President Trump has ordered a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. This is the right decision. The U.S. military presence in Syria has not been authorized by Congress, is illegal under international law, lacks a coherent strategy, and carries significant risks of entangling America in a broader quagmire in yet another Middle Eastern country.
As I wrote in Axios:
The Obama administration first deployed U.S. troops to Syria to complement its aerial bombing campaign against ISIS with special operations forces and coordinate with local anti‐ISIS militias on the ground, gradually expanding from hundreds of troops to roughly 4,000.
The mission expanded, too, from merely defeating ISIS (substantially accomplished some time ago) to ushering Syrian President Bashar al‐Assad out of power, expelling Iranian forces, and edging out Russia.
…The bottom line: Absent achievable goals and a strong national security imperative backed up by congressional authorization, the U.S. presence in Syria is illegitimate and better off wound down.
One prominent criticism of Trump’s decision is that it lacks a clear public explanation and evades the carefully planned and coordinated inter‐agency process that enables such a withdrawal to be executed safely and responsibly. This is a fair criticism. Indeed, Trump seems not to have consulted the Defense Department, State Department, or really any of the national security principals in his administration before making this announcement.
But the fault for evading process may lie more with the president’s hawkish advisors than with Trump himself. Trump has long expressed disapproval for the U.S. military presence in Syria, but his own officials – including National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and the current Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey – either resisted or ignored the Commander in Chief’s clearly stated preferences on an ongoing military mission. That may have made the president feel he had no choice but to circumvent process and issue the order to withdraw on his own, via Twitter.
That said, I do worry about an administration that is too deferential to Trump’s every whim. I was heartened, for example, that cabinet officials spent months pushing back on Trump’s call to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Likewise with the president’s request for military options against North Korea, which the Pentagon reportedly slow‐walked in the months before Trump shifted from maximum pressure to diplomatic negotiations with Kim Jong‐un. And when Trump reportedly asked Mattis to assassinate Assad, it was probably a good thing that the Secretary of Defense chose not to take the suggestion seriously.
That withdrawal is the right decision does not mean Syria will flourish in peace and security. Several undesirable contingencies may occur in the aftermath of our exit. The Turks may engage in operations against the Kurds in Syria’s northeast. ISIS may make some gains here and there. But if these things materialize, they should not be cited as proof that withdrawal was unwise. That’s exactly the flawed argument hawks employed to criticize the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq. Sure, it left a vacuum in which ISIS emerged. But ISIS itself is a product of the US invasion of Iraq. And our presence in Syria could very well be creating comparable unintended consequences, instead of preventing them.
It can’t be America’s purpose to indefinitely forestall every plausible misfortune that may or may not bedevil this troubled region. In the near term, we can engage in diplomacy to try to curb Turkish plans to target the Kurds. And with regard to ISIS, it’s not at all clear that their permanent defeat depends on maintaining a U.S. ground presence in Syria. The extremist group is already decimated, and even without an indefinite U.S. presence, it is surrounded by enemies to whom we can pass the buck (should resurgence even occur, which is not a given).
Anyone who favors a U.S. military presence in Syria should be calling for Congress to formally authorize it. That process will require making a strong public case that deployment is required to preempt an immediate threat to U.S. security and that the mission have coherent, achievable goals that clearly define what victory looks like. Otherwise, our presence in Syria is illegitimate.
A persistent myth surrounding the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis is that the wealthy Gulf States are not sponsoring Syrian refugees. As I wrote in late 2015, the Gulf States did not host refugees but they were sponsoring almost 1.4 million Syrian emigrants in 2013 – about a million more than they were sponsoring in 2010 before the Syrian civil war began. The recently released World Bank bilateral migration index for 2017 shows that Gulf Countries are still sponsoring about 1.2 million Syrians, a 12 percent decline relative to 2013 (Table 1).
These Syrians are technically not “refugees” because Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States are not signatories to the 1951 UNHCR convention that created the modern international refugee system. Statements by government spokesmen in the Gulf States confirm that they have taken in large numbers of “Arab brothers and sisters in distress,” but that they do not abide by international law governing refugees. In many cases, these government extended work and residency permits to Syrians who were already there when the civil war began in 2011, allowed them to bring their families, and then permitted other Syrians to join them.
The total number of Syrians in the Gulf States declined by 12 percent from 2013 to 2017 but their share of all Syrians living outside of their home country more than halved. The number of Syrians living outside of Syria in 2017 increased by 96 percent over 2013, from about 3.9 million to 7.8 million (Table 2). About 82 percent of the global increase in the number of Syrian emigrants from 2013 to 2017 settled in Turkey and Lebanon. A full 88 percent of all Syrians who left Syria from 2010 to 2017 settled in other Middle Eastern countries. Of all Syrian emigrants globally, 85 percent living in the Middle East (Figure 1).
