Journal Entry #39
Trump, Syria, and his minders: A yearend surprise.
NORFOLK, CONN., DECEMBER 31—What an unexpected turn of events the terrible year now ending has delivered. It is not very Christmas-y, but there may be a gift in it—a big one, indeed. And so does Cú Chulainn rouse from his rustic lair to comment on it.
President Trump’s surprise announcement just before Christmas that he is ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan has caused a lot of jaws to drop in Washington. This is an excellent sign that something important is afoot. Top military officers and senior Democrats on Capitol Hill have called the move “reckless,” an open door to chaos across the Middle East. The liberal press asserts that the Trump administration has just made a sharp turn toward isolationism. One would think these people think the president has caused the sky to start falling. All good.
While none of these assertions is true—and many are indeed reckless—the president’s decision merits careful consideration. Two significant questions now arise. One, do these troop withdrawals mark a major shift in Washington’s Middle East policy? Two, has there been a shift in power in this administration’s policy-making process? The importance of the first question is obvious. The potential consequences of the second absolutely must not be underestimated.
To be honest, Cú Chulainn is at least as interested in the second question as the first, and maybe more so. But let’s look at these matters one at a time.
TRUMP’S DECISION to pull back American troops should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his thinking since the 2016 campaign season. As president he deserves credit for his consistency on at least three major foreign policy positions (and this is not to imply Cú Chulainn is in agreement with all three): We need to cut a new deal with China, better relations with Russia will prove net-positive for the U.S. Russia, and the rest of the world, and we should stop wasting money on pointless wars of adventure in the Middle East and Central Asia. Coincident with the president’s announcement, it is worth noting, the Watson Institute at Brown University released a study putting the cost of our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria since 2001 at $5.9 trillion. This figure has been around for some time, but the Watson Institute document, which you can find here, is not to be missed.
Is the US now reversing course? There is an argument for the affirmative, but even if one answers yes, just how radically is not yet clear. Trump is committed to pulling 2,000 troops out of Syria. While this may be the official figure, it is by no means the full American contingent. Reliable estimates put the unofficial U.S. presence at a minimum of twice that number, and this does not count the defense “contractors”—a.k.a. mercenaries—whose number on Syrian soil is not known but is almost certainly in the thousands. In Afghanistan, the president ordered the Pentagon to withdraw 7,000 uniformed soldiers, which represents about half the (official) US presence there.
But beyond the numbers, I have difficulty imagining that Trump is even planning to reverse nearly a century of American policy in the Middle East. There is too much history, too much oil, too many defense contractors; there is Israel, American interests are simply too large, ditto the American presence, and there is the all-important question of America’s global primacy. This last may be fading rapidly as the world goes multipolar, and good enough, but the policy cliques in Washington can be counted on to defend American hegemony to the very end.
All this being as it is. and even if the American presence in Syria and Afghanistan is not dropping to zero, Trump’s move could mark the start of a sea change in American policy. I have no doubt the president intends this as an incremental first step in a substantive policy shift: He has made this plain himself, and there is little question that his Syria announcement represents a significant victory in a battle—long-running if seldom visible—with senior members of his staff who have argued for months for a more permanent presence in Syria. Notable in this group have been Defense Secretary James Mattis, Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The very best account of this fight is Gareth Porter’s in The American Conservative. It is here and not to be missed.
But one’s conclusions must remain conditional nonetheless. Two reasons.
FIRST, WE DO NOT YET KNOW how much resistance the Pentagon will muster if Trump makes another move in the direction he just took. Defense Secretary Mattis’s resignation shortly after Trump’s announcement on Syria can be read in a couple of different ways: While Mattis clearly recognized he and his allies inside the administration were not going to prevail on the withdrawal question, his departure is also a measure of how seriously the Pentagon—along with everyone making a living from it—still takes its presence in the Middle East. Resistance to further troop reductions, should Trump order them, ought out startle anyone, even if the commander-in-chief once again prevails.
Parenthetically, the other night at dinner with friends in the West Village, one of the wisest among us at the table suggested that it would not be wholly surprising if we see an attempt on Trump’s life in the course of the year ahead, should he press further in the direction he has just signaled. Cú Chulainn is not given to paranoia, but stranger things—not to say quite similar things—have happened to prominent American political figures in the past.
In addition, we have Trump’s remarks during his surprise visit to U.S. troops in Iraq at Christmas time. These deserve close scrutiny because they cut both ways. “We are spread out all over the world. We are in countries most people haven’t even heard about,” Trump said after landing at Al Asad Air Base. “Frankly, it’s ridiculous. You can’t have any more time. You’ve had enough time.”
That’s gutsy vocabulary, straight to the president’s point. David Stockman, budget director under Reagan and now a foreign policy commentator, sent out the most succinct social media message I have yet come across. “This is most welcome presidential demarche in decades!” Stockman exclaimed. It is hard not to agree with him.
BRAVO, @realDonaldTrump: “We are spread out all over the world. We are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous. You can’t have any more time. You’ve had enough time, he told the top brass. This is most welcome presidential demarche in decades!
