Syria: Endgame

Column: Americans are getting the retreat they voted for

Syria
All images via Getty

The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence. It's a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.

—Pete Buttigieg, October 15

Mr. Mayor has a point. For 75 years, from Fulda Gap to the 38th Parallel, the American soldier has been the last line of defense against violence, chaos, and oppression. From Kosovo to Anbar, he has kept a lid on cauldrons of bloodlust. Remove him, and the poison boils over.

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That is what happened when Congress reduced aid to South Vietnam in 1975. It is what followed U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. It is happening now in northeast Syria, and it will happen again when Americans leave Afghanistan. Our forces depart; our allies collapse; our adversaries take command.

The pattern was established well before Donald Trump took office. It will persist after he departs. There is nothing so consistent as American ambivalence toward our superpower status. Most great powers covet hegemony. We hate it. The costs are too high, the demands too stressful.

"For every exercise of the great power's prerogative, there has been an equally strong recoiling from the use of power," wrote Robert Kagan in A Twilight Struggle (1996). "While the United States cannot escape behaving as the hegemonic great power, it is also a great power with a democratic conscience, a strong anti-imperialist streak, and an unwillingness to adopt the role of policeman anywhere for more than a brief time."

Kagan was describing U.S. policy toward Nicaragua. He might as well have been talking about the Middle East.

Trump is getting America out of a country we were never really in. Our presence in Syria was not enough to deter Turkey. One thousand troops do not constitute a tripwire. They are chips in a high-stakes game. Erdogan called the bluff.

Our footprint was light because the last two administrations wanted it that way. That is why criticism of Trump's policy from left-wing noninterventionists and former Obama officials is ridiculous. Where were they when Assad killed hundreds of thousands of people, when he and Erdogan used migration to Europe as a weapon, when civilians were gassed, when ISIS formed, when Russia moved in? Did they think Syria was peachy keen up until Sunday, October 6? Are we really to take lectures from them on the value of forward presence?

Americans have wanted out of the Greater Middle East for over a decade. Barack Obama promised to leave both Iraq and Afghanistan. He said Special Forces and drone strikes would maintain global security. It didn't work out that way. Terrorism spiked. The Arab Spring erupted. Obama was forced to intervene, leading from behind in Libya and desultorily aiding some rebel groups in Syria.

Obama ended Muammar Qaddafi's regime but shied away from Bashar al-Assad's. The difference? Assad was an ally of Iran and Russia. To bring Damascus to heel would have endangered the chances of a nuclear agreement with Tehran.

Obama was consistent in one respect. In Libya, Syria, and Iraq, American involvement was kept to a minimum. The results were the same in all three countries: state failure and civil war.

The seeds of Trump's hasty exit from Syria were sown when the uprising began in 2011. The moment to act decisively was then. We did not. And we did not because there was no appetite, in either popular or elite circles, for another war in the Middle East. Political leadership followed public opinion.

What a superpower does not do is as important as what it does do. America was content to fund a few rebels but otherwise leave Syria in the hands of others. Assad turned to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, and Iran. Russia saved him from reprisal after the gas attack in 2013 and again when rebels neared Damascus in 2015.

By then, Obama had been forced to intervene against the Caliphate established by ISIS in eastern Syria and western Iraq. But some red lines he stuck to. In his speech announcing the counterterrorism campaign in September 2014, Obama pledged, "We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq." Our presence would be limited, our footprint light. Enough to defeat the terrorists, but not enough to make us targets. Or decisively affect the outcome of the Syrian war.

If there is a place where America blinked, where America chose decline, where America's allies began to worry and America's retrenchment from Eurasia and pivot to East Asia began, it is Syria. We did so with open eyes and, until the last two weeks, an untroubled conscience. Not wanting to commit the resources necessary to build functioning states, we left Iraq, abandoned Libya, and turned a blind eye to Syria. Not willing to sacrifice Americans on additional fields of battle in the Long War against Islamic terrorism and the religious-political cultures that breed it, we withdrew that presence which guarantees the security of our partners.

Pete Buttigieg is right to say that what is happening in Syria is a consequence of American withdrawal. But if what's happening is a betrayal of American values, it's one Americans voted for.