President Trump announced American forces will finally be pulled out of Syria. But Defense Secretary James Mattis disagreed with that decision enough to resign and the rest of the political elite — people from Nancy Pelosi, to Hillary Clinton adviser Victoria Nuland, to Mitt Romney — joined in to lambast the decision.
Mr. Trump didn’t seem to mind that Mr. Mattis was gone. “How has he done in Afghanistan?” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Mattis, expressing frustration over the lack of progress to end American military involvement in the Middle East. “Not too good. I’m not happy with what he’s done in Afghanistan and I shouldn’t be happy. [But] he was very happy.”
Meanwhile, a majority of the American people agree with Mr. Trump’s decision, and the numbers would likely be higher if Mr. Trump’s name weren’t on the question. But don’t assume the Beltway critics care — they deem themselves to be much smarter than the crowd. Yet they have been consistently wrong for years about military interventions in the Middle East. Syria offers a prime example.
For starters, the D.C. crowd says that ISIS is not really defeated — even though 99 percent of the land ISIS held has been taken back, and the group has gone underground. But by this measure, America would be in Syria forever. ISIS operates under the same religious ideology of al Qaeda, and that of the Saudi madrassas that spread Wahhabi Islam — a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam — throughout the Middle East. There is no military solution to totally eradicate ISIS if it functions off of an ideology that is widespread in the Sunni Muslim world.
The elites also say that Iran is in Syria, so we must stay as long as Iran does. But this is not new—Shia Iran has always been involved with the Assads, as Syrian Alawites are close relatives of Shia Islam. Iran is a menace, not a threat to dominate the region. And there are ways to check Iran that don’t involve taking sides in the 1,400-year old fight between Sunnis and Shias.
That brings us to another point, one that the foreign policy elites don’t like to talk about. The belligerents in the Syrian Civil War are largely Sunnis, fighting the Shia-Alawite Assad regime in the west, and its allies Iran and Russia. Many Sunni rebels, funded by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-Muslim nations, were affiliated with al Qaeda, or turned into what we now refer to as ISIS. Even America’s CIA spent $1 billion per year trying to find moderate rebels to arm, but ended up arming al Qaeda affiliates.
But don’t Iran in Syria threaten Israel? U.S. military aid has helped ensure Israel can deter and defend against weaker neighbors, as it has for years. And a Syria controlled by Bashar Assad is safer for Israel than a Syria controlled by jihadists. It is also not in Mr. Assad’s or Russia’s interest for Iran to use Syria as a base to launch attacks into Israel. Russia, for example, has good relations with Israel. Iran’s presence in Syria will likely diminish as Mr. Assad becomes more secure in his position.
When all that fails, the elite complains that the United States leaving will mean America doesn’t have a seat at the diplomatic table. But there is no vital U.S. interest at stake in the political order inside Syria as it returns to the prewar status quo. Already, the Kurds in Syria’s north — our allies — are working with the Assad regime, as they had prior to the Syrian civil war.
Then there are the realities on the ground. Mr. Assad is a thug, but he has won the civil war — backing the rebels merely prolongs the violence and death. President Obama should have never ordered the funding of radicals that we then had to fight. Taking out the Assad regime wasn’t smart then, and it wouldn’t be smart now. In addition to risking a larger war, it would risk creating a power vacuum that would empower the jihadists we have been fighting. And for all the Assad regime’s brutalities, it is tolerant of ethnic and religious minorities such as Christians, Yazidis and the Kurds. ISIS and al Qaeda are not.
That’s also why talk of Russia “winning” in Syria is borderline insane. Russia has been in Syria since the Cold War days. And our adversaries in the region such as Iran and Russia are also enemies of ISIS. The joke is on them if we leave them all together to fight it out.
Finally, when the foreign policy elites run out of other arguments, they criticize the process. But there was no congressional resolution that authorized a mission for U.S. troops in Syria. And if the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces following the defeat of ISIS seemed out-of-the-blue, blame Mr. Mattis and the rest of Washington for ignoring and circumventing the president’s stated wishes. That’s not how our system is supposed to work.
It isn’t just Syria. Take Afghanistan, where America has sunk trillions of dollars, lost thousands of young lives, and where the situation on the ground is little-changed from 17 years ago. Mr. Trump has decided to reduce America’s footprint, but official Washington is pushing back on that as well. And already, many are pressuring Mr. Trump to re-think his Syria decision. National Security Adviser John Bolton just visited the Middle East, where he seemed to walk back the president’s announced troop-withdrawal.
It is high time that policymakers adhere to a set of principles before they send our troops overseas: Is the objective directly related to America’s security? Is the objective achievable, and is there an exit strategy?
And most important, politicians must ask themselves whether America’s intervention is worth the lives and sacrifices of our service-members. Is the intervention worth sending your son or daughter into combat? Syria, and many of our other foreign interventions, do not meet this test.
Willis L Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities and works in the financial services industry.
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