Good Friday Morning! I hope you and your family had a wonderful and blessed Christmas. And seeing as how this is the last newsletter of the year, I’ll go ahead and wish you and yours a Happy New Year!
This week I’m diving back into the Syria fiasco, after having a chance to digest the resignation of James Mattis and all the moves Trump made regarding Syria and Afghanistan. The government shutdown, probably the next biggest story, won’t matter until Congress gets back into session. The real question is if they solve things before or after Nancy Pelosi has control of the gavel again. They’d be smart to do that beforehand — but don’t be shocked if Trump pushes things into the next Congress. And as always, the Mueller probe doesn’t matter either until they release the final report. I’ve left an extended set of links so you’ll have things to read through the end of the year.
Where you can find me this week
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Leaving Syria — and still no strategy
If you had to pick one word on US foreign policy in the post-Soviet world, it would be rudderless. For the better part of the 20th Century, American foreign policy was pre-ordained across all Presidential administrations: containment and defeat of the Soviet Union. But since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, America hasn’t had a cohesive foreign policy.
We believed after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that we had a new direction: defeating Osama bin Laden and thwarting radical Islamic radicalism abroad. The thought process was straightforward from George W. Bush, and primarily continued under Barack Obama: By sending the military overseas to engage the terrorist threat directly, it moved the battlefield to their backyard and away from US soil.
The War in Afghanistan was the first foray into this theater. The War in Iraq took out a dictator that destabilized the region. In both of those wars, the US strategy included the belief that we would take time and effort to rebuild those countries. We’ve done that to varying degrees of success, and we’ve had misses in our strategy and planning.
But even for all the faults of the Afghanistan and Iraq planning, those strategies pale in comparison to the failures of Libya and Syria. In both situations, the US wanted regime change but didn’t want any of the consequences of regime change. In Libya, we killed dictator Muammar Gaddafi and then effectively did nothing. That country collapsed into a nightmarish war of factions and terrorist groups.
In Syria, Obama again wanted regime change but was far more hesitant after his Libya fiasco. We had the redline, but it never got enforced. We eventually moved on to saying, we’re sort-of involved, but not really, and not using enough resources to make a meaningful difference. In the meantime, Assad continued using chemical weapons, killing his people, and relying on Russian bombing to clean up the rebel groups supported by the US, along with the occasional ISIS bombing campaign.
That decision — to be indecisive — was costly. It caused a massive migration of Syrian and Libyan refugees out of the Middle East and into Europe. The migrant crisis began, and it spurred the growth of far-right parties across the European Union and culminated with Brexit with the UK. It’s not far-fetched to see the EU still fully intact if intervention in Syria and Libya allowed for people of both countries to remain where they lived instead of fleeing.
The broad point of this history is two-fold: 1) America doesn’t have a strategy in the Middle East or a cohesive foreign policy at all; 2) Every decision has consequences, both seen and unseen, and Trump “leaving” Syria will have effects, just as it did for Obama. Intervention has consequences too — we can see them in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is that we’re not honest with ourselves in listing out the implications and confronting them head-on.
Abe Greenwald wrote an excellent defense American military use abroad in Commentary, saying:
The counter-arguments are too familiar: It’s no business of ours what happens in places like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Small improvements in the security conditions of lawless countries aren’t worth the cost in American blood and treasure.
Those who believe such things also have to believe that the U.S. did the right thing in staying out of Afghanistan for years after the Soviets were driven out and the Taliban offered up the country as an operations base for al-Qaeda. They must think that President Obama was wise to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2011 and allow jihadists to reconstitute as ISIS. They’ll presumably stay mute if al-Qaeda, ISIS, or some other group launches an attack on America that’s been planned in one of the countries from which we’re now withdrawing. And surely they’ll not be concerned when the next wave of fleeing refugees hits the West.
If it’s hard to imagine supporters of non-intervention embracing these placid opinions and attitudes, that’s because they don’t. And if horrific things should result from the planned troop drawdowns, they won’t. Enthusiasm for American military disengagement often isn’t a deeply considered position. It’s more of an impulse. Which is no basis for keeping a country safe.
There are multiple questions you have to ask and answer when it comes to American intervention. Where do you want the battlefield? How far are you willing to go in achieving a goal? Are you ready to stay the course?
If America is going to continue along, with no clear strategy or end goal in any of these countries, then it makes sense to leave. But you also have to realize, America is a world superpower, and when we go, a power vacuum appears. Something WILL take our place. Trump is downplaying the vacuum issue by saying we’re working with Turkey, to fill the void with another country and not an ISIS.
