Senior officials never seem to resign over a president starting a war. And Trump, the guy who was supposed to start new wars, instead ended one and is on his way to wrapping up another.
A full pull-out of U.S. forces from Syria and a drawdown in Afghanistan are much more important as markers of the end of an era than either a bureaucratic tussle (Mattis is stepping down as defense secretary after Trump overruled him and other top national security advisers) or a disastrous geopolitical decision.
The New York Times, its journalists in mourning over the loss of a war, ask “Who will protect America now?” Mattis the warrior-monk is juxtaposed with the flippant Commander-in-Cheeto. The Times also sees strategic disaster in an “abrupt and dangerous decision, detached from any broader strategic context or any public rationale, sowed new uncertainty about America’s commitment to the Middle East, [and] its willingness to be a global leader.” “A major blunder,” tweeted Marco Rubio. “If it isn’t reversed it will haunt… America for years to come.” Lindsey Graham called for congressional hearings.
What is history if not irony. Rubio talks of haunting foreign policy decisions in Syria seemingly without knowledge of its predecessor decisions in Iraq. Graham wants to hold hearings on quitting a war Congress never held hearings on authorizing.
That’s all wrong. Mattis’ resignation, and Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, are significant as marking the beginning of the end of the GWOT, the Global War on Terror, the singular, tragic, bloody driver of American foreign policy for almost two decades.
Why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?
It’s 2018. Why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?
Defeat ISIS? ISIS’ ability to hold ground and project power outside its immediate backyard was destroyed somewhere back in 2016 by an unholy coalition of American, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, Turkish, and Israeli forces in Iraq and Syria. Sure, there are terrorists who continue to set off bombs in marketplaces in ISIS’ name, but those people are not controlled or directed out of Syria. They are most likely legal residents of the Western countries they attack, radicalized online or in local mosques. They are motivated by a philosophy, and that way of thinking cannot be destroyed on the ground in Syria. The fundamental failure of the GWOT is that you can’t blow up an idea.
Regime change? It was never a practical idea (as in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, there was never a plan on what to do next, how to keep Syria from descending into complete chaos the day Assad was removed) and though progressives embraced the idea of getting rid of another “evil dictator” when it came through the mouthpiece of Obama’s own freedom fighter Samantha Power, the same idea today has little drive behind it.
Russia! Overwrought fear of Russia was once a sign of unhealthy paranoia satirized on The Twilight Zone. Today it is seen as a prerequisite to patriotism, though it still makes no more sense. The Russians have always had a practical relationship with Syria and maintained a naval base there at Tartus since 1971, and will continue to do so. There was never a plan for the U.S. to push the Russians out — Obama in fact saw the Russian presence are part of the solution in Syria. American withdrawal from Syria is far more a return to status quo than anything like a win for Putin (Matt Purple pokes holes in Putin Paranoia elsewhere on TAC.)
The Kurds? The U.S.-Kurd story is a one of expediency over morality. At each sad turn there was no force otherwise available in bulk and the Kurds were used and abandoned many times by America: in 1991 when it refused to assist them in breaking away from Saddam Hussein following Gulf War I, when it insisted they remain part of a “united Iraq” following Gulf War II, and most definitively in 2017 forward following Gulf War III when the U.S. did not support the Kurdish independence referendum, relegating the Kurds to forever being the half-loved stepchild to Baghdad. After all that, U.S. intentions toward the Kurds in Syria are barely a sideshow-scale event. The Kurds want to cleave off territory from Turkey and Syria, something neither nation will permit and something the U.S. quietly understands would destabilize the region.
Mattis, by the way, supported NATO ally Turkey in its fight against the Kurds, calling them an “active insurgency inside its borders.” The Kurds run a propaganda operation inside the U.S. to rival any other, and, as if to signal that they would not go quietly, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are discussing the release of 3,200 Islamic State prisoners, a prominent monitoring group and a Western official said Thursday. Western media of course featured this story heavily, without thinking for even one second how stupid it would be to release thousands of ISIS prisoners who would immediately turn on you, just to spite the U.S.
