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.”