But Turkey is more like Assad in this region in that they’re only concerned about eliminating enemies like the Kurds, and not ISIS fighters. Turkey will help solidify Assad and Russia’s position in the region and remove US influence. In a nutshell, that means if we need to return to that region — it’s going to be considerably more difficult.
There are no good options when it comes to Syria — but we do seem to have a knack for continually selecting the worst plan.
And when people like James Mattis and others like him start resigning in protest, it’s a bad sign. It tells us we’re not doing what’s best for America in the long run. It’s okay if you think America should be more isolationist — know you’re also claiming that Trump is smarter and making better decisions than the most preeminent warriors America has in the military today.
We’re leaving Syria because we don’t have a plan or a strategy. That will have consequences. Post-Soviet American foreign policy has produced the following models: The Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. Each situation has created ripple effects across the globe. Isolationists like Senator Rand Paul claim this is reason enough to become even more isolationist — but their lack of decision has consequences too. It will move the battlefield closer to home, and the power vacuum left by America exiting the scene will get filled.
When it came to Syria, Trump took the comfortable choice: leave. He doesn’t have to think about the hard decisions if America flees the picture. That decision will have consequences. We’ve already seen one migrant crisis from indecision in Syria. If those people look around and see only death as their remaining options, they’ll have to choose to flee or join rebel groups like ISIS. We haven’t defeated ISIS or stemmed the migrant crisis with this move. We’ve just created more problems and kicked the can.
Like most things right now, we’ll see the results of those decisions sooner rather than later. Watch for signs of a second migrant wave, and ISIS regaining territory.
Links of the week
Trump managed to annoy everyone in the GOP last week in a performance that doesn’t bode well for 2019: The president can’t be expected to make everyone happy, but it takes an uncommonly inept performance to make no one happy. – Noah Rothman, NBC Think
Roberts, Leader of Supreme Court’s Conservative Majority, Fights Perception That It Is Partisan: “We don’t work as Democrats or Republicans,” he has said, a theme he has returned to while trying to strike a delicate balance as the chief justice. – The New York Times
Character Is Destiny: Trump’s character will be his downfall. – Jonah Goldberg, National Review
Utopianism: One of the Biggest Obstacles to Progress: There is always the danger that new utopian demagogues will emerge. – Chelsea Follett, Human Progress
Whose Streets, Indeed? In which our correspondent briefly, inadvertently leads an Antifa march – Kevin D. Williamson, National Review
For better or worse, Trump is now Trumpier than ever – John Podhoretz, The New York Post
So the President wants out of Afghanistan: What happens next? – War on the Rocks
How Artificial Intelligence Will Reshape the Global Order: The Coming Competition Between Digital Authoritarianism and Liberal Democracy – Nicholas Wright, Foreign Affairs
China Gets Its Message to Americans but Doesn’t Want to Reciprocate: Beijing enjoys a big megaphone in America even as it blocks U.S. media outlets, hinders independent scholars and limits U.S. public diplomacy – Orville Schell and Larry Diamond, The Wall Street Journal
Philadelphia’s Working-Class Warrior: A new biography explains why Frank Rizzo was both detested and admired. – Stephen Eide, City-Journal
‘Vice’ Review: The best superhero origin story of the year – Sonny Bunch, The Washington Free Beacon
How America Grew Bored with Love – David Masciotra, Intellectual Takeout
The Great War Christmas Truce: ‘They Were Positively Human’ – Hunter Derensis, Intellectual Takeout
The Duke in His Domain: Marlon Brando, on location. – Truman Capote, The New Yorker (11/09/1957)
The Rise, Lean, And Fall Of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg: The reality of Silicon Valley is that it’s commerce by any means necessary. And the reality of Sandberg is that she’s excellent at it. – Anne Helen Petersen, Buzzfeed
Satire piece of the week
Trumpy Bear Selected As New Secretary Of Defense – The Babylon Bee
WASHINGTON, D.C.—A new report out of the White House Friday indicated that Trump will be replacing outgoing Secretary of Defense James Mattis with Trumpy Bear.
While “Mad Dog” Mattis has clashed with Trump over the withdrawal of troops from Middle Eastern nations and other foreign policy disputes, Trumpy Bear is said to have no such problems.
“Mattis said I needed to pick someone who sees eye to eye with me on foreign policy, and I’ve found just the fella,” Trump said at a press conference. “Trumpy Bear is huggable, lovable, and fun. He never argues. He never disagrees with me. And he looks good, doesn’t he? Just check the little guy out. Very attractive.”
Thanks for reading!