Ever since President Donald Trump astounded the world by announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, commentators have been trying to work out the significance of this decision.
Among those conservatives who believe America should make alliances against the enemies of the West and then stand by those allies, there has been shock and consternation. A number of Israeli analysts have expressed similar dismay.
The cause of the concern is obvious. By withdrawing the 2,000 or so U.S. troops stationed in the border area between Iraq, Syria and Jordan, Trump seems be removing a buffer against Iran’s aim to establish a land bridge from Iran to Syria and Lebanon via Iraq.
Critics say that not only will this strengthen Iran but also Russia, which will move into the vacuum.
It makes a perverse ally of Turkey’s Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a baleful enemy of the West. It exposes Israel to greater threat from Syria. And it abandons the Kurds, the West’s brave and natural allies who now face possible slaughter at Turkish hands.
Trump says the United States has achieved its aim in Syria to destroy ISIS. But ISIS may regroup and revive. Some think Trump has thus made a wider war more likely and America will find itself sucked back into territory it has left.
Others, though, take a more sanguine view. Israel says it already acts alone in thwarting Iran’s most dangerous military advances into Syria. American troops, whose attacks on Iranian or Syrian militias have been small and infrequent, hardly constitute a decisive factor.
Other analysts suggest the move will bind Russia more tightly into Israel’s own defenses in Syria, since although President Vladimir Putin wants a Russian presence there, he doesn’t want Iran to become too powerful. Trump has thus ensured that it’s Russia, and not America, that gets sucked deeper into the Syrian quagmire. And Turkey may end up fighting Iran and Russia for regional hegemony.
However contradictory, all these arguments may have some validity. There are many different ways in which a geopolitical situation as complex as this can play out.
But for the West in general, Trump’s decision has significance far beyond Syria or Iran. It signals the end of America’s role as world policeman—the end of what might be called the Pax Americana dependency culture.
Since World War II, Europe and the rest of the West have relied on the United States to keep them safe by inserting its military, diplomatic and intelligence-gathering muscle into the world’s most dangerous hotspots.
By contrast, Trump is said to be an isolationist. That, though, is to miss the point. He has certainly set his face against the aim of democratizing the world. While willing to combat threats to America such as posed by ISIS, he doesn’t see any point in sending American soldiers into harm’s way in countries where there’s no such immediate danger.
But more than that, he is scandalized by the way in which Europe and the rest of the West have leached off American blood and treasure to safeguard their own security. That’s why he has insisted that other members of NATO increase their contributions to the budget.
That’s why he is so disdainful of E.U. countries that rail at America even while they are relying on its military and intelligence umbrella to keep them safe.
That’s why, announcing that Saudi Arabia had responded to the U.S. pullout from Syria by saying it would help finance the rebuilding of the country, he tweeted: “See? Isn’t it nice when immensely wealthy countries help rebuild their neighbors rather than a Great Country, the US, that is 5000 miles away.”
In other words, he’s trying to end the world’s dependency on America. He wants other countries to take responsibility for themselves, rather than relying on the United States to underwrite their security (even while they bad-mouth it or burn the American flag). He’s trying to teach the world to end its infantilism and grow up.
And he has a point.
What’s crucial, however, is that any occupant of the White House understands that America is not a planet in another galaxy. What it does or doesn’t do has an impact on the rest of the world. What happens 5,000 miles away may well affect its own security and well-being. And unless it deploys its massive power in one way or another to help the good guys, the bad guys may win.
That’s why Trump’s resumption of sanctions against Iran in order to destroy its regime is vital. And that’s why many think that withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria is so perverse since this will strengthen the regime—quite apart from abandoning the Kurds.
But look at it from the other end of the telescope, and it begins to make more sense. Syria’s President Bashar Assad is winning, or has won. The American soldiers in the north could easily be drawn into a firefight between the various factions, and the United States would then be sucked further into the Syrian disaster. Why should America sacrifice its soldiers for a lost cause?
The important thing—the overwhelmingly important strategic aim which, unlike his critics at home and abroad, Trump really gets—is to defeat the Iranian regime.
Which is why his resumption of sanctions is so important. And which is why the Senate vote to end America’s military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war against Iran in Yemen, a resolution moved by the Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, was this month’s really stupid American isolationist gesture.
Lawmakers of both parties want to punish Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Mohammed, whom they hold responsible for the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
Aside from this hypocritical moral grandstanding, the most ignorant comment came from Republican Sen. Mike Lee who said: “… we have been led into this civil war in Yemen, half a world away, into a conflict in which few Americans that I know can articulate what American national security interest is at stake.”
Well, someone should give Sen. Lee and his colleagues a map of the world pretty damn quick. For if Iran takes Yemen, it will not only encircle Saudi Arabia by water but will gain access to overland routes through Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan. It would thus threaten not just Saudi Arabia but also Egypt, Jordan and Israel, and become as a result a vastly greater danger to America and the West.
Yet while the air is thick with outrage over Trump’s decision to withdraw 2,000 soldiers from Syria, the Senate’s decision to end support for Saudi Arabia in defending the West’s crucial security interests in Yemen has been received with little more than a passing shrug.
The Trump administration lobbied intensively against the Senate’s resolution. That’s because the Trump administration understands America’s vital strategic interests in a land thousands of miles away. But hey, it’s Trump who’s the dangerous isolationist, right?
Maybe his decision over U.S. troops in Syria is a mistake. But for the most morally bankrupt isolationism and strategic incoherence about defending America and the West, we need to look elsewhere.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a column for JNS every two weeks. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which has also published her first novel, “The Legacy,” released in April. Her work can be found at her website, www.melaniephillips.com.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.