Trump’s Message to Washington: Listen to Me

With the killing of the leader of ISIS, the president made the case for his transactional, tactical style of foreign policy.

President Donald Trump stands behind a lectern to deliver a speech.
Jim Bourg / Reuters

We’ve heard a common refrain from all corners of Washington in recent weeks: In withdrawing troops from northeastern Syria and thus abandoning America’s Kurdish partners in the fight against the Islamic State, Donald Trump risked sacrificing the safety of Americans on the altar of “America first.”

It was an argument made in various forms by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, experts, former U.S. officials, and even the president’s friends and members of his administration, from Senator Lindsey Graham to the president’s Syria envoy, James Jeffrey.

This morning, however, Trump found himself in a better position than at any time in the three years of his presidency to issue a rejoinder to the critics of his foreign policy. In authorizing the Special Forces raid that killed the Islamic State’s founder and leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, his message was essentially: My transactional and tactical approach to alliances, and to limiting America’s military presence in the Middle East in particular and overseas more generally, just worked in spectacular fashion, fulfilling “the top national-security priority of my administration.”

Here was a vivid demonstration of his ability to reduce the United States’ role in the world and still carry out core national-security missions, a proof of his proposition that alliances can fray and fracture and exist in perpetual flux even as mutual interests—in this case opposition to ISIS—persist amid all the wreckage. Here was the payoff from, as the Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano once put it to me, the president’s bet that “at the end of the day, people will like the sausage, and they’re going to forgive me because they don’t like how the sausage gets made.”

Even though American troops have in the past few weeks retreated from certain positions in northeastern Syria, the president detailed how the arm of the U.S. military was still long enough to reach into perilous ungoverned space elsewhere in the country and execute a highly successful operation with the support of a bizarre, transitory array of allies and adversaries alike. “I want to thank the nations of Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq,” said Trump, in a statement likely uttered by no previous American president ever.

Even though he’s effectively ditched the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who lost roughly 11,000 of their fighters in the battle against ISIS in Syria, the president noted that the Syrian Kurds had provided the U.S. with “some information that turned out to be helpful” in taking out Baghdadi. (The SDF’s commander has suggested this was an understatement, stating that the raid was the result of five months of intelligence cooperation between his militia and the Americans.)

Even though Russian and Turkish forces, who place much less of a priority on combatting the Islamic State than the United States and its allies, have rushed into the void left by American troops in northeastern Syria, Trump observed that the United States had cooperated with Russia in advance to allow American Special Forces to fly over “Russia-held areas” on their way to Baghdadi without having to inform Moscow of the precise nature of the mission, and with Turkey, which “knew we were going in,” so that its forces didn’t “start shooting” in the midst of the operation.

The Donald Trump who addressed the nation today was a supremely confident commander in chief, not the president besieged by impeachment proceedings one might have expected. He boasted of how he’d predicted the 9/11 attacks and disastrous Iraq War, and reveled in divulging the gory details of the raid.

“We are out” of the business of keeping the peace between dueling factions in Syria and Turkey, Trump crowed, going so far as to declare that exposing his Kurdish partners to slaughter for several days made it “much easier” to deal with them and that he was glad to help the Turks carve out a “safe zone” by attacking and forcibly removing Kurdish elements from northern Syria. “I want our soldiers home.”

“We are 8,000 miles away” from Syria, Trump continued, tellingly exaggerating the distance. “Russia is right there, Turkey is right there. Syria is there … Iran is right there. Iraq is right there. They all hate ISIS.” He also called out European nations as a “tremendous disappointment” for their unwillingness to take in ISIS prisoners from their countries. “They can walk back [to Europe]. They can’t walk to our country. We have lots of water in between our country and them.”

Before the news of Baghdadi’s demise, such statements would have elicited an outcry from the president’s critics. But today, amid the heady developments, they held their fire. “This is a moment where President Trump’s worst critics should say, ‘Well done,’” Graham himself said in a press briefing at the White House after Trump’s remarks. While not dwelling on his own role as a fierce critic only days ago, he gave Trump his dues: “Now I understand what the president wants to do. He wants to reduce our footprint and lower our costs. And he is right to want to do that.”

Recent days have brought signs that Trump’s moves have spurred other countries to increase their investments in a region in which their security is also at stake; the German defense minister, for instance, took the unusual step last week of calling for the creation of an international security zone in northern Syria, though the proposal is more aspirational than operational.

But the irony is that the Baghdadi mission was carried out, as the president himself acknowledged, largely by the United States rather than Turkey, Russia, European countries, the Kurds, or any other party to whom he’s now handing over the U.S. brief in the region. And for every Baghdadi, there are many more ISIS fighters either on the loose or in precarious states of detention who could regroup as a result of the U.S. retreat from the battlefield. Today, Trump confidently claimed vindication. It is, however, vindication for now—not necessarily forever.