During the presidency of George W. Bush, his repeated, almost robotic calls to “stay the course” in Iraq were the mark of a man who had run out of ideas. As casualties mounted and progress faltered, his persistence exemplified a tragic and costly sincerity.
John McCain expressed similar themes in his 2008 campaign, suggesting we could withdraw from Iraq as soon as we achieved an impossible end state and that, if necessary, we should stay 100 years to do so. The American people said no.
The McCain ethos lives on today in Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R.-Texas), a decorated Navy SEAL, whose physical courage contrasts sharply with his recitation of banal conventional wisdom. After Trump’s controversial call to withdraw from Syria, he tweeted, “removing our small and cost-effective force from Northern Syria is causing more war, not less. Our presence there was not meant to engage in endless wars, it was there to deter further warfare.” Crenshaw never learned that “war is peace” was meant to be self-evident nonsense.
Stay the Course is Not a Strategy
Persistence in the face of failure is a substitute for a real and effective strategy. Strategy involves tailoring means to ends. It requires ranking goals and allocating resources accordingly. It also involves deep thinking about what those goals should be and what costs are justified in their pursuit. And it should involve frequent, critical assessments of actions that do not achieve results.
By now, the maudlin tales of the heroic Kurds are familiar to most as propaganda. No nation goes to war because of such idealism, and the establishment’s heart strings are very finely and selectively tuned. We’re supposed to weep for the Kurds, while ignoring the weeping Yemenis. The Democrats now criticizing Trump praised Obama for leaving Iraq under less favorable circumstances and never lost a moment’s sleep over our abandonment of the South Vietnamese 45 years ago.
No one seriously thinks that we should start or continue a war simply out of blind loyalty to our allies, particularly when, as here, they may have a conflict with yet another of our allies. We have turned on allies before, not least in the Cold War, where we confronted our erstwhile World War II ally, the Soviet Union.
Nations often find that allies can become enemies and that former enemies can become friends. The only way to reconcile these competing loyalties and compelling claims of justice is through the cold logic of national interest.
Does the American National Security Establishment Understand America?
In their attempt to gin up popular enthusiasm to stay in Syria forever using emotional appeals about the Kurds, the national security establishment demonstrates a real lack of understanding about the most important country they should understand—their own.
Americans do not like forever wars. Americans repeatedly have soured on ambitious and open-ended commitments in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. True, they have been supportive of swift campaigns with limited objectives, such as Grenada, Operation Just Cause, and the First Gulf War. But the American people are no more suited to the forever wars required of a global empire in 2019 than they were in 1919.
In spite of this persistent ambivalence, the nation’s decision-makers have made numerous commitments that the American people either have rejected—such as the obligation to SEATO in Vietnam—or would almost certainly reject if the commitment resulted in a shooting war. For example, would the American people really spend trillions of dollars and lose tens of thousands of men to secure the sovereignty of Estonia or the territorial integrity of Taiwan? Would they do so for Turkey? Can a policy that depends on such a ruinous and unlikely commitment be a sensible one?
Of course not.
While many of us salute the stateless Kurds for their independence, pluck, and courage against our common enemy in ISIS, we never promised to police northeastern Syria on their behalf, nor to carve out a homeland for them. Doing so would alienate other, more powerful players we have commitments to like Turkey, a NATO member. As John Quincy Adams said of the Greeks, then fighting their own war of national liberation from the Turks, America is “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
The real passion of the professionals is not for human rights, national liberation of the Kurds, nor even peace, but rather for process and inertia. This extends from civilian staffers and analysts to interested politicians and generals. Consider the Iraq Campaign. It went from a quest for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, to installing democracy, and ended up as a quixotic struggle to keep Iraqis from killing one another in a brutal sectarian war. At any of these milestones, we were told that leaving would be worse, resulting in chaos. Over time the strategic goal was pared down to an irrelevant one: mere influence. As long as operations continue, influence happens. But to what end, and for how long?
Normally this sort of mission creep and persistence occurs when victory is elusive. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan all have had this feature. No leader, particularly no military leader, wants to declare a cause lost. Across the ranks there is also an understandable impulse to avenge lost comrades. So there are dimensions of personal and national honor in “staying the course.” But what if we can’t win? Avenging lost comrades through more lost comrades won’t bring them back and is hardly a sufficient reason to pursue an uncertain victory increasingly unmoored from national interests.
Perhaps here Trump’s background as a businessman is a benefit; while a general will be loath to admit defeat, and a politician may never allow an original thought to enter his mind, a businessman knows not to throw good money after bad.
Quitting While We’re Ahead, for Once
In Syria, we did achieve victory, at least to the extent victories can be claimed in the Middle East. ISIS had a caliphate. Now it’s dispersed and weak, a goodly portion of its members are dead or imprisoned. Under Obama, we indulged in a morally exquisite two front war, trying to unseat the Assad regime, while also trying to reduce ISIS. The CIA and the DoD worked at cross purposes in this regard, but Trump shifted the focus almost exclusively to defeating ISIS, mostly backed off on the Assad regime, and, with this, ISIS lost.
ISIS was subject to a pincer movement involving uncoordinated efforts by the United States and its allies—including the Turks—on one side, and the Syrian regime, with help from Russia and Iran, on the other. With ISIS defeated, the Turks, the remaining Jihadists, the Kurds, the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian regime are all moving onto secondary objectives, including securing territory for their coethnics. This is all tragic and an admittedly enormous mess, but it also has nothing to do with us.
ISIS threatened the entire West and conducted a series of horrific attacks at home and in Europe. But as for ethnic conflict in Syria, this is a perennial feature of the region. They can figure it out amongst themselves and, in the case of the Kurds, have the option of returning to their de facto homeland in northern Iraq.
America was never suited to navigate the Byzantine complexity of the former Byzantine Empire. It’s a labyrinth that our benighted leaders seem all too comfortable wading into, even when such commitments are avoidable and even when previous campaigns have ended in failure. Enduring peace and normalcy are not possible in the absence of order, and order is elusive in Syria and the broader Middle East because of a combination of militant Islam, weak states, and overlapping tribal identities that extend beyond the ad hoc frontiers of the various polities of the Middle East. America cannot fix this.
The professionals and their counsel deserve some skepticism. Our vaunted intelligence services did not foresee the Soviet development of an atomic bomb, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They certainly failed to sound the alarm when Obama rushed into Syria to arm the “moderate rebels,” many of whom rebranded as ISIS. But their most important failure has been the failure to understand their own country and their own countrymen and to tailor policy accordingly.
Americans do not want an empire, will not stand for endless wars, and are not willing to spend 100 years in the most godforsaken corner of Syria to referee a border war between Turks and Kurds. Such a fight has nothing to do with our national interests. The Middle Eastern maze is only partially a function of its natural characteristics; it also arises from a deficit of imagination, the same failure to revisit assumptions that led to our tragic continuation of the Iraq Campaign for nearly ten years. Trump found a way out simply by looking over the walls constructed by an unimaginative national security establishment. He should be applauded for his common sense and his commitment to stay the course of putting America First.