BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
A few days ago, before the Trump Administration engaged in its necessary and (thankfully) limited (though, perhaps too limited) strike against Assad for his purported chemical weapons attack in Douma, several “experts” in Washington, D.C. complained about the president’s “schizophrenic” model for stabilizing Syria. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough believes that Mr. Trump is replicating the mistakes of his predecessor by potentially reducing the bulk of the U.S. military forces operating in Syria too soon.
Joe Scarborough recently argued to Richard Haas:
“The United States policy [in the Mideast] has been so erratic; it’s been schizophrenic. We go into Iraq [in 2003] in an unjustifiable war, we stay there–we stay the course–we finally bring some semblance of order to the region in 2008-2009, we then abandon it in 2011. We allowed the rise of ISIS in 2012-2013. We belatedly start going in there, crush ISIS, and now we have another United States president [Donald Trump] that, once again, in a Schizophrenic move–now that we have created a successful, and a sustainable model–to actually keep peace in that region, [the president] now says to the generals, ‘Good job, but I’m going to do precisely what Barack Obama did in 2011. We’re bringing everybody home because it feels good to me.'”
This is an argument that many interventionists have made. And, yes, it is likely that Mr. Obama’s draw down in Iraq, the way he did it, when he did it, his utter disengagement with the diplomatic process from the first time he entered office in 2009, did likely exacerbate the deleterious impacts of an American withdraw from the region. However, the fact that the Washington political class assumes that either the George W. Bush-era Surge or the ongoing military campaign in Syria is “successful” or “sustainable model to keep peace in that region” is an absurdity that only a member of the Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party could believe in.
What’s more, in all fairness to former President Obama, when–if ever–would have been a good time for the United States remove the bulk of its troops from Iraq (and now, under Trump, Syria)? After all, the American people would never support the kind of open-ended engagement for the bulk of their Armed Forces that Senator John McCain publicly desired in Iraq during his failed presidential bid in 2008:
Now, McCain followed that up with a more politically correct explanation, but his point was understood by the electorate (which is one of the many reasons McCain lost to Obama in 2008). And, to be sure, if America’s presence in Iraq mirrored that of its presence in postwar Germany or South Korea, most Americans wouldn’t have given a protracted U.S. presence in Iraq a second-thought. But, Iraq is not postwar Germany or South Korea. While South Korea has remained under permanent threat of massive destruction from the whims of Pyongyang, it has also become a thriving democracy. Iraq was not headed for such an outcome. In fact, rather than being the apotheosis of a bold strategy for victory, the General David Petraeus-President George W. Bush-era surge strategy was desperate gambit to bail out of Iraq without the appearance of having been pushed out (thereby ending Bush’s idiotic war of choice in defeat).
So, again, I inquire: when would have been a good time to leave? (TRICK QUESTION: THE ANSWER IS “NEVER”).
Fact is, the United States would have been better off having listened to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (well, we would have been better off not having gone into Iraq in 2003 at all, but that’s besides the point right now). Rumsfeld wanted to rapidly enter into Iraq with a handful of troops, topple Saddam in rapid time, and then bug out, leaving the mess to be cleaned up by the locals and the international community. Ah, but former Secretary of State Colin Powell convinced everyone in the George W. Bush Administration that if America broke Iraq, under international law, we would own it. To be sure, that’s a fair interpretation of the international laws surrounding the use of force. But, given the way that the Bush Administration (and other) modern American administrations viewed international law (as completely fungible)…they were not required to strictly act according to the dictates of international law.
Rumsfeld’s Pentagon had plans to withdraw the bulk of the American fighting force that invaded Iraq in March 2003 from the country by September of that year. Many in the George W. Bush war cabinet (and several leaders on the Hill) were concerned that the United States would leave a power vacuum for the Iranians and jihadists to fill. Unfortunately, though, by staying, that was precisely what happened anyway. So, for half the price, the United States would have still gotten what it did the moment that Mr. Obama pulled American forces out of the country in 2011. Imagine if we had conducted our regime change operation against Saddam’s regime and then followed Rumsfeld’s time table precisely as it was crafted. Sure, we would have to contend with the escape of Iran from its proverbial box, as well as the proliferation of jihadist groups, such as al Qaeda, into the Middle East, but we ended up contending with those problems anyway. At least had we followed Rumsfeld’s plan, we wouldn’t have had the long-running (and expensive) headache we’re faced with today. Like pulling a band-aid from a wound, we could have done it quickly and gotten the whole mess straightened out.
