President Donald Trump is right; it is time for the U.S. military to leave Syria.
Even though he appears to have no strategy for what comes next, his intention to put a limit on any long-term U.S. military commitment is the right way to go.
Trump’s off-the-cuff withdrawal statement from last week received the standard Washington push-back. Why did we go into Iraq if we don’t intend to see it through, some say? American lives will have been sacrificed for nothing, like in Iraq. We have to see it through and handle the next stage, as Gen. Joseph Votel of U.S. Central Command put it: “stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction and other things that have to be done.” Pulling troops from Syria, the critics say, unilaterally gives up leverage for a U.S. role in the next round of Syria diplomacy.
This criticism perpetuates a long tradition of American hubris about our ability to make things happen in the Middle East, especially using military force. But those days are long, long gone, if they ever existed. A stake went through the heart of American Middle East hubris the day President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Whatever the invented justification – a nuclear program, terrorism support, revenge for the Bush 41 assassination attempt, moral judgement against a nasty regime – the 2003 invasion and the eight years of conflict and nation-building failure that followed undermined what little was left of our capacity to influence events in the region.
The invasion also set in motion a regional security landslide that had been waiting to happen and has been rumbling downhill ever since. Along with the ill-advised effort to expand democracy in the region, under Presidents Bush and Obama, the underlying entropy that infects Middle East politics — inter-state tensions, conflict of Islamic sects, Arab-Persian tensions, the unresolvable Kurdish problem — simply spun out of control, never to return.
Unfortunately, the apparent victory over ISIS has revived American hubris. But this outcome was not a coalition victory, and certainly not a U.S. victory. It was largely a Kurdish victory, with some free Syrian participation, aided by U.S. surveillance and air support, and largely unknown but limited U.S. counterterrorism operations. Well done, but that is not a basis for assuming U.S. forces can bring stability, reconstruction, and peace.
This hubris about military force is our own worst enemy — the notion that if we can just think it through, get the number right, put U.S. forces in the middle, then we will stabilize regions, rebuild countries, and enforce stability. Having lived through the Vietnam War, this the very definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different outcome.
The national security “blob” who warn departure would be a disaster are wrong. Staying in Syria would be the disaster. It is a recipe for ever-deeper involvement in the complex politics of the region, dragging the U.S. into Syrian governance (something we can do nothing about), an internal civil war (been there, lost that), and potential military confrontations with Russia, Turkey, Hezbollah, and others. It does not remove Russia from the country or ensure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not survive. And the Russians, Iranians, and Turks have already dismissed the U.S. from the diplomacy table.
To imagine that U.S. forces provide stability, direct events, or buy influence is to believe in a mirage. If we were ever the global police bringing stability to the Middle East, that job itself is gone. There is no other cop; we helped unleash the disorder in the region and there is very little clamor for the US to be the country that puts the toothpaste back in the tube.
If Trump’s instinct is right (What did $7 billion spent there and in South Asia get us?) there is one thing he still has wrong: It’s the usual complaint, that he thinks out loud with no strategic vision. The president and his national security team need to craft an integrated strategy, and that that includes diplomats. But at the State Department there are too few policy officials, at the National Security Council strategy meetings follow a random Trump tweet as a clean-up maneuver, not as policy-making, and there is always chaos in the American message. We are still waiting for a Syria strategy, while few in the region seem to care what the US thinks.
Let me be clear. I am not calling for a massive U.S. nation-building, stabilization mission Syria, all tied together in an inter-agency bow and funded with billions of taxpayer dollars, pace Brett McGurk and General Votel. We have amply proven in Iraq and Afghanistan (as we did generations earlier in Vietnam) that we are incapable of nation-building in another country; nations can only be built or re-built by the people who live there.
The military mission has run (or is near running) it’s course and should come home within the next six months, when the remains of ISIS are likely to be mopped up. Scrap any idea of putting together a big US reconstruction effort. The strategy void remains to be filled. But putting the military in front of the strategy by keeping them in country, while we wait for a strategy would buy us little influence and a great deal of trouble.
Gordon Adams is prof. emeritus at the School of International Service at American University, and a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993-97 he was the senior White House budget official for national security.