Every additional Syrian emigrant living in the Gulf States is one fewer potential refugee elsewhere. Although the Gulf States have cut the number of Syrians living there since 2013, they are still housing over 1.2 million. The mere fact that the Gulf States have allowed large numbers of Syrians to live in their territory has helped relieve the humanitarian crisis somewhat. As much criticism as we can heap on the Gulf States for other issues, at least they allowed many Syrians to live there during the worst years of the Syrian civil war.
2017 has been a year of massive expansion for the Global War on Terror, but you could be forgiven for not noticing. In addition to the media focus on the ongoing chaos in the Trump White House, the Pentagon has consistently avoided disclosing where and who America’s armed forces are engaged in fighting until forced to do so.
Take Syria, where the Pentagon long claimed that there were only 500 boots on the ground, even though anecdotal accounts suggested a much higher total. When Maj. General James Jarrard accidentally admitted to reporters at a press conference in October that the number was closer to 4000, his statement was quickly walked back. Finally, last week, the Pentagon officially acknowledged that there are in fact 2000 troops on the ground in Syria, and pledged that they will stay there ‘indefinitely.’
Even when we do know how many troops are stationed abroad, we often don’t know what they’re doing. Look at Niger, where a firefight in October left four soldiers dead. Prior to this news — and to the President’s disturbing decision to publicly feud with the widow of one of the soldiers — most Americans had no idea that troops deployed to Africa on so‐called ‘train‐and equip’ missions were engaged in active combat.
Yet U.S. troops are currently engaged in counterterrorism and support missions in Somalia, Chad, Nigeria, and elsewhere, deployments which have never been debated by Congress and are authorized only under a patchwork of shaky, existing authorities.
Even in the Middle East, deployments have been increasing substantially under the Trump administration, with the number of troops and civilian support staff in the region increasing by almost 30% during the summer of 2017 alone. These dramatic increases were noted in the Pentagon’s quarterly personnel report, but no effort was made to draw public attention to them.
The fundamental problem is simple. With only limited knowledge of where American troops are, and what they are doing there, we cannot even have a coherent public discussion about the scope of U.S. military intervention around the globe. We should be discussing the increase in U.S. military actions in Africa or the growth in U.S. combat troops in the Middle East, but that discussion is effectively impossible — even for the relevant congressional committees — with so little information.
So if I could ask for one change to U.S. foreign policy for Christmas, I’d like to know where American troops are and what they’re doing there. It’s past time for a little more transparency, from the Trump administration, and from the Pentagon.
In an address at the American Enterprise Institute today, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, laid out an assertive and fundamentally misleading case against continuing U.S. participation in the Iranian nuclear deal.
Though Haley was careful to note that she was not calling for the United States to actively withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), she offered a selection of ‘alternative facts’ and carefully phrased arguments clearly aimed at justifying President Trump’s desire to do just that.
Haley’s arguments carefully skirted around the actual facts. The key problem for the Trump administration’s desire to withdraw from the JCPOA is simple: Iran is actually adhering to the terms of the deal. Rather than attacking the deal head on, therefore, Haley instead argued that the United States should consider factors outside the legal scope of the deal when deciding its future.
Indeed, though she cited many different reasons to take a harder line against Iran — including a litany of Iran’s past bad behaviors, the regime’s actions in Syria and elsewhere, and its missile testing – none of these are actually covered by the nuclear deal. Haley even suggested that Iran could have hundreds of covert nuclear sites which cannot be inspected under the deal, but offered no evidence for her assertion.
Her portrayal of the nuclear agreement was also misleading. As she described it: “the deal he [President Obama] struck wasn’t supposed to just be about nuclear weapons. It was meant to be an opening with Iran; a welcoming back into the community of nations.” In Haley’s account, these broad goals justify the use of a broader lens in deciding whether to stick with the deal or not.
There’s just one problem: the Obama administration was always clear to stress that the JCPOA was first and foremost a nonproliferation agreement, focused on preventing an Iranian bomb, not on fixing every problem in the U.S.-Iranian relationship. Though she never stated it so bluntly, Haley’s remarks amount to an argument that these broader issues are worth jettisoning even a successful nonproliferation agreement that is preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Perhaps the most misleading statement in the Ambassador’s remarks was her assertion that Trump’s choice to decertify the deal would not actually amount to U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, but would merely allow congress to debate the issue. Yet it would also result in a congressional vote on re‐imposing nuclear related sanctions on Iran, potentially withdrawing the United States from the deal and splitting us from European allies.
Unusually for this administration, Nikki Haley’s arguments today were well‐crafted, clearly delivered and plausible‐sounding. But listeners should not be fooled: they nonetheless embraced the Trump administration’s universe of ‘alternative facts.’
