In the summer of 2004, we were a year-and-a-half into the war in Iraq and I was a high schooler with a nascent interest in political journalism. I’d started reading news weeklies and I remember being surprised by the suggestion that then-President George W. Bush had not made the right choice in deciding to invade. I liked President Bush and surely, I reasoned, he wouldn’t lead us wrong on something so serious as war.
A decade and a half later, it has become evident that invasion — followed by nearly 16 years of conflict and nation building with no end in sight — was a costly mistake, with dangerous ramifications for American security and regional stability in the Middle East. But its lessons have been little learned among the Washington foreign policy establishment, which is now in sackcloth and ashes over President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from a similarly ill-advised war in Syria.
Trump himself is convinced his decision would be lauded if it had come from any other president, and in this case he may be partially correct. There seems to be something of my teenage reasoning operating in reverse here, albeit without the excuse of youth.
Establishment figures like former CIA Director John Brennan, former national security adviser Susan Rice and arch neoconservative Max Boothave slammed the withdrawal plan in terms targeting Trump personally. Would their opposition look like this under another administration?
Perhaps not, though Washington’s reflexive commitment to prolonging reckless wars of choice is not to be underestimated. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), enthusiastic intervention boosters both, are prominent among Trump’s critics on Syria despite their relative affinity for the president. For Graham, Rubio and far too many others in the halls of power, leaving Syria would be unacceptable no matter the source of the idea.
This is not because they have “a persuasive case for staying in Syria a bit longer, until some specific, achievable, near-term goal is accomplished that improves the prospects of America’s Kurdish allies without incurring a greater risk of a world war or doing more damage to the rule of law or the democratic will or unduly endangering the lives of American troops,” as Conor Friedersdorf notes at “The Atlantic.” They do not have a case because there is no such case, only generalities about “credibility,” “retreat,” “appeasement,” and interminably protecting U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters from threats bizarrely including U.S.-allied Turkey.
Left unsatisfactorily addressed are a litany of considerations which ought to have been weighed in congressional war authorization deliberations — if any such deliberations had occurred. What does the United States stand to gain by staying in Syria? And what do we stand to lose? The list of answers to the latter question is by far the longer of the two.
The Islamic State is still active, yes, but decimated in territory and manpower alike. Even at its zenith, ISIS could not pose an existential threat to America and that is triply true today. Committing to an indefinite game of whack-a-mole will not fundamentally change this scenario, and it may well have unwanted side effects of hindering the development of local and regional structures of stability while providing extremists with a constant recruiting tool.
Countering Russian and Iranian influence, meanwhile, is a risky project that makes escalation into great power conflict a real possibility. Moreover, responsibility for Syria’s chaos hardly seems a prize to be won; if Moscow and Tehran want to grab this hot potato, we might be wise to let them have it. Counterbalance from rival powers like Israel and Saudi Arabia will remain in effect to prevent the rise of a regional hegemon.
Acting as permanent security detail for the Kurds likewise hazards embroiling the U.S. in further Mideast power struggles — struggles we can and should avoid. It is also fundamentally not a project of American defense, as indeed none of these rationales for staying in Syria are. None are concerned with defending vital U.S. interests. They are a self-perpetuating hodgepodge that will always suit to justify another decade or two of intervention.
None of this is to say Trump’s withdrawal is the best of all possible worlds. Some supporters of the president’s decision have taken issue with his method, as Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt did at Foreign Policy in a piecedeeming the plan “the right thing in the wrong way.”
Walt faults Trump for making no diplomatic use of his choice and apparently offering “no advance warning or interagency preparation for the decision, which means that the timing, arrangements and broader implications have not been gamed out in advance,” but he does not on that count cede the larger issue to the indefinite war bloc and rightly so. Nor is it to say Trump has won a clear victory in Syria, as retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, national security adviser to the vice president, incredibly argued at The Washington Post.
Rather, it is to admit that there is nothing for the United States in Syria that can be properly called victory and that it is inexcusable to commit an endless supply of American blood and treasure to such an impossible aim. This may be a difficult admission, but it is a necessary one. Kellogg is right in his affirmation that the American “people deserve better than constant conflict,” and withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria is a small but significant step in that direction. Maybe Iraq can come next.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill and The American Conservative, among other outlets.