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.
David Frum: No more excuses
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.