BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
President Donald J. Trump has been hinting at some drastic changes to U.S. foreign policy regarding the Middle East. Over the last week, the president has made repeated assertions that the American military’s mission in Syria is coming to an end (well, given that we’ve defeated the physical caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham, and that the Trump Administration has wrongly opted not to support Kurdish independence, I’d argue our mission ended some time ago). The president has rightly coupled these statements with claims that in a March 20th phone call with Russian strongman, President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Trump suggested that the two leaders meet (cue the media and Washington graybeard hysteria over purported Russian collusion with President Trump during the 2016 campaign).
Over the last week, the mania among Washington, D.C.’s professional panic-mongers has been at stratospheric levels–especially since the president’s surprise statements on his desire to draw down American military efforts in Syria. How dare the president desire to return American servicemen and women back to their homes (or at least to more important areas of operation) now that the mission in Syria has been complete! After all, we just recently slaughtered upwards of 200 Russian “mercenaries” operating near Deir ez-Zor–the party is just getting started. Apparently, had it not been for the personal intervention of Russian military leader, General Valery Gerasimov (the man who the West claims invented the term, “hybrid warfare,” although most objective sources refute this claim), a similar massacre would have occurred. In both cases, the small American units–embedded with the Kurds fighting in that area–were threatened by overzealous Russian soldiers belonging to the Russian state-owned enterprise, the Wagner Group (please note that this is the colloquial name for the group and not the official title of it). Yet, at some point, the United States would have had to face some form of retaliation from the Russians over having so many of their forces wiped out in such humiliating and brutal ways (payback’s a bitch, Ivan).
Instead, the Trump Administration seems intent on making a stabler world that allows for the possibility of domestic tranquility (even if it means eschewing some of the grander missions to spread democracy to the poor and benighted people of the Developing World). As I’ve written previously, the postwar way of doing things is over. The United States is no longer on a crusade to liberate the world from the vile clutches of Communism. It (happily) won the Cold War. The United States has also, unfortunately, lost its unipolar dominance. So, until it can achieve a degree of unipolarity again, the United States must fashion its foreign policy and national security institutions for operating in a multipolar world of competing powers with rivaling spheres of influence. The president appears ready to accomplish this task. The rest of Washington, D.C., still chomping at the bit to engorge itself on greater defense contracts for waging war in Syria, is not ready in the slightest to refocus its attentions elsewhere (like wrapping the War in Afghanistan or intensifying Latin American stability operations or focusing on Asia).
The fact that so many “experts” are aggravated by the president’s desire to terminate American involvement in the Syrian Civil War should show exactly how we all got into the Mideast morass to begin with. At every turn, the responsible course of action was ignored in favor of taking the most spectacularly, quixotic course imaginable. For our “betters” in Washington, D.C., any chance to display their courage or brilliance in foreign affairs–without personally risking their own lives, careers, or fortunes–is an opportunity that simply cannot be overlooked.
In his excellent book, “Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy,” Derek Leebaert, a computer scientist-turned-international relations scholar at Georgetown University, dubbed such wizards in Washington as, “Emergency Men.” According to Leebaert, these individuals were “the clever, energetic, self-assured, well-schooled people who take advantage of the opportunities intrinsic to the American political system to trifle with enormous risk.” Emergency men are eager to “do something” and they tend to carry the day in Washington. Those that urge caution are often dismissed as too negative or defeatist and are usually beaten into submission.
Emergency men include McGeorge Bundy, John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, and Paul Wolfowitz. These men often plunge into situations without adequate research or an exit strategy. Later reflection indicates that what they recommended was doomed to fail. However, the emergency men are supremely self-confident, notwithstanding their all-too-frequent lack of any real basis for such confidence.
David Unger argues in his contrarian book, “The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs,” that,
“America’s emergency state was originally designed to wage hot war against Nazi Germany and Cold War against Soviet-led international Communism. Its institutions, and the outdated worldview they embody, are not good at protecting us against today’s most dangerous international threats, as the events of 9/11 and the wrongly targeted and disastrously mismanaged wars that followed painfully demonstrate.”
“Using American military power wisely in an age of financial interdependence and keeping Americans safe from terrorist networks in an age of borderless globalization are very different challenges from waging another world war, hot or cold–the challenges our institutions and policies were originally designed to meet. The world has fundamentally changed, but those institutions and policies have not.”
Before anyone reading this believes that I am either a dove or in total agreement with Unger’s assertions, stop right there. I am quite the hawk and, while I enjoy Unger’s work, I find some of his writing to be overtly polemical and some of his suggestions throughout his book are impractical. Having said that, however, both Leebaert and Unger properly identify the critical crises that the United States faces today. The fault, dear friends, is in our stars; in the very institutions that we erected to protect our hallowed representative democracy from foreign threat. More importantly, our great republic threatened by the emergency men and women who, fueled by “magical thinking” conflate drastic action–coupled with a noxious level of virtue-signaling–with actually having protected the country. Or, as Unger concludes, “Without realizing it, let alone debating it, America has slipped into a permanent, self-renewing state of emergency.”
With the mission of decimating ISIS now complete in Syria, the president has taken stock of his options and is opting to disengage American forces in earnest from the conflict. Fact is, the United States cannot hang around there, if only because it’s a crowded neighborhood whose crotchety inhabitants will ensure that, over time, the streets of Damascus needlessly flow with American blood and treasure. With both the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran–and now Turkey–all coordinating with each other to ensure the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s repugnant regime, the only thing that the United States will find in Syria is greater animosity and no hope for victory.
America had a small window of opportunity to fundamentally change the conditions on the ground in Syria in 2011, when the Syrian Civil War began. At the time, elements of the Obama national security team–including former Army General David Petraeus and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–were advocating for arming the Syrian rebels and expanding America’s kinetic operations in-country. Their focus was less on defeating Islamists in Syria and more on ridding the world of one of its most pernicious dictatorships.
Former President Obama didn’t know what he wanted. At the same time that he wanted to topple Assad, he also didn’t want to get his proverbial hands dirty–especially after the full damage of his idiotic policies in Iraq (the precipitous drawdown), Libya (the unnecessary toppling of Gaddafi enlivened jihadists there), and Egypt (Mr. Obama literally supported the Muslim Brotherhood in a coup against the pro-American Hosni Mubarak). So, the Obama Administration engaged in its tried-and-true “strategic patience” initiative.
And, Obama watched as Syria devolved. As Syria collapsed into civil war, al Qaeda in Iraq (which had been crushed in neighboring Iraq by 2008) reconstituted itself just over the border in Syria, and with America gone from Iraq, moved into the Sunni portions of Iraq, and established the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS). The increased intervention of Iranian forces as well as Russian elements in the Syrian Civil War–followed by the copious use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces–prompted Obama to make a big show in 2013 about taking care of Assad for his war crimes. Yet, on the eve of the attack, the British signaled that they would not support the Obama Administration’s desire to bomb Assad.
So, Mr. Obama punted, and deferred to Congress on the matter. Congress refused to support the Obama Administration’s endeavor and, ultimately, the entire ordeal ended with a major diplomatic victory for the Russians, who stepped in, and claimed it would remove all of Assad’s chemical weapons. A few short years later, when President Donald Trump was in office, that was disproven.
Presently, the Russians and Iranians have solidified their positions in Syria and NATO member, Turkey, is backing their play (because they fear the rise of an independent Kurdish state and they are moving away from the West’s orbit and toward both China’s and Russia’s). The United States has no real leverage in ending the conflict in Syria. This is in stark contrast to the effective peace deal that the United States brokered in the Dayton Accords in 1995, which helped resolve the Bosnian conflict. Mr. Trump recognizes this and is making moves to prevent both him and his administration from being consumed by the same emergency men who swindled George W. Bush on Iraq in 2003.
By drawing down in Syria, the president will have achieved a major victory: he set out to decimate the physical caliphate of ISIS. He did that. Mr. Trump rightly refused to push regime change upon Syria, as his predecessor had insisted upon, if for only the fact that, should Assad fall, not only would relations with nuclear-armed Russia be at an all-time low, but whatever would succeed Assad would be anything but pro-Western democrats. Besides, by offering to remove American forces from Syria–which is basically a Russo-Iranian playground (and has been for decades)–the Trump Administration just might curry enough goodwill with the recalcitrant Russians to get them to deal on other pressing concerns.
Thomas Aquinas once said, “if the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would leave it in port forever.” This more than anything seems to represent the dominant mindset among America’s foreign policy elite. While Aquinas was a wise and quotable man, I find the concept of viewing American foreign policy as a ship with limits meant to be tested–even if it destroys the ship–to be very frightening (and irresponsible). Rather than captaining a ship in dangerous waters, I prefer to look at foreign policy as a medical doctor looks at healing a patient. The first duty of a medical doctor is to uphold the Hippocratic oath. That oath, which all doctors are required to swear fealty to, simply states, “First, do no harm.” American foreign policy practitioners need to live by the Hippocratic oath as well. Imagine what the world would look like toady if the emergency men who populated the George W. Bush Administration lived according to the Hippocratic oath.
It would appear that the Trump Administration is at least trying to chart a new course wherein the emergency men are kept at bay but America does not appear weak and pliable, as it was under President Barack Obama. The entire purpose of America’s foreign policy today should be to undo the damage of the last 30 years of “magical thinking” in Washington, D.C. We should not aim to be pacifists; we should desire, however, to fully develop–and be willing to use–all of the tools of statecraft, up-to-and-including the use of military force. In any event, the “Warfare State” that James T. Sparrow wrote about in 2011 in feeling blue these days, as contracts and opportunities for self-aggrandizement (and wealth creation) fade away in the Syrian Civil War.
Not to worry, though, I hear Africa is heating up, what with Chinese Neo-colonialism, French counterterrorism missions, and Russian expansion!