But note: Some of the troops withdrawn from Syria are simply transferring across the border to Iraq. And Trump left the door open for more troops to return down the road. “We may go back and help,” he said at a press conference in that offhand way of his. I take this to be a reference to the continuing presence in Syria of troops supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
In the same line, Lindsey Graham came out of a meeting with Trump Sunday sounding sanguine about the limits of Trump’s intentions..“We still have some differences,” the South Carolina senator (and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee) said. “But I will tell you that the president is thinking long and hard about Syria—how to withdraw our forces but at the same time achieve our national security interests.” To me this sounds like code for “Less than meets the eye here. Nothing much is going to change.”
These sorts of comments—Trump’s, Graham’s, those of others—suggest the president is aware of the wider implications of a U.S. withdrawal that turns out to be more than symbolic. These are many, as already suggested, but the most immediate among them is Russia’s influence in the region. Removing a few thousand troops will not make a vast difference on the ground, but the “optics,” as they insist on saying in Washington, are impossible to miss. Over the past few years, President Putin and Sergei Lavrov, his able foreign minister, have made Russia the only outside power to enjoy sound working relations with every major nation in the Middle East, including Israel. Moscow’s role as diplomatic arbiter—just recently between Iran and Israel, for instance—is now bound to count for more than it already does.
There is also the fate of Kurdish militias in Syria: While they have been key to pushing the Islamic State toward full defeat, Recip Tayyip Erdoğan continues to view them as a terrorist threat to Turkish stability. It is unclear if Trump made a deal with the Turkish president to protect the Kurds. I have heard nothing of one. And abandoning the Kurds now to a Turkish offensive, should Erdoğan order one, would be merely the latest chapter in the century-long history of U.S. betrayals of the Kurds. Kurdish leaders, let us not miss, are now engaged in peace talks with Damascus. A sound choice on the Kurds’ part, in my view.
Now to our second question, the one that truly preoccupies Cú Chulainn thoughts at the moment.
DONALD TRUMP’S WHITE HOUSE has been a hard read on the foreign policy side for the whole of his first two years in office. Given his “America First” priorities, the president’s appointments have frequently been mystifying: Time and again, he has named advisers openly opposed to his priorities. In consequence, the administration’s inconsistency has been embarrassing on numerous occasions: What is announced on Monday might be contradicted or reversed on Wednesday. While the White House’s policy process has often been opaque, it has been perfectly plain that those around him—and not just his foreign policy minders—have effectively overruled the president on many policy questions.
Trump’s persistent efforts to forge better relations with Moscow are an obvious example. His desire to reach a denuclearization deal with North Korea so far appears to be another. And until now Syria has counted as a third case. Trump announced last spring that he wanted to pull out U.S. troops. By summer’s end the Pentagon made it known it was reversing the policy: American troops were there to stay indefinitely, Defense officials announced.
Now we are faced with a question. Will Trump’s determination to withdraw troops meet the same fate as many of his other ideas on the foreign policy side? Or has something changed in the relationship between the president and his minders?
Steve Bannon, who previously served as chief strategist in the Trump White House, gave The New York Times an interesting take shortly after Christmas. Referring to the policy clique surrounding the president, he said, “They just slow-rolled him until he said ‘Enough’ and did it himself. Not pretty, but at least done.” Bannon himself was forced out of the administration for his clashes with H.R. McMaster, a retired general and Trump’s national security adviser during Bannon’s brief tenure.
Bannon is almost certainly right that the withdrawal policy Trump announced last spring was effectively put on hold until the Pentagon figured it was safe to reverse it, which was last September. But Bannon’s conclusion that Trump has now triumphed on the Syria question may be premature, as I have already suggested.
Some readers may remember that weird moment two Aprils back, when Trump, only a few months in office, made his much-noted “my generals” speech. In it he more or less ceded authority over Middle East policy to Mattis, McMaster, and others senior figures at the Pentagon, boasting of their seasoned judgment. Cú Chulainn was certain from the first that Trump was putting the best face on a policy process he simply could not control. “My generals” became an expression he used on numerous occasions thereafter. In four months the man was house-broken.
The president appears to have come a long way since then. His out-of-nowhere announcement that he intends to withdraw troops from Syria may or may not prove out on the ground. But McMaster is long gone from the White House, and Mattis will be gone from the Pentagon by the time this Journal entry is published. Trump has, at least temporarily, seized the offensive inside his administration and now appears prepared to oppose his policy minders until he prevails on Syria and other questions.
If Cú Chulainn’s reading is correct, success in Syria could signal that more surprises are to come. A second summit with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s president, will prove one. A second with Vladimir Putin will prove another. Trump proposed that Putin visit Washington after their summit in Helsinki last July—a perfectly good idea that was swiftly stonewalled.
But the big deal here is vastly more significant than any one policy question. It is whether the president—any U.S. president—can succeed in taking back power over foreign policy from what some of us call the Deep State. It matters not at all if the person to get this done happens to be Trump. I have argued since Trump’s election that he may be a strange figure to get this done, but gaining control over the military-industrial complex is key to more or less everything else this nation needs to fix. You have to start somewhere, but who would have guessed it might be Donald Trump’s White House.
The policy wars inside the Trump administration are certain to continue. It is good, indeed, to see one of them burst out into open view. Since his first day in office, this president’s greatest handicap—well, one among many—has been that he is an outsider in an insider’s town. What we can discern now is that a president who appeared down a year ago is not yet out.