How the Press Sustains the Forever War

Too much media coverage of Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria treats indefinite deployments as the only legitimate option.  

Leah Millis / Reuters

When President Donald Trump was asked to identify America’s “biggest foe globally” earlier this year, he singled out the European Union. He regularly directs harsh criticism at the leaders of western-European allies, yet lavishes extravagant praise on murderous autocrats, even becoming the first president to profess “love” for a North Korean dictator.

There’s no doubt, in other words, that outgoing Secretary of Defense James Mattis was correct in the criticism strongly implied in his resignation letter—that Trump fails to treat allies with respect and fails to maintain a clear-eyed view of malign actors and strategic competitors.

And the widespread concern prompted by Mattis’s resignation is fully justified. Like Daniel Larison, who disagreed with many of Mattis’s policy positions, I worry that his replacement is likely to be inferior. Like James Fallows, I believe that Trump is “dangerous and unfit for office.” I wish he would resign.

But one false note is being struck again and again in coverage of Mattis’s departure: the treatment of U.S. withdrawal from Syria as though it is a self-evidently reckless, borderline-illegitimate course.

The Associated Press wrote that Trump’s move “opens the door for major turmoil” in Syria. Here’s an excerpt from’s coverage:

President Donald Trump once famously said he knew more about ISIS than US generals do. Now he wants to prove it. His big gamble on a sudden and rapid Syria pullout, which broke on Wednesday, is classic Trump in execution and content after he effectively declared mission accomplished and the defeat of ISIS. The President announced an apparently impulsive decision that shook the world, showed little sign of nuanced consideration, confounded top advisers and by the end of the day left Washington in chaos and confusion.

It was a move that appeared to clash with the central goal of his Middle East policy––containing Iran’s regional influence––since it could leave a vacuum for Tehran and other outside nations to fill. But while the manner of his decision was unorthodox for a President, the move itself tapped into a significant body of support among Trump’s supporters as well as grassroots Democrats that it is time for America’s post-9/11 deployments, several of which have no obvious exit strategy, to end.

Here’s a New York Times article:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Thursday hailed the decision by President Trump to withdraw United States forces from Syria, calling it “correct” because the American troops were not needed. Mr. Putin’s praise came a day after Mr. Trump said he was ordering the withdrawal because the United States military had achieved its goal of defeating the Islamic State militant group in Syria.

Given the unfinished business on the ground in Syria, however, the move was a surprise to many, including some senior presidential military and diplomatic advisers in Washington. The decision has been criticized, even among Republicans, as abandoning Kurdish allies in the face of a hostile Turkey and a still dangerous Islamic State, as well as leaving Syria open territory for the geopolitical ambitions of Russia and Iran.

Another New York Times article declared, “Political considerations drove Mr. Trump’s decision on Syria. He calculated that pulling out American soldiers would be a way to fulfill a campaign pledge, at a time when he was being forced to compromise on the wall.” After watching the reaction to the announcement on left-leaning cable news, Jim Antle mused, “MSNBC on Syria sounds like Fox News when Obama pulled out of Iraq.”

Syria could have been characterized as being “in turmoil” for the entirety of the U.S. presence there. It will be in turmoil even if U.S. troops stay indefinitely. Leaving American troops in Syria could be characterized as “a gamble” every bit as accurately as withdrawing them. Risking less blood and treasure in the Middle East and bringing home U.S. troops could be characterized as “the central goal of Trump’s Middle Eastern policy” as accurately as the question-begging “containing Iran’s regional influence.”

Fulfilling a campaign pledge to end a war after defeating rivals in both political parties who took the other side of the issue could be framed as a democratic check on the military-industrial complex as accurately as a craven move by an unprincipled leader to survive politically. That there is “unfinished business on the ground in Syria” would still be true if U.S. forces stayed deployed there for another 20 years.

It is proper to note the risks of U.S. departure. But most coverage of Trump’s move adopts only those frames that cast keeping Americans in Syria in a good light and withdrawing them in a bad light. Readers are told that Vladimir Putin hailed the decision, but no mention is made of the American spouses and children thrilling at the prospect of a loved one leaving harm’s way and coming home sooner.

The tenor of the coverage reflects abiding faith in the conventional wisdom of the Washington foreign-policy establishment that is difficult to square with the frequent errors of that establishment’s Middle East policy. It is dismissive of public opinion.

“Political commentators and anti-interventionist ideologues will note that withdrawing America’s modest footprint from Syria is popular with the public,” Noah Rothman declares in Commentary. “But what would you expect? Precisely no one in the political class is making a case for sustained and substantial American intervention in this conflict zone.” If almost no one in the political class is willing to make the case for a war (Lindsey Graham is always willing to make the case for a war), that strikes me as evidence for the proposition that fighting it anyway is unwise.

And the press is utterly disinterested in the illegality of the unauthorized war. A notable exception is David French, who favors an ongoing U.S. presence, but noted last week—when it seemed as though Trump would keep troops in Syria indefinitely—“there’s a serious problem. Trump’s wise policy is blatantly unconstitutional. He is engaged in the invasion and continued occupation of a hostile foreign state. Even under his administration’s quite expansive definition of its military powers, that’s an act of war that requires congressional consent.”

If withdrawal turns out to be vindicated by future events, there is still cause for sound criticism of Trump, as Daniel Byman explains at Lawfare:

Making the risks much greater is the lack of process. The president did not coordinate the decision with his senior advisors. Indeed, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of State Jim Mattis all had issued statements recently declaring that the United States would stay in Syria to counter Iran and to ensure other political goals. Allies have even less reason to trust the advisors speak for Trump, and by extension America.

Key allies like France and the United Kingdom, which have troops in Syria on the assumption that America has their back, also were not told, making them reluctant to take on new risks in partnership with America. With a better process, the United States could have at least shown respect for allies and pushed for promises from Turkey, concessions from Iran, and so on—by asking nothing, we will get nothing.

And America’s ability to constructively debate the president’s actions is not helped by the fact that his corrupt political allies, dubious campaign behavior, opaque business empire, and bizarre behavior all raise the possibility that he is being blackmailed to act in the interest of Russia, Turkey, or both.

Even so, disdain for Trump and excessive deference to the foreign-policy establishment has caused much of the news media to err in their coverage—to treat the risky, costly, unconstitutional policy of maintaining a troop presence in Syria indefinitely as though it is obviously best, and to fail to treat the withdrawal of troops as a legitimate, reasonable position, even though it fulfills a campaign promise, enjoys popular support, remedies ongoing illegality, and has many plausible arguments that recommend it over quite unappealing alternatives.

In this way, a forever war is sustained.