- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2018

Some of our knowledgeable but more cranky foreign-policy experts have absolutely had it with President Trump — as they have at least once a week every week since Jan. 20, 2017.

This time the source of their profound disappointment, even amazement, is that the president would so alienate a great soldier-statesman like James Mattis as to wind up with his resignation as defense secretary — and just days before Christmas.

What these distinguished complainers maybe won’t accept is that at the core of the Mattis-Trump incompatibility is the president’s understanding of a basic reality.

It is that the exercise of comity and nothing but comity with allies, though soothing to Mattis-type souls everywhere, isn’t and wasn’t cutting it.

The U.S. did the punching while our allies held our coat.

OK, a bit of an overstatement, but it lights up the target.

The target point is our repeated, unwise, unnecessary military intervention abroad in the absence of a clear and present danger to the United States.

Syria was never a threat to us.

A source of irritation for Israel and Saudi Arabia maybe. A ruthless suppressor of speech and assembly to its own people. But not a threat to the United States.

Mr. Trump also appears to understand that once U.S. troops are committed, there is no unarguably right time to withdraw them.

Washington has been tying itself in knots in Afghanistan for 17 years and in Iraq for 15.

What’s the game plan there?

When will enough be enough?

What’s victory look like there?

General Mattis, for all his dedication and valuable military leadership over a lifetime, can’t seem to answer that question. What he does say, once boiled down, comes out to what every other establishment member of both parties always says:

Better to fight them (terrorists, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad and on and on) over there than here.

A false either-or. They fight us over here because we fight them over there.

The about-to-depart defense secretary says with first-glance plausibility that we can’t sacrifice our allies by cutting and running from a war. Any war. Any time. Anywhere.

Yes we can.

The Obama administration, without a congressional declaration of war, took us into the Syrian civil war not to help the Kurds establish an independent state.

We entered because, in the full plenitude of our foreign policy arrogance, we thought we could pick the winning side, establish a mini U.S.-style government in Damascus, protect the Christian minority, end Russian and Iranian influence in the country — and all go to the seashore on Sunday.

As usual, we were clueless about the hugely complex religious, tribal, local, regional, political interests struggling for incompatible ends against each other in some cases and in alliance with this or that party in other cases — and America be damned.

But, yes, Secretary Mattis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our neoconservative war hawks and our foreign-policy establishment are right.

This is not the ideal time to withdraw from Syria — or from Afghanistan for that matter.

Hard to imagine, realistically at least, an indisputably right time in the near — or even far — future.

Plenty of can-talk-and-chew-gum Americans who’ve had to tango to the point of exhaustion with foreign entanglements think, as I do, that the president did the right thing in ordering the pullout now.

The Syrian government’s armed forces are regaining enough strength to return the country to its former, peaceful pre-Syria-version “Arab Spring” state, I’m told by people who have the creds at least to claim they know what they’re talking about.

Syria, you’ll recall, was an independent, Christian-protecting, Russian-allied, secular, women-respecting dictatorship before Washington decided it knows enough about the religious-ethnic-political factions there to intervene militarily — and help turn the place into the caliphate-hosting hell it became for Muslims and Christians.

Maybe our Kurdish allies in Assadland, according to people I know who seem to be in the Levantine know, will find in Mr. Assad’s army protection from Turks out to smash Kurdish independence in Syria and Turkey.

Probably not.

Maybe our side can talk the Syrian Kurds into quitting their quest for some kind of independent Kurdish entity in northern Syria that Turkey will understandably see as a threat.

Probably not.

Maybe we can persuade Turkey not to obliterate Syria’s Kