Some Early Reactions to the Reactions to President Trump’s Syria Announcement

President Trump’s Syria announcement yesterday has sent the foreign policy community into orbit. The distress is mostly bipartisan, although the real vitriol seems to be coming more from Republicans than Democrats. See, for example, the stories of Vice President Pence’s meeting with GOP senators, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s meltdown on CNN.

A few, however, appreciated the president’s decision. See especially, Cato’s John Glaser (here and here), Defense Priorities’ Benjamin Friedman, Win without War’s Stephen Miles, and timely tweets from Democrat Ted Lieu and Republicans Rand Paul and Justin Amash.

Rather than simply rehash these statements, here are a few brief observations related to the president’s decision:

  • It should not be a surprise to anyone. Donald Trump has been railing against U.S. entanglement in Middle Eastern civil wars for years – as he noted this morning on Twitter. The only real surprise is that it took so long for him to overrule his foreign policy advisers who were dead set against withdrawal. (It does raise the question: Does he have the right foreign policy advisers?) As recently as this September, John Bolton explained publicly that U.S. forces would remain in Syria as long as Iranian forces were there – effectively signaling a willingness to leave U.S troops there forever. Wednesday’s announcement is merely the latest reminder that the president sets policy.
  • I’m particularly interested – and moderately concerned – by an apparent meeting of the minds (and possible quid pro quo?) between President Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Aside from the troublesome atmospherics of the U.S. government drawing closer to an authoritarian thug, there are also grounds for asking what this means for the Kurds. Initial signs aren’t promising – Erdogan hinted that an offensive was imminent even before Trump’s announcement. If the decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria is part of a larger project that will tie the United States even more closely to the Turkish president, then President Trump almost certainly made the right decision for the wrong reason.
  • I have zero tolerance for those who bemoan the lack of congressional oversight of this decision, or who complain that the president opted for a troop withdrawal on his own, an apparent case of executive overreach. Where was this same outrage when a progression of U.S. presidents, up to and including Donald J. Trump, undertook military operations either without any congressional authorization, or only under the dubious cover of the 2001 and/or 2002 AUMFs? We should have had a proper debate over the post-9/11 AUMFs, and the appropriate recourse is to repeal rather than replace them. But those who didn’t want such a debate when U.S. forces were actively engaged in acts of war in multiple theaters, but who want one now that they’re leaving just one of those warzones, don’t have a leg to stand on.
  • The execution of this policy is almost certain to be chaotic. That is both unfortunate and unforgivable. The Pentagon, as it often does, will try to make it seem well-thought-out, but the mixed messages and general confusion emanating from the Trump administration over the last 24 hours are apparent to everyone. I understand that President Trump was new to the policymaking process when he was elected  – and, indeed, that likely worked in his favor electorally, as millions of Americans appeared to value his fresh perspective over Hillary Clinton’s experience. But his administration is now nearly two years old, and there simply is no excuse for a chaotic roll-out of an important foreign policy decision, one that certainly affects the lives of officially 2,000 American servicemen and women (the actual number could be twice that), plus potentially millions living in Syria. In my writing, I often stress how the impulse to do something (anything!) often ignores the unintended consequences of our actions. The other side is more concerned about sins of omission than sins of commission, claiming that these, too, have unintended consequences. Fair enough. In this instance, President Trump initiated a significant change in U.S. force posture in an active war zone, believing that the decision serves U.S. strategic interests. He has an obligation to take every possible step to ensure that it actually does advance our interests. An approach that amounts to “Tweet and hope for the best” doesn’t cut it.

Finally, the statements and tweets noted at the top reflect the major foreign policy debates going on within both parties. My colleagues Emma Ashford and Trevor Thrall broke this down in a recent piece for War on the Rocks, and in two episodes of the “Power Problems” podcast (with Bryan McGrath on the right and Jake Sullivan on the left). A key area of disagreement among foreign policy thinkers of all stripes revolves around the efficacy of military force, and the utility of other foreign policy tools, including diplomacy, economic carrots and sticks – and, yes, moral suasion. Leading by example, and calling on others to behave in ways that serve the cause of peace, was the touchstone of U.S. foreign policy for at least the first half of this country’s history. Some people have never forgotten that the nation’s Founders generally abhorred warfare, and were extremely reluctant to become embroiled in others’ disputes. It is significant, I think, that Rep. Ro Khanna frequently invokes John Quincy Adams in his speeches.

There is an alternative to the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that views the United States as the indispensable nation, and U.S. military power as the essential element of that indispensability. The responses to Trump’s Syria decision remind us that the particulars of that alternative will continue to be hammered out over at least the next two years.