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What Doves Can Learn From Trump’s Walkback on Syria

January 8, 2019
What Doves Can Learn From Trump’s Walkback on Syria
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

Three weeks ago, President Donald Trump upended Washington by announcing abruptly that the U.S. military had accomplished its mission in Syria, and that he would immediately begin to withdraw forces from the region. ISIS, he said, had been defeated, and Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Syria itself were more than capable of cleaning up the rest. “We have won against ISIS… We’ve taken back the land, and now it’s time for our troops to come back home,” Trump told the nation. “Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now. We won, and that’s the way we want it, and that’s the way they want it.”

The uproar was immediate. Foreign policy experts and national security officials protested that the Syrian mission was not complete; that ISIS was not so wounded that it could not quickly rebuild; that to abandon our Kurdish allies would expose them to the genocidal wrath of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad; that withdrawal would create a power vacuum that Iran and Russia would be more than happy to occupy. Trump’s resolve to pull out anyway, they charged, was the most alarming evidence yet of the disastrous real-world consequences of his erratic, improvisational approach to policy. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned practically on the spot.

The doves among the president’s supporters, by contrast, were overjoyed: Finally, an American president willing to break the cycle of unending foreign war perpetuated by the bipartisan foreign policy establishment! Many allowed that the president’s thought process was simplistic and the rollout clumsy, but considered it a worthy trade-off to end a seemingly interminable foreign entanglement. Further, they charged, the so-called experts had no good reason for us to remain in Syria at all, not really.

That was then. In the weeks since, however, the Trump administration has complicated things: inching away from the drastic break Trump initially promised. This culminated Sunday in National Security Adviser John Bolton’s assertion that the pullout would not take place until ISIS had been fully defeated and the continued safety of the Kurds had been assured— in other words, not until America’s original goals in Syria had been accomplished. All the while, of course, President Trump has continued to insist that he is not walking back his announcement of immediate withdrawal, and that all suggestions to the contrary are simply Fake News.

Two points: First, Trump’s grudging accommodation of his withdrawal plans to the political realities of the conflict strongly vindicate the concerns of those who protested the immediate drawdown; second, Trump’s rapid de-escalation from what isolationists hailed as a bold blow against the national security establishment should serve as a word of warning to those same foreign-policy doves: The president is not one of you, and you tie yourselves to his mast at your peril.

To be sure, Trump traffics in all the ordinary isolationist slogans: the disdain for “nation-building,” the diatribes against “endless war,” the pledges to “bring the troops home.” But he remains just as jittery as ever about the prospect of being held accountable for the downsides of removing our troops from foreign soil, just as likely to suddenly order new bombing strikes in Syria as to order a withdrawal. No one can predict what Trump will do in the Middle East six months, or six weeks, or six days from now.

Conservatives must continue to deliberate how the war on terror should be conducted, and to what degree that necessitates American involvement. It behooves neither hawks nor doves to entwine their cause inextricably with the bumper-sticker foreign policy whims of Donald Trump.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.