One of the leading critiques against President Trump’s foreign policy is that it smacks of global retreat and constitutes a U.S. withdrawal from the leading role it has played in the so-called “liberal world order.” As I explain in an op-ed in the New York Post today, that critique is unfounded.
I cite Joe Scarborough lamenting Trump’s “dangerous retreat from the world,” and Evan Osnos who, in a recent piece in The New Yorker, claimed, “President Trump is reducing U.S. commitments abroad.” Likewise, Hal Brands, who worked on foreign policy strategy in the Obama administration and is now a professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS, broods that Trump “is clearly attracted to something like Fortress America,” a vision that fuses anti-free trade economic nationalism with a withdrawal from U.S. alliances and overseas military presence. The Senate Appropriations Committee even released a report in September criticizing “the administration’s apparent doctrine of retreat.”
While it is clear Trump’s foreign policy disdains multilateralism and harbors contempt for engaged diplomacy, it is profoundly misleading to suggest there has been any kind of retreat from the world. As I explain in the piece, Trump “hasn’t backed away from any theater in which the U.S. military was committed or engaged at the time of his inauguration,” and in many cases, he has deepened America’s foreign entanglements.
One data point that I wasn’t able to include in the piece was the latest news, announced by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson yesterday, that the Trump administration is committing to an indefinite U.S. military presence in Syria. As of today, there are about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria and Tillerson laid out their mission to include fighting terrorism, saving the Syrian people from Bashar al-Assad, and countering Iranian influence, among other tasks.
Aside from serving as yet more evidence that President Trump is a committed interventionist who has increased, not decreased, U.S. security commitments abroad, it is notable how the administration can announce this new indefinite military commitment in Syria without even pretending to seek Congressional approval or present it as a matter of debate to the public. Much like Trump’s bombing of a Syrian base in April, Congress has not authorized any kind of new open-ended military mission in Syria. Nor does the United States have the permission of the host government, which means it lacks legal sanction internationally, too (not to mention how blatantly this contradicts the Trump team's emphasis on respect for national sovereignty).
Another endless counter-insurgency campaign in a chaotic post-conflict Syria is hardly a recipe for success. And the notion that this open-ended deployment can effectively counter Iranian influence in Syria is dubious considering the far more robust Syria-Iran-Russia alignment. Equally dubious is the idea that Iranian influence in Syria is a strategic concern that even merits U.S. action in the first place.
In fact, the blowback from this policy has already begun. U.S. troops are located largely in Kurdish-held areas of northeastern Syria and reports initially indicated U.S. plans to develop an independent Kurdish militia force. The response from our NATO ally Turkey, which has long battled Kurdish separatists in its own southeast, near the Syrian border, was vociferous (the White House partially backpedaled in response). President Erdogan pledged to “strangle it,” which suggests Turkey would join with virtually every other state with a stake in the region to counter the U.S. mission in Syria by any means.
Anyone who believes a new military commitment in Syria, predicated on a laundry list of vague, indeterminate, and futile missions, is likely to go off without a hitch hasn’t been paying attention to the last 20 years of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. And anyone who continues to suggest President Trump is retreating from the world is simply in denial.