U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA could easily set Iran back on the path to a nuclear weapon, and re‐open the debate over military action which occurred prior to the finalization of the nuclear deal. By ignoring the risks and eliding basic facts, Haley’s arguments are likely only to undermine U.S. foreign policy.
As I argue in my recently published policy analysis here at Cato, the American-led war on terror has clearly failed. Unfortunately, rather than accept the obvious fact that the campaign was badly misguided and focusing homeland security efforts in more fruitful areas, the Trump administration appears ready to embrace, and perhaps even to escalate, the American commitment in the Middle East. Though President Trump himself has frequently voiced concerns about nation building in Iraq and the mission in Afghanistan, few of his senior advisers appear to share his worries. And sadly, few voices from the foreign policy establishment have questioned the need for continued American intervention.
The near total lack of debate begs a simple question: Why do so many smart people support the continuation of a strategy despite its abject failure over sixteen years and in the absence of anything even remotely approaching a new theory of victory?
Though there are undoubtedly many different contributing factors, one important cause is the influence of several mutually reinforcing fallacies about terrorism and the use of force.
The first of these is the “political will” fallacy. This is the misguided idea that the United States can outlast the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other local actors simply by illustrating sufficient political resolve. Once the terrorists and insurgents understand that the United States is truly “in it to win it” they will admit defeat. The reality, however, is that resolve is not something the White House can create. Resolve is a force that stems from how meaningful the objective is to a nation and how much its people are willing to pay to achieve it.
Given this, America’s adversaries clearly enjoy a decided advantage. Local actors like the Taliban have a tremendous stake in the outcome in Afghanistan – it is their home, after all. Americans, on the other hand, are rightly dubious of the value of slugging it out for a country of little significance to their security. Thus, much as happened during the Vietnam War, no matter how much firepower the United States brings to the fight local adversaries like the Taliban will always have greater resolve to keep fighting.
Tomorrow Congress will vote on resolutions of disapproval in response to Trump’s recent arms deal with Saudi Arabia. If passed, Senate Resolution 42 and House Resolution 102 would effectively block the sale of precision guided munitions kits, which the Saudis want in order to upgrade their “dumb bombs” to “smart bombs.” A similar effort was defeated last year in the Senate. How should we feel about this vote?
Before the ink was dry President Trump was busy bragging about his arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a deal that he claimed would reach $350 billion and would create “hundreds of thousands of jobs.” The sale bore all the hallmarks of Trump’s operating style. It was huge. It was a family deal—brokered by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. It was signed with pomp and circumstance during the president’s first international trip. But most importantly, as with so many of his deals, the deal was all sizzle and no Trump Steak.™
Trump’s arms deal with the Saudis is in fact a terrible deal for the United States. It might generate or sustain some jobs in the U.S. It will certainly help the bottom line of a handful of defense companies. But from a foreign policy and national security perspective, the case against selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is a powerful one for many reasons.Read the rest of this post »
Since at least World War II, U.S. foreign policy has been shaped by the necessity of securing scarce oil supplies. And for more than 30 years, it has been shaped by a commitment to safeguard the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Many of the defining moments in U.S. foreign policy since then– including the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s, the 1980s ‘tanker war’ and even the 1991 Persian Gulf War – have been shaped by this commitment, perhaps most clearly articulated by President Carter in 1980:
Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
Yet recent years have seen profound changes in the global oil market. Growth in U.S. domestic production – a result of the shale gas revolution – has returned the United States to the top of global hydrocarbon producer rankings for the first time in decades. A more general shift in production from global south to north has made the United States substantially less reliant on Middle Eastern sources of oil, and more on close neighbors like Canada.
These changes, combined with dramatic shifts in the Middle Eastern balance of power raise a key question: should the United States continue to use its military to guarantee the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf?
On February 27th, Cato will host a book forum to discuss the recently published book Crude Strategy: Rethinking the U.S. Military Commitment to Defend Persian Gulf Oil. The book addresses many of these key questions, pulling together an interdisciplinary team of political scientists, economists, and historians to explore the links between Persian Gulf oil and U.S. national security.
The book’s essays explore key questions such as the potential economic cost of disruption in oil supply, whether disruptions can be blunted with nonmilitary tools, the potential for instability in Saudi Arabia, and the most effective U.S. military posture for the region. By clarifying the assumptions underlying the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, the authors conclude that the case for revising America’s grand strategy towards the region is far stronger than is commonly assumed.
The discussion will feature the book’s editors, Charles Glaser, Professor of Political Science and Director, Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at the George Washington University and Rosemary Kelanic, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Williams College. Joining them will be Kenneth Vincent, Visiting Fellow, Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, George Washington University and John Glaser, Cato’s Associate Director of Foreign Policy Studies.
The event promises a fascinating discussion on the energy security roots of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East, and the future of the U.S. commitment to the region’s oil supplies. You can register for the event here.