in conjunction with Hamas allies in Gaza becomes that much more difficult, raising the temperature in the region in a way that could cost lives.
In making this decision, Trump is showing us that despite the wise approach charted by his foreign-policy team of Secretary of Defense Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, his version of “America First” will prove to be every bit as weak as Obama’s approach. Indeed, Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s resignation in the wake of the Syria decision also makes it clear that Trump is listening to no one but himself.
Getting Americans out of Syria keeps one promise Trump made, but it makes it impossible for him to keep others. It has always been clear that Trump was going to have to choose between a desire to be soft on Russia—Russian President Vladimir Putin cheered his friend “Donald’s” decision on Syria—and pull out of the Middle East on the one hand, and his goals of conclusively defeating ISIS and restraining Iran. Even though the president talks and perhaps even thinks he can do both, he cannot.
A Syria pullout is incompatible with the goal of ending the threat from ISIS and Iran. Until Trump understands that—and the unfortunate consequences of this decision may teach him a lesson his advisors apparently couldn’t impart to him—there’s no use pretending that “America First” isn’t a pale imitation of Obama’s flawed foreign policy.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.