Three things happened in recent days that set President Donald Trump’s Middle Eastern foreign policy on a drastically different path that will reverberate in our national life and international alliances for years.
1) On Dec. 14, as he’s done about a dozen times since taking office, Trump phoned Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Erdogan. In the bland official description, the two NATO allies were said to discuss matters of mutual concern.
2) Four days later, Trump abruptly announced the U.S. would immediately withdraw its 2,000 special operators training Syrians and Kurds fighting ISIS in northeastern Syria.
3) On Dec. 19, Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned. Because Mattis is globally respected for his wisdom, steadiness and career in the Marines, and because Trump has become accurately infamous for sudden firings, the president carefully called it “retiring with distinction.”
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Now, let’s look at the background on why this matters so much more than the political posturing and media hysteria over a partial government shutdown. And why these three events augur ill for the remaining 25 months in Trump’s tumultuous term.
There are two issues here: The first is Trump’s sudden withdrawal decision and its complex implications for regional stability and America’s diplomatic reputation there and well beyond.
Erdogan had announced a military offensive on Syrian Kurds, which he views as allied with Turkey’s terrorist Kurds, regardless of Americans’ presence. As so often happens with locals who side with Americans, Trump’s withdrawal will leave Kurdish fighters at the mercy of enemies — the Turks, Russians, Iranian militias and Syrian troops.
While the rapid drawdown solves one friction with a NATO ally and may encourage Ankara to buy Patriot missiles, the president’s move was an artless deal. He could have used the U.S. exit as leverage to get Iran to leave or curb its troop presence there. Instead, he gave it away for free, to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s delight.
The second issue is the president’s governing style, if that’s the word. Trump’s real estate career is legendary; just ask him. Relying on gut instincts, a vast legal team and some timely intimidation, the canny Trump amassed a fortune.
His fame was magnified through a long and successful TV career. If you don’t like his imperious style, you’re fired.
All this, combined with seething voter resentment over the economy, the political status quo and those who ran it, helped elect the New Yorker. But one-man rule of a business empire does not translate well to heading government in a participatory democracy with three equal branches.
That role requires persuasion, consultation, leadership by example, oh, and a willingness at least to appear to listen to others. Our most effective politicians don’t particularly care who gets credit for successes.
Trump has chafed under the cautionary establishment guidance of advisers and experts, but held back on peremptory troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan.
The latter war, launched in retaliation for 9/11, is the nation’s longest and has resulted in the loss of 2,417 military lives since 2001, 14 of them this year. Another 4,563 died in Iraq since 2003, including 17 this year.
All wars in Afghanistan go on forever. Ask Britain and Russia, neither of which ever tamed that tribal culture before giving up. U.S. involvement in Syria was mainly advisory but was never really explained to Americans by any president. Free Syrians and Syrian Kurds, assisted by allied air power, did most of the ISIS extinction work.
After former President Barack Obama’s false keep-your-health-plan vow, fulfilling campaign promises is a big deal to Trump, even if they’re not the best governing policy. The president often recalls his 2016 promise to destroy ISIS’s territorial caliphate, which has happened.
However, in actual fact Trump vowed to “destroy” ISIS, which hasn’t happened. And won’t with Americans’ departure. So, mission accomplished it isn’t, no matter how many times you say it.
ISIS maintains considerable forces in scattered strongholds ready to reactivate in a power vacuum, as it did in Iraq following Obama’s abrupt total troop withdrawal in 2011.
It’s true that in his America first campaign, Trump vowed to curb such military interventions. Additionally, he said under Obama, U.S. foreign policy had become too predictably indecisive.
As you may have noticed, Trump likes unpredictability. Allies, Congress and the Pentagon not so much. His mercurial disposition subsumes his reliability, the long-term glue to important alliances and their deterrence.
Trump announced the Syrian pullout by tweet, bypassing notification or consultation with Congress, his secretary of defense or any nations in the allied coalition.
This was not the first time that the four-star combat veteran Mattis in charge of the nation’s 3.1 million-member active and reserve military learned of a major Trump defense decision only on the news.
Dutifully, he carried on his work until this most serious policy disagreement. And then, alas for the nation, dutifully he stepped aside.