Read: The Kurds: Betrayed again by Washington
It is an excellent guess that Pompeo, Bolton, McMaster, and Haley were willing to apply more pressure than just sanctions, and would have given speeches to that effect if they’d been allowed to do so. Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who was more reticent about committing U.S. troops to an anti-Iran mission, would have likely been more forward-leaning if he had trusted Trump to stay the course in Syria and Iraq. All these officials certainly agreed that U.S. forces in Syria, which don’t cost much and have incurred few casualties, should stay. Those troops and civilians were the hinge of long-term Iranian containment—a low-cost use of American soldiers, backed up by allied European special-operations units, that had checked the advance of much larger and more costly Iranian, Russian, and Syrian-regime forces.
To their credit, Pompeo, Bolton, McMaster, Haley, and Mattis removed the rhetorical legerdemain surrounding the reasons for American troops being in Syria: They were there to squash the Islamic State and prevent its rebirth, and they were there to check Russia and Iran, which controls Syrian-regime ground forces as well as the indispensable foreign Shiite militias. This American engagement was easily the best bang for the buck that Washington had gotten in the region since 2001.
Nor were Bolton, McMaster, Pompeo, Haley, and Mattis operating outside congressional authorization: At any time, Congress could have cut off funding for U.S. forces if it thought they were straying too far from their original mandate. Congress didn’t do so. Syria may be the one locale where congressional Democrats and Republicans largely agreed about the use of American military power. And if the president were ever serious about rebuilding a transatlantic alliance against the Islamic Republic, Syria was the place to do it.
But Trump just couldn’t buy in. It’s ironic that the president snapped when discussing Syria with Turkey’s President Erdoğan, who is modern Turkey’s first real Islamist ruler and certainly not a friend of the United States. The president’s tweets are a muddle: At one moment, he thinks the Islamic State is destroyed, and therefore our soldiers can come home; at another, he suggests that ending the Islamic State isn’t even America’s business because the group is aligned against the Syrian regime, Iran, and Russia. (“Why are we fighting for our enemy, Syria, by staying & killing ISIS for them, Russia, Iran & other locals?”) All one can conclude is that the president just wants out of Syria, regardless of the consequences. Even more than Obama, Trump is post-post-9/11.
Read: Trump goes from threatening Iran to threatening the world
Which leaves the administration’s Iran policy centered on sanctions. Sanctions have many things going for them as a foreign-policy tool. Against Iran, they eliminated the surreality under Obama of the United States returning money that could be used to support the clerics’ imperialism for, at best, a short-term surcease to our nuclear anxieties. Tehran now has tens of billions less in hard currency to further its ambitions than it did when Trump took office. And Trump was right: Iranian aggression abroad got much worse after the nuclear deal was concluded.