In withdrawing US forces from northern Syria, President Trump is doing more than moving our troops out of harm’s way. He is raising a fundamental question: for what should Americans fight and die? Nearly two decades after September 11th, can a President still tell a mother and father who have lost their son in the Middle East that their sacrifice is making America a better place?
In pulling troops out of Syria, President Trump is reminding the American people who their social contract is with—namely their fellow American citizens rather than strangers in some far-away land. For President Trump this isn’t simple populism, appealing to a nation tired of foreign wars. It’s more than just a campaign pledge. It is ultimately a recognition that we are dealing with a part of the world where not only are there peoples with intractable differences, but the resolution of these differences is not the business of the United States. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, designed to remove terrorist safe havens and therefore to make America itself safer, became long-term projects to promote democracy and create stability. Those projects failed. If they were not outright misguided, they were at least certainly unrealistic.
The Kurds in northern Syria wish not to live under the boot of Turkey’s Erdogan. One can hardly blame them. But Turkey in general, and Erdogan in particular, does not wish to have independent people living on its periphery. It has been the goal of the Kurdish tribes in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran to have one country. But these are also tribes that do not necessarily agree with one another. Indeed, the Kurds in Syria are led by the PKK, a Marxist-Leninist group of fighters who have been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States. These Kurds are a far cry from the Kurds in Iraq who fought so nobly alongside US forces. And in any case, these differences are not to be resolved anytime soon and not by the United States.
The President wonders, quite sensibly, why we are treating northern Syria as a permanent protectorate of the United States. What incentive do Turkey and these Kurds have to make any kind of peace so long as we are there? It would be one thing if US forces were defending some immediate US interest. Instead American troops are present today as a legacy obligation of a war that most Americans now believe was a bad idea.
As costly as it may have been for the Kurds, they have made the most of their alliance with the United States and our endless wars in the Middle East. However nobly the Kurds have fought alongside the United States against ISIS and before that in Iraq, if they are to create an independent Kurdistan it will ultimately be their doing—not that of the United States.
It is worth noting that the numerous military men in the media who voice their support of the Kurds should engender no surprise at all. The Kurds fought with US forces against ISIS and Iraqi insurgents, and men in arms form bonds not easily broken. But it does not follow that it is somehow dishonorable for the United States to withdraw.
Indeed, withdrawal in such a case is consistent with longstanding US foreign policy. George Washington warned in his Farewell Addressagainst entangling alliances. John Quincy Adams stated on the 4th of July, 1821 that America is “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” but “the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Like them, President Trump is quite sensibly recognizing that this particular conflict is not of our making and that our withdrawal harms no vital US interest.
He has been signaling his intent to leave for some time. Yes, and to repeat, the Kurds have fought with the United States, but it was the type of alliance that benefited both sides. And all US foreign policy must ask the simple question, how will we Americans be better off when all is said and done? In this particular case it is easy to see how the Kurds will be better off with our presence. But Americans? It is not at all clear.
Sending the Right Message
What is clear is that the President’s withdrawal represents a profound strategic correction to the endless-war mindset—what some have called War, Inc.—that dominates much of Washington policy thinking. The essential lesson of the last 20 years in the Middle East is that our ongoing engagement does not make us safer or the people of the Middle East more amenable to the United States. What makes us safer is killing terrorists, and annihilating those terrorist cells that breed radical Islam. The killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a case in point.
Here was the head of ISIS living in northwestern Iraq. He was at the helm of a “caliphate” that had been largely destroyed by President Trump and US military actions. He was leading part of an Islamist movement that sought to kill Americans and citizens of the West. He was dangerous because he still represented an ambition for Islamism that has yet to be realized.
His death is an example of how the United States should treat the Islamist threat. If you wish to lead a movement to destroy our freedom and kill Americans you will die. We do not need to be in Syria or Iraq to achieve this. We know who you are and we can find out where you are. Once we find out where you are, we have the ability to find you and kill you. One might ask why this policy is not sufficient?
That having been said, and although President Trump has largely destroyed the ISIS caliphate, it is worth noting that this part of the world remains a haven for Islamist terrorism. This is one reason why so many in the US military, President Trump included, appear reluctant to withdraw altogether. But President Trump inherited a level of strategic confusion that will take some time to get right. The question is whether we are doing that sufficiently. We are back to the famous question Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked during our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: are we killing the radical Islamic terrorists faster than they are being created?
Defining the Objective
The killing of al-Baghdadi and his deputy notwithstanding, at the heart of this mess is the fact that we have not defeated Islamism as a political cause. Indeed, radical Islam has metastasized into an ideology that has spread around the globe and now sits and waits for signs of weakness and opportunity. As my colleague Tom Joscelyn has so well detailed, from ISIS and al-Qaeda cells in Europe, Asia, and America, to the mullahs in Iran and their nuclear ambitions, to Erdogan’s Islamization of Turkey, there is a growing sentiment that it is only a matter of time before the forces of radical statist Islam prevail.
What these Islamists are betting on is America’s and the West’s devotion to political correctness. And here they wouldn’t be wrong. The US government, with the notable exception of its current Commander in Chief, largely follows the destructive post-September 11th edict by President George W. Bush that Islam is a religion of peace. The main enablers of the September 11th attacks, Saudi Arabia, have never been held to account. And even under the Trump Administration, the US has yet to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
As the US seeks to withdraw from the Middle East and turn its attention to great power competitors, Russia and China, it will be important to construct a strategy that recognizes this failure and prepares for an ongoing method to defeat the forces of Islamist terrorism wherever they manifest should they mean the United States harm. If nothing else we need to be mindful that the likes of Iran, and Islamic terrorist cells the world over, will likely be used by both Russia and China as surrogates and as strategic pawns against the United States.
In the meantime, President Trump’s pivot should be embraced. It takes immense political courage to defy the Washington political/military establishment. He has killed America’s greatest terrorist enemy and his chief deputy. He has redefined how to go about killing our enemies. And he is now on track now to rebuild the American military for the bigger challenges that lie ahead. That by itself is a great achievement.