Good luck to those who will try to make sense of President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. It is foreign policy by Twitter, a reversal seemingly unsupported by top advisers in both the White House and the Pentagon, and it appears based on a flatly untrue claim — that the U.S. has defeated the Islamic State (ISIS) when the truth is that while ISIS controls little of the territory it held just four years ago, it can still mount insurgent attacks (and does — as in just days ago).
In a Thursday morning tweet-storm, President Trump defended his decision with at least one actual fact — he has campaigned for U.S. withdrawal from Syria in the past. As long ago as 2013, Mr. Trump was publicly speaking out against sending U.S. troops there. But a lot has changed since then, including his decision just eight months earlier this year to launch an airstrike (along with Britain and France) against chemical weapons facilities to punish President Bashar Assad for a using such weapons in a civilian attack. Back then, U.S. involvement in what has admittedly been a complex civil war in Syria was considered crucial not only in suppressing ISIS but in keeping a check on Iranian and Russian influence in the Middle East.
Mr. Trump claimed Thursday that Russia, Iran and Syria “and many others” are not happy about the U.S. leaving. Perhaps by “many others,” the president is referring to U.S. allies or perhaps a whole lot of senior members of Congress who supervise U.S. military and foreign policy, but there’s little evidence that there’s any disappointment in Moscow or Damascus. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already praised the move to reporters: “On this, Donald is right. I agree with him.” Small wonder. It clearly gives him a much freer hand in Syria.
But what’s really the most troubling aspect of this decision is the sheer carelessness of it. The president has clearly not made this decision in close consultation with top military leaders with the State Department, has no detailed plan about how this withdrawal would be accomplished, has not negotiated any concessions or diplomatic alternatives from Mr. Putin, and has not offered a clue as to what might trigger a return of U.S. troops if ISIS soon regains its former stature or what happens if Mr. Assad goes back to using chemical weapons. This is foreign policy by whim — and while that’s not surprising coming from a president with a fondness for trusting his instincts over experience and actual knowledge, there are real lives at stake in this decision, not the least of which are the 2,200 or so members of the U.S. military in Syria right now.
Readers may be accustomed to “Alternative Fact of the Week” focusing on lighter fare such as the prime example this week when Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani flip-flopped on whether his client ever signed a letter of intent to develop a Trump Tower in Moscow. (“There was a letter of intent to go forward, but no one signed it," the former New York City mayor told CNN on Sunday. On Wednesday, he was shown a copy of the signed letter of intent. “I probably meant to say there was never a deal much less a signed one," he then told the same cable network.) You will simply have to forgive us. Sometimes, presidential prevarications can be seen as amusing, but sometimes they are deadly serious.
And yes, there is a legitimate public conversation to be had about what the proper role of the U.S. should be in the region, the military included. But claiming victory where none is achieved or telling Americans you’re standing up to Mr. Putin when the effect of your actions is quite the opposite is not transparency, it’s flat-out gas-lighting the public. These are matters that deserve more than a handful of tweets and false claims to serve some personal political purpose. If Mr. Trump is going to pursue a foreign policy by whim, it’s up to Congress to assert its own role and stop being a bystander when it comes to Syria. Demand accountability. As Sen. Lindsey Graham recently observed, “If [President Barack] Obama had done this, all of us would be going nuts.” It’s high time that both Democrats, and especially Republicans so fearful in the past of “power vacuums” in the Middle East, took action when a strategic country in a strategic part of the world is handed over to bad actors.