A bipartisan consensus among the foreign policy elite holds that America needs to maintain its de facto overseas empire. This includes both preserving stability, as well as fomenting deliberate instability, including regime change in places like Syria. This consensus among elected officials, defense contractors, general officers, talking heads, and various experts is not shared by the vast majority of Americans, who elected Barack Obama and Donald Trump on their promises to end “stupid wars” and put America first.
The American people have good instincts on these matters.
The Confused Syria Campaign
Our Syria campaign has been a confused affair from the beginning. In the waning days of the Arab Spring, Obama supported various rebel factions seeking to oust Bashar al-Assad, as he had earlier in Libya and Egypt. Syrians soon found themselves in the midst of a brutal civil war, and in this vacuum—as in Iraq only a decade earlier—jihad tourists from all over the Middle East soon joined the fray.
The various enemies of the Syrian regime included the so-called “moderate” rebels, Kurds, and Sunni extremists, the latter of which were divided between al Nusra and ISIS. There are no obvious good guys here, and America’s initial support for regime change created the vacuum in which ISIS grew, just as America had created a vacuum in which ISIS’s parent organization began in Iraq. While the vacuum was the outcome of bad planning and misplaced idealism in the case of Iraq, in Syria, it was deliberate . . . and reckless.
Trump inherited this war where we were simultaneously fighting ISIS and the regime with the help of the so-called Free Syrian Army. At first, he defined the mission more narrowly, focusing on eradicating ISIS. This too was controversial, but few could argue with the desirability of defeating ISIS. Most aid to anti-regime rebel groups ended, and the combination of U.S. forces, the Syrian Arab Army, and the Russians fighting alongside the Syrian Arab Army, reduced ISIS from a quasi-state to a ragtag band fighting for survival.
While the U.S. did engage in punitive attacks on the Syrian regime after its alleged gas attacks, under Trump it has almost exclusively focused on ISIS, the only enemy that has threatened American and European security. Where Obama succeeded only in prolonging the civil war and giving birth to ISIS, Trump narrowed his focus and effectively achieved the goal of defeating ISIS.
Having succeeded in this mission, why should our troops stay?
In response, we hear what amounts to word salad. We need to ensure stability, protect the Kurds, shore up Israel, remain on scene for contingencies, protect Iraq’s western border (while we neglect our own), lest we “pull defeat from the jaws of victory.”
This is all unpersuasive. Wars should be fought to protect our people and further their interests. The world is too big and complicated for us either to ensure peace everywhere or to reform the deep pathologies of the Islamic world.
As we learned in Iraq, we soon become the irritant around which multiple groups can unite if we embark on open-ended commitments to and occupations of strange foreign lands.
Revolt of the Generals
Trump apparently defied the advice of his generals in this decision, leading to Defense Secretary Mattis’s announcement that he would retire in February. Mattis, while impressive and highly educated, is correct that he and Trump are not on the same page, and that “you [Trump] have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects . . .”
His forthrightness is commendable, but in the remainder of his letter, Mattis only repeats the globalist conventional wisdom out of the pages of the New York Times.
Part of the reason Republicans fall over themselves in deference to generals is that they have not had an intelligent foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. On this, mainstream Republican thinking is a mash, amounting to a more unilateral and kinetic expression of the “sole superpower” concept that unites both parties.
One thing that is frustrating about the consensus of the wise men is how parochial it is. It does not ask intelligent questions about why the United States has not decisively won a war since the first Persian Gulf War, why the military was so ill-prepared to fight a counter-insurgency in 2001 (even though almost all wars since 1945 have had this feature), or how we can realistically address friction with China, Russia, the Middle East, and Latin America all at the same time.
While Mattis may be impressive, the generals and other members of the defense establishment are not, generally speaking. Consider such dim lights as Tommy Franks, who neglected to give much thought to the challenges of Iraq’s occupation, or Ricardo Sanchez, who spent most of his tenure in Iraq denying the nascent insurgency, when he wasn’t bullying his subordinates.
