What Trump’s Syrian Withdrawal Really Reveals
A wise decision is greeted by denunciations, obstructionism, imperial thinking, and more Russia-bashing.
9 Jan 2019 – President Trump was wrong in asserting that the United States destroyed the Islamic State’s territorial statehood in a large part of Syria—Russia and its allies accomplished that—but he is right in proposing to withdraw some 2,000 American forces from that tragically war-ravaged country. The small American contingent serves no positive combat or strategic purpose unless it is to thwart the Russian-led peace negotiations now underway or to serve as a beachhead for a US war against Iran. Still worse, its presence represents a constant risk that American military personnel could be killed by Russian forces also operating in that relatively small area, thereby turning the new Cold War into a very hot conflict, even if inadvertently. Whether or not Trump understood this danger, his decision, if actually implemented—it is being fiercely resisted in Washington—will make US-Russian relations, and thus the world, somewhat safer.
Nonetheless, Trump’s decision on Syria, coupled with his order to reduce US forces in Afghanistan by half, has been “condemned,” as The New York Times approvingly reported, “across the ideological spectrum,” by “the left and right.” Analyzing these condemnations, particularly in the opinion-shaping New York Times and Washington Post and on interminable (and substantially uninformed) MSNBC and CNN segments, again reveals the alarming thinking that is deeply embedded in the US bipartisan policy-media establishment.
First, no foreign-policy initiative undertaken by President Trump, however wise it may be in regard to US national interests, will be accepted by that establishment. Any prominent political figure who does so will promptly and falsely be branded, in the malign spirit of Russiagate, as “pro-Putin,” or, as was Senator Rand Paul, arguably the only foreign-policy statesman in the senate today, “an isolationist.” This is unprecedented in modern American history. Not even Richard Nixon was subject to such establishment constraints on his ability to conduct national-security policy during the Watergate scandals.
Second, not surprisingly, the condemnations of Trump’s decision are infused with escalating, but still unproven, Russiagate allegations of the president’s “collusion” with the Kremlin. Thus, equally predictably, the Times finds a Moscow source to say, of the withdrawals, “Trump is God’s gift that keeps on giving” to Putin. (In fact, it is not clear that the Kremlin is eager to see the United States withdraw from either Syria or Afghanistan, as this would leave Russia alone with what it regards as common terrorist enemies.) Closer to home, there is the newly reelected Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who, when asked about Trump’s policies and Russian President Putin, told MSNBC’s Joy Reid: “I think that the president’s relationship with thugs all over the world is appalling. Vladimir Putin, really? Really? I think it’s dangerous.” By this “leadership” reasoning, Trump should be the first US president since FDR to have no “relationship” whatsoever with a Kremlin leader. And to the extent that Pelosi speaks for the Democratic Party, it can no longer be considered a party of American national security.
But, third, something larger than even anti-Trumpism plays a major role in condemnations of the president’s withdrawal decisions: imperial thinking about America’s rightful role in the world. Euphemisms abound, but, if not an entreaty to American empire, what else could the New York Times’ David Sanger mean when he writes of a “world order that the United States has led for the 79 years since World War II,” and complains that Trump is reducing “the global footprint needed to keep that order together”? Or when President Obama’s national-security adviser Susan Rice bemoans Trump’s failures in “preserving American global leadership,” which a Times lead editorial insists is an “imperative”? Or when General James Mattis in his letter of resignation echoes President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeline Albright—and Obama himself—in asserting that “the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world”? We cannot be surprised. Such “global” imperial thinking has informed US foreign-policy decision-making for decades—it’s taught in our schools of international relations—and particularly the many disastrous, anti-“order” wars it has produced.
Fourth, and characteristic of empires and imperial thinking, there is the valorization of generals. Perhaps the most widespread and revealing criticism of Trump’s withdrawal decisions is that he did not heed the advice of his generals, the undistinguished, uninspired Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis in particular. The pseudo-martyrdom and heroizing of Mattis, especially by the Democratic Party and its media, remind us that the party had earlier, in its Russiagate allegations, valorized US intelligence agencies, and, having taken control of the House, evidently intends to continue to do so. Anti-Trumpism is creating political cults of US intelligence and military institutions. What does this tell us about today’s Democratic Party? More profoundly, what does this tell us about an American Republic purportedly based on civilian rule?
Finally, and potentially tragically, Trump’s announcement of the Syrian withdrawal was the moment for a discussion of the long imperative US alliance with Russia against international terrorism, a Russia whose intelligence capabilities are unmatched in this regard. (Recall, for example, Moscow’s disregarded warnings about one of the brothers who set off bombs during the Boston Marathon.) Such an alliance has been on offer by Putin since 9/11. President George W. Bush completely disregarded it. Obama flirted with the offer but backed (or was pushed) away. Trump opened the door for such a discussion, as indeed he has since his presidential candidacy, but now again, at this most opportune moment, there has not been a hint of it in our political-media establishment. Instead, a national security imperative has been treated as “treacherous.”
In this context, there is Trump’s remarkable, but little-noted or forgotten, tweet of December 3 calling on the presidents of Russia and China to join him in “talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race.” If Trump acts on this essential overture, as we must hope he will, will it too be traduced as “treacherous”—also for the first time in American history? If so, it will again confirm my often-expressed thesis that powerful forces in America would prefer trying to impeach the president to avoiding a military catastrophe. And that those forces, not President Trump or Putin, are now the gravest threat to American national security.
Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. His Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War and his The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag after Stalin are now in paperback.
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