A final point — “The Kurds” are not a nation, or an organization, or a sports team. As referred to in this context, “The Kurds” are a violent subset of an ethnic group spread across multiple nation borders, including Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Supporting “The Kurds” means supporting a non-uniformed armed force which uses violence many classify as terrorism, including urban car bombs, to take and hold territory. The roots of these conflicts go back centuries, and the U.S. should tread carefully when inserting its 500 pound gorilla-self into them. Certainly discussion beyond Op-Eds is needed. Sorry, kids, it’s called real world politics: forced to choose between Turkey whose second-largest army in NATO controls the entrance to the Black Sea, and the stateless Kurds, um…
Iran? Does the U.S. have troops in Syria to brush back Iranian influence? As with “all of the above,” the genie got out of the bottle years ago. Iranian power in the greater Middle East has grown dramatically since 2003, and has been driven at every step by the blunders of the United States. If the most powerful army in the world couldn’t stop the Iranians from essentially being the winners of Gulf Wars II and III, how can 2,000 troops in Syria hope to accomplish much? The United States of course wasn’t even shooting at the Iranians in Syria; in most cases it was working either with them, or tacitly alongside them towards the same goal of killing off ISIS anyway. Tehran’s role as Assad’s protector was set as America rumbled about regime change. Iran has since pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria and will not be giving that up, certainly not because of the presence of absence of a few thousand Americans.
American credibility? Left is that once-neocon, now progressive catch-all, we need to stay in Syria to preserve American credibility. While pundits can still get away with this line, the rest of the globe knows the empire has no clothes. Since 2001 the United States has spent some $6 trillion on its wars, and killed multiples of the 9/11 victims worth of American troops and foreign civilians. The U.S. has tortured, still maintains the gulag of Guantanamo as a crown jewel, and worst of all credibility-wise, lost on every front. Afghanistan after 17 years of war festers. Nothing was accomplished with Iraq. Libya is a failed state. Syria is the source of a refugee crisis whose long-term effects on Europe are still being played out. We are largely left as an “indispensable nation” only in our own minds. A lot of people around the world probably wish America would just stop messing with their countries.
Our allies? The much-touted coalition which the U.S. lead into Afghanistan was in pieces before it fell apart in 2003 ahead of the Iraq invasion. One-by-one, American allies across Europe, including Britain, as well as Canada, have dropped out of GWOT or reduced their participation to token forces. Nonetheless, the media has found people as far away as Australia to quote on how the U.S. is abandoning its post-WWII roll as the world’s protector. And of course any U.S. ally who feels the fight in Syria/Afghanistan/Yemen/Etc. is worth dying for is more than welcome to send in its own troops.
So why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?
Anyone? Bueller? Mattis?
The U.S. presence in Syria, like Jim Mattis himself, is an artifact of another era, the failed GWOT. As a Marine, Mattis served in ground combat leadership roles in Gulf Wars I and II, and also in Afghanistan. He ran United States Central Command from 2010 to 2013, the final years of The Surge in Iraq and American withdrawal afterwards. There is no doubt why he supported the American military presence in Syria, and why he resigned to protest Trump’s decision to end it — Mattis knew nothing else. His entire career was built around the strategy of the GWOT, the core of which was never question GWOT strategy. Mattis didn’t need a reason to stay in Syria; being in Syria was the reason.
So why didn’t Trump listen to his generals? Maybe because the bulk of their advice has been dead wrong for 17 years? Instead, Trump plans a dramatic drawdown of troops in Afghanistan (American soldiers will be there in some small number forever to act as a rear-guard against the political fallout that chased Obama in 2011 when he withdrew troops.) The U.S. presence in Iraq has dwindled from combat to advise and assist, and Congress seems poised to end U.S. involvement in Yemen against Mattis’ advice.
There is no pleasure in watching Jim Mattis end his decades of service with a bureaucratic dirty stick shoved at him as a parting gift. But to see this all as another Trump versus the world blunder is very wrong. The war on terror failed, and needed to be dismantled long ago. Barack Obama could have done it, but instead was a victim of hubris and bureaucratic capture and allowed himself to expand it. His supporters give him credit for not escalating the war in Syria, but leave out the part about how he also left the pot to simmer on the stove instead of removing it altogether.
A New Lens
The raw drive to insta-hate everything Trump does can mislead otherwise thoughtful people. So let’s try a new lens: During the campaign Trump outspokenly denounced the waste of America’s wars. Pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas was driven by people who agreed with his critique, by people who’d served in these wars, whose sons/daughters had served, or given the length of all this, both. Since taking office, the president has pulled U.S. troops back from pointless conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Congress may yet rise to do the same for American involvement in Yemen. No new wars have started. Though the results are far from certain, for the first time in nearly twenty years negotiations are open again with North Korea.
Mattis’ ending was clumsy, but it was a long time coming. It is time for some old ideas to move on. And if future world events cause us to have some sort of debate over what the proper U.S. role is in places like Syria and Afghanistan, well, that’s been a long time coming, too.
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