Generals have told us for 17 years we need to stay the course in Afghanistan, although little has been accomplished there for a very long time, other than the occasional murder of an American soldier by one of our grateful Afghan allies.
Even those on the more creative end of the scale, such as General David Petraeus, have focused almost exclusively on the tactical or operational level. Petraeus counseled that counterinsurgency coupled with a surge was a magic bullet and declared its success in Iraq. The surge’s results were evanescent because the ultimate problem in the Middle East is not al-Qaeda, ISIS, or insurgents, but endemic extremism and violence, regardless of what brand it chooses. Such extremism finds a perpetual source of energy in Islam that is magnified by its votaries’ encounters with the West and its armies.
Almost none of the experts seems to have considered whether intervention in the Middle East advances the goal of protecting America, which is blessedly distant from this tar pit, and whose resources can be more effectively applied on shutting down the open gates through which terrorists enter to do us harm.
I also sense a rather obvious opportunism among Trump’s critics from both political parties, including those in the defense establishment.
For all the kvetching about the withdrawal from Syria, why were they not sounding the alarm on the poorly resourced Iraq effort, the destruction of order in Libya, or the inherent contradictions of our two-front war on ISIS and the Syrian regime fighting it? Why was all the talk of civilian control of the military when Bill Clinton pushed gays and Obama pushed transsexuals and women in combat? Now insubordination is a virtue apparently—an insubordination that aligns with the broader “resistance” of the unelected parts of the government to President Trump and the wishes of the American people.
Our Anti-Terrorism Strategy Should Mostly Be Defensive In Nature
The problem with the military and foreign policy establishment is that it substitutes activity for strategy. Strategy requires some articulation of goals and priorities, as well as some correspondence between mean and ends.
Defeat Germany before defeating Japan is a strategy. An alliance against a common enemy can be a strategy. Attrition can be a strategy. Encouraging a regime’s security forces to overreact is a perennial strategy of insurgents. Fighting everyone, everywhere, all the time, lest we lose sole superpower status is not a strategy. It’s only a thoughtless bad habit, the product of a failure to prioritize among security risks. The long-term result of this bad habit will be perpetual war, overstretch, exhaustion, and decline.
Of the many controversial things Trump said during the campaign, none seemed to grate more than his suggestion that he “knows more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” It turns out, that’s true. Not only did he step on the gas against ISIS and abandon the parallel (and contradictory) goal of regime change in Syria, he also knows that a successful campaign must eventually be brought to a conclusion.
ISIS is a manifestation of the broader problem of Islamic extremism. Our tactics for weakening Islamic extremism have run through several phases, some of which seem to work—punishing nation-state sponsors, disrupting financial networks, and strengthening borders—but other components, including the utopian goal of making Iraq a democracy or trying to repeat that “success” in Syria, have proven to be costly dead-ends. More important, the latter missions not only failed in enhancing our security, but they have generated new problems, like the birth of the Islamic State, which then took even more resources to address.
The Syria campaign has been smaller, less scrutinized, and mercifully less costly than the earlier Iraq campaign. But, if it were to continue, it would suffer from the same defects and mediocre results as the earlier Iraq campaign and the never-ending Afghanistan campaign. There is no way for these campaigns to end well, because the resources and tactics we employ cannot defeat the deeper sources of Islamic extremism, and our mere presence in certain respects renders this extremism more virulent.
When we look for answers, we should look beyond our parochial and conflicted elite to the wisdom of the past. For all the study of Clausewitz in our military academies, one wonders if our strategists have forgotten his advice on the general superiority of defensive measures as a strategic matter: “What is the object of defense? To preserve. To preserve is easier than to acquire; from which follows at once that the means on both sides being supposed equal, the defensive is easier than the offensive.”
In other words, we are better off securing our border, building a wall, limiting immigrants from hostile lands, and avoiding the Middle Eastern cul de sac, than playing whack-a-mole with terrorists. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria is the most courageous and controversial manifestation of his broader promise to put America first.
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