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The Real “America First” Foreign Policy Starts Now

With a new team at the Pentagon and the freedom of a lame duck, President Trump may be about to indulge his most dangerous foreign policy desires.
November 20, 2020
The Real “America First” Foreign Policy Starts Now
US President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field, on November 28, 2019 in Afghanistan. (Photo by Olivier Douliery / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

As the clock ticks down on the Trump presidency, the last adults are leaving the room. Amb. Jim Jeffrey, who led the war against ISIS for the last two years, revealed this week that he and others played “shell games” with President Trump’s administration to mislead it about the number of American troops in Syria. Jeffrey recently departed his post. Last week, Trump cleared out the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, replacing respected professionals with his own supporters who share his isolationist world view. The new senior adviser to the secretary of defense, for example, has argued that it was a mistake to go to war even against Nazi Germany. Not all of the new Pentagon leaders are Trump partisans—Christopher Miller, the new acting secretary of defense, is respected by all sides and seems committed to competently leading the organization. But many of these new officials pose a significant threat to U.S. national security. We may be about to find out what an unrestrained Trump foreign policy looks like.

So where is the danger in Trump’s last-minute Pentagon purge? Why fire the coach after the game is over?

Of course, much speculation has centered on the possible domestic abuses afoot. In the wake of the terrifying events at Lafayette Square earlier this summer, these fears are rational. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper rejected Trump’s urging to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would have brought the active military onto America’s streets. But even without Esper at the helm, the military will not allow Trump to draw it into a domestic political squabble. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley publicly implied Thursday, there is no legal mechanism for a president to use the Pentagon to alter the election results or maintain his grip on power.

The more realistic risk isn’t aggression at home but hasty retreat abroad. With his supporters now in place at the Pentagon, Trump might aim to reshape our global presence during his last two months in office. He finally can establish a reckless “America First” foreign policy, and can do so without breaking any laws. With Esper and other Pentagon leadership out of the way, Trump could be on the verge of rushed withdrawals from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Many of these moves would be Trump’s parting gift to America’s adversaries.

Syria illustrates that danger. Trump has tried to withdraw American forces from that county several times over the past few years, usually at the urging of foreign strongmen like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Despite Trump’s best efforts to lose in Syria, the U.S. mission achieved success rarely found in the Middle East. American forces helped eliminate ISIS’s territorial holdings, contained Assad, and balanced America’s relationship with Turkish and Kurdish partners who are themselves bitter rivals.

Earlier this year, Russian forces endangered U.S. troops multiple times, charging at American convoys with armored vehicles. The American response was robust and effective, but quiet. The Pentagon poured hundreds of additional soldiers with dozens of armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles into the country, neutralizing the Russian threat.

The effort was so quiet that Trump may not have noticed this himself—he was too busy campaigning and recovering from the coronavirus. But the officials protecting the U.S. mission in Syria from Trump’s wrath—Esper, Jeffrey, and their respective predecessors, Mattis and Amb. Brett McGurk—are all gone.

So what’s at stake now? In the wake of this week’s firings, there has been much talk about Trump trying to pull troops out of Syria rapidly—some members of Trump’s new Pentagon leadership team support such an action. These officials may feel that it’s a small enough deployment that troops could be yanked out without much difficulty, in contrast to the larger deployments in other countries. Secretary Miller has already announced drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 soldiers, but the full withdrawal Trump desires would be a time-consuming and complicated logistical muzzle. Retreating from Syria, on the other hand, would be relatively straightforward.

Such a move would significantly damage U.S. interests. A rushed withdrawal would imperil our Kurdish partners who have sacrificed so much to defeat ISIS and secure a chunk of territory for themselves, just as Trump’s earlier efforts to pullout of the country cost the Kurds hard-won gains. Northeast Syria might again return to a state of chaos, allowing ISIS and other terrorist organizations to reemerge and, if they so desire, plot attacks on Americans here at home. Vladimir Putin would relish such an event, which would grant Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah control over vast swaths of territory. We would be hard pressed to find allies and partners willing to work with us in future conflicts, as the world’s memory of a rushed abandonment of Syria would remain long after President-elect Biden takes office.

These scenarios have never been less remote. Trump has the legal authority to withdraw from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan without congressional approval. He now has officials in place at the Pentagon who are of the same mindset. Uniformed leaders won’t speak out the same way General Milley did in the wake of Lafayette Square, as foreign policy decisions like troop withdrawals sit more squarely with the president. With no one else remaining to stop Trump, the onus falls on Republicans in Congress with the president’s ear to discourage what could be a series of disastrous choices.

Some of the same senators who have yet to criticize Trump’s refusal to acknowledge electoral defeat—Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and Tom Cotton—have been strong on our need to uphold our obligations to key allies. A hasty Syria withdrawal, coupled with Trump’s refusal to allow Biden’s team to begin hearing security briefings, increases the threat from ISIS. And while the United States should draw down its presence in Afghanistan, Trump’s drawdown plan might be executed poorly.

The president now has Pentagon leaders in place who share his isolationist, “America First” goals. Republican senators, to their credit, have criticized the rushed nature of the administration’s Afghanistan and Iraq drawdown plans. Their influence may have prevented a rushed total withdrawal from those countries that would have resembled America’s embarrassing escape from Saigon in 1975. It’s possible—even likely—that those same senators are pushing the administration behind closed doors to avoid a similar error in Syria. Now is the time for them to use whatever influence they’ve accumulated over four years to prevent further damage to America’s global standing over the next two months.

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman was a captain in the U.S. Army and is a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School.