In other words, Joe Scarborough, what you think is a good way for “bringing peace” to the Mideast (there’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one), is, in fact, not a sustainable model for Mideast intervention.
This brings us back to Syria in 2018. Recently, President Donald Trump (rightly) expressed his desire to draw down American forces operating in Syria. After all, under Mr. Trump, the mission of those American troops was to defeat the physical caliphate of the Islamic State and to hit the jihadist groups, such as al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Al Nusra, so as to prevent them from mounting attacks against American assets in the region (or the United States or Europe). That mission is mostly over. The United States has no business remaining in Syria with boots-on-the-ground. However, once the president made his public statements on a potential Syrian withdraw, Bashar al-Assad decided to push his proverbial luck: he took those comments from the president as a sign that he could act with impunity, and tried to launch a killing blow against the entrenched jihadist rebels in the Damascus suburb of Douma. Assad’s forces conducted a heinous chemical weapons attack (the sort that is explicitly outlawed under international law).
So, President Trump opted to respond with what could best be described as a “pinprick strike.” While it may not have been as effective as the militarists in Washington, D.C. had hoped it would be, it did send a vital message to the region: while the United States seeks to reduce its hand in the region, it is not letting up on the proverbial wheel. It will enforce its will as necessary. More importantly, that strike signaled resolve from the West that will translate into encouraging our battered regional allies in the Sunni Arab states and in Israel to continue standing against the Iranian moves in the region (particularly in Syria). As we sit down, the Israelis and Sunni Arab states will stand up. This is precisely what the White House has called for this week following the airstrikes against Assad for his chemical weapons attack in Douma. As evidenced by the clip above, many in Washington just don’t get it. They complain about how it will create the same conditions in Syria that Obama created in Iraq. Maybe. And, if things really spiral out-of-control, the United States reserves the right to intervene once again. But, we need to get used to the idea that the Middle East is like an alternative universe where, paradoxically, the more American power is directly applied, the more the United States loses its geopolitical position.
Joe Scarborough and the political class worries about what will fill the American position in Syria, I worry about how we become tied down yet again in an unwinnable war in the Mideast. The political class, in its arrogance, believes that the United States created all of the problems in the Mideast and, therefore, with just the right tweaks (i.e. masses of American troops who should be partaking in the miracle that is the American economy), for the right amount of time, we can bomb these states into democracy–turning mullahs into media moguls and dictators into democrats.
Democracy, such as it is elsewhere in the world, is not about voting. It’s about institutions. And, democratic institutions spring up from the culture of the country embracing democracy. That takes years and centuries to develop (even if the majority of the population wants such changes). We simply cannot–and should not–try to export democracy as it were just another Western commodity, like jeans or coca-cola.
I’ve seen images of many jihadists enjoying a coca-cola on a warm day in the desert–whilst wearing jeans–as they ready to inflict mass casualties on unsuspecting Westerners (and those they deem to be, “apostates”). The best that the United States can hope for is to stabilize the region to such a point that it can pull the bulk of its forces out (leaving behind small counterterrorism forces), and letting our local allies do much of the work (and give up on the pipe dream of democracy in the Middle East). There is but one, true democracy in the Middle East and that’s the state that most of the region wants to burn off the map (the one state that isn’t predominantly Muslim in that region also): Israel.
For the United States, it needs to temper its expectations (and therefore slow down the tempo of its intervention in the region generally, but specifically in Syria), and start focusing on larger geopolitical concerns. Obviously, the United States cannot (and should not) simply abandon the region, as many on the Far Right (and Left) insist. But, we must be willing to give greater levels of support–and responsibility–to our local allies. That is our only hope for not breaking the American military in the quicksand of Mideast politics (which we presently are in danger of doing). Oh, yeah, and this plan requires us to be comfortable with a far greater level of instability and violence in the region (at least in the near-term).