Donald Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw all US troops from Syria (and a large number from Afghanistan) has provoked plenty of criticism, not reduced by the enthusiastic support he has received from Vladimir Putin.
Rather than go over the arguments in detail, I’d like to make a point that seems to be missed nearly all the time. Whether acting for good or ill, the history of US involvement in the Middle East has been one of consistent failure at least for the last 40 years. The last real success was the Camp David agreement in 1978, which created the durable illusion that the US is crucial in resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute. The first Gulf War looked like a success at the time, but created both Al Qaeda and the conditions for the disastrous second war. Apart from that there has been nothing but failure: Reagan in Lebanon, 40 years of failure on Israel-Palestine, failed confrontation on Iran, incoherent attempts to influence oil supplies, and, of course, the second Iraq War including the rise of ISIS).
Whatever the motives, Trump’s decision to end military involvement on Syria is in line with Obama’s much criticised policy rule “Don’t do stupid shi*t.” Unfortunately, this move has been combined with increased support for Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran and the Palestinians, and for an incoherent policy towards Turkey. Still, half-right is better than completely wrong.
The immediate point here is not to allocate blame or praise to Trump, but the importance of avoiding reflexive hawkishly responses of the kind emerging from the Foreign Policy Community. More generally, this event stresses the urgency of the need for a progressive foreign policy based on the presumption that military intervention in foreign disputes is almost always harmful and hardly ever preferable to civil aid. The same is mostly true of military aid, particularly when it is given to dictators who mostly use it to oppress their own people.
9 thoughts on “Trump gets if (half) right”
i do recall the current USprez as a candidate, saying that people were laughing at the US.
so vote for him and he’ll fix it.
it used to be a slightly amused titter.
it’s a worldwide horrified guffaw.
Thank you. I was discussing this move with friends and pointed out that the US has made one disastrous mistake after another since 1953. If not before. (FDR made a point to cozy up to the Saudis.) At this point, a withdrawal from Syria and/or Afghanistan may also be a mistake…at least the way it’s being handled–I haven’t decided yet. Anyway, was Al Qaeda formed was in response to Iraq 1 or was it an outgrowth of the Afghan mujahideen?
I agree in the main. The difficulty for superpowers is that when they relinquish hegemony in a region, then another bad actor, usually another superpower or regional power, will rush in to take over the reins. Having said that, the US is in a position of extreme overreach so they do need to pull back from Syria and Afghanistan. Even after doing so, they will still have too many bases throughout the Middle East and far more than any other major power.
The USA worrying that giving up a few bases will affect its strategic health is like a morbidly obese man worrying that forgoing a few desserts will cause him to starve. The USA would be strategically strengthened by winding back its strategic overreach. Its major need now is infrastructure renewal, meaning both physical and social infrastructure. In other words, its economy needs to be retooled significantly from war production back to civil production. If it doesn’t do this, given the way it is going currently, it will collapse under climate change and other stressors.
The first Gulf War did not create Al-Qaeda, which arose years earlier in Afghanistan. It would be wrong but more accurate to say Obama create ISIS. Certainly, the growth of ISIS and the death and misery that caused was attributable to Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq.
As David Kilcullen notes:
Kilcullen concludes that, in the circumstances, a US pullout from Syria is an OK decision. Hopefully he is right about a pullout not leading to the annihilation of the Kurds.
The Syria decision [Trump’s decision to pull-out of Syria] has provoked deep disquiet among counter-terror experts, who point out that Islamic State is far from defeated
As a functioning military force they are. What is left, the Syrians with Russian air support should be able to deal with handily. To be brutal about it, the US contributions to the defeat of ISIS and other terrorist groups has not been that great anyway. Two thousand US troops penned into a small area around Al Tanf are just about irrelevant. Their protegé forces in the SDF can likely transfer fairly easily to the SAA or at least ally with it, well assuming the Kurdish leadership show any signs of rationality and practicality’
This year the USA apparently spent $13 billion US in military action in Syria. And they budgeted $19 billion US for next year. To save a life costs perhaps $5,000 so what they were going to spend next year could instead be used to save around 4 million lives. I don’t think Trump will use the money budgeted for Syria to save human lives, but the money could be used for that if the goal of the United States was to save lives.
My starting point has always been that Trump can’t do anything the 1% don’t want him to do ( including get elected ) . It looks like they might be withdrawing support as what is commonly known as ” the markets ” start to react. The Middle East is on the periphery of the US dollar empire so their military needs to be there . Trade wars with China appear to be just about copyright and patent , (now commonly called intellectual property ) so the markets allow that . What is more interesting to me is how much Trump trusts despots he may never have met and from far away places ,he seems to have more in common with them than with ordinary people of his own country . That fits with the idea that the Capitalist class aren’t necessarily tied to any particular place , being simple wealth extractors ,they are more tied to each other .
Thank you, professor, for a reasoned summary diametrically opposite to the propaganda laden rubbish peddled by media and press on anything to do with foreign policy and the Middle East in particular.
From this start point we can consider the suffering both short and long term from Africa to South Asia and most points in between, including cultural problems both in the Middle East AND a crass, denialist and deluded West and marvel at the lack of proportions involved in the tens of $Trillions wasted both on warfare spending and lost productivity involving smashed or undeveloped human infrastructure that could have produced generations of healthier and better adjusted people both there and here.
Now I will stop, because thinking on these things over nearly a lifetime has this writer just a bit desolate in consideration thereof.
JQ rather than your point being missed I would suggest that it is deliberately overlooked, reflecting successive US administrations having been captured by the Israel Lobby over that period of time.
It is interesting to compare general (western/australian) public reaction,commentary to the invasion of Iraq (Saddam WMD) versus regime change in Syria (civil war against “dictator Assad”).
Whereas I believe the general public largely regarded politicians as lying to them over WMD in Iraq, in the case of Syria in my opinion it is the security and intelligence and defence “services” and their revolving door think tanks that have indulged in misrepresentation and deception with variably complicit (BBC UK guardian NYT WaPo) or ignorant (ABC) media and that has been a much more successful enterprise in shaping public opinion.
The UK govt funding of the White Helmets and the “one man” Syrian Observatory of Human Rights is illustrative of this as is the recent disclosure of the Integrity Initiative.
If Trump does manage to withdraw completely that will be a good thing and an improvement on Obama’s record. The argument that they must stay until IS is defeated is disingenuous to put it charitably, it is SAA (Syrian Arab Army) Hezbollah and Iran that have done virtually all the heavy lifting against IS and AQ. The role of US has been to protect IS east of the Euphrates by declaring a no fly zone and denying access to legitimate government forces who do have the intent and will to defeat IS. The same protection occurs on a smaller geographic scale around al Tanf.
Recall that when the IS remnant retreated from Raqqa the US provided air cover and also undertook a number of helicopter extractions of their “embedded assets” .
While no one knows how it all will end, on the evidence thus far I believe history will show Russia to have acted sensibly and with restraint.
Sadly, not so the Israelis, who so soon after having used the Russian transport plane as cover for their unprovoked aggression against a sovereign Syrian state, with lethal consequence and to the outrage of Russia, have seen fit to repeat a similar action, this time using civilian aircraft as cover.
For a sensible middle of the road take on the withdrawal see MK Bhadrakumar