Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of between 50 and 100 troops from northern Syria and plans for the removal of 2,000 or so American military personnel from the country. Washington asks why the president pulls our forces. Many Americans outside the Beltway wonder why we put them there in the first place.
Initially, Barack Obama announced that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad must go. Then, when ISIS looked to fill the void left by the dictator’s possible ouster, the rationale changed to defeating the Islamic radicals who sought to defeat Assad.
The reasons for staying appear equally convoluted. Cal Thomas, for instance, worries, “Coming home is no guarantee the terrorists won’t come after us here. In fact, Iran has bragged of having their agents inside the U.S., awaiting instructions to inflict more death and destruction.” Others emphasize the danger of ISIS, rising from their ashes like a phoenix, resurging. Perhaps one of these scenarios occur but the Shiite/Sunni either/or seems a choice between horrible and terrible. A third outcome involves Assad further strengthening his hold on the country. None of the three appear at all appealing. What, exactly, is the realistic endgame, and does the presence of several dozen members of the U.S. military in northern Syria do anything to bring about this desired outcome?
“The United States has spent EIGHT TRILLION DOLLARS fighting and policing in the Middle East,” Trump reasons. “Thousands of our Great Soldiers have died or been badly wounded. Millions of people have died on the other side.”
Trump campaigned, loudly, on withdrawing the American military from the various campaigns in the Islamic world that cost the U.S. greatly in terms of both lives and lucre. Why, then, did so many offer a shocked, shocked response this week? The bipartisan consensus foolishly assumed that, Trump’s promises be damned, the live-action Risk game would continue unabated.
The president further explained on Twitter why it must not: “GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY! We went to war under a false & now disproven premise, WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION. There were NONE! Now we are slowly & carefully bringing our great soldiers & military home. Our focus is on the BIG PICTURE! THE USA IS GREATER THAN EVER BEFORE!”
Many conservatives who doubt the abilities of the U.S. government to deliver the mail fantastically trust it to transform religious fanatics and secular bad guys into New England-style town-meeting members. Liberals, though ostensibly suspicious of the use of the military, cling to a Wilsonianism that transforms soldiers into not even policemen but social workers. The lack of a realistic objective from the former group and a clear objective from the latter ensures no desirable outcome.
Our disastrous history in the region, from Lebanon to Iraq and beyond, demonstrates how little we understand it. We project our own values on various combatants only for events to highlight the folly of our previous beliefs. Prior to the Iraq War, American conservatives imagined that Iraqis would greet our invading soldiers as liberators and the country that emerged would serve as a model of democracy that would spread throughout the region. Before and even after the Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran, many American liberals imagined the Ayatollah Khomeini as a bearded, turbaned version of themselves. Eqbal Ahmad, for instance, asked in the April 1979 issue of Mother Jones, “What kind of state might result if Khomeini or his followers take power? As someone who has talked with him at length, I believe that, when Khomeini speaks of an Islamic state for Iran, it is a Shi’ite scholar’s way of saying that he wants a good state in Iran. His concept of a good state includes democratic reforms, freedom for political prisoners, an end to the astronomical waste of huge arms purchases, and a constitutionalist government.”
The distortion of the ideological lens seems secondary to the distortion of the Western lens. The late Samuel Huntington laid this out clearly in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order several decades ago. “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism,” he wrote. “It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed by the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world. These are the basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West.”
Yet, like Charlie Brown attempting to kick that football, the United States keeps trying, trying again with the same results. Strangely, Donald Trump earns designation as the fool for departing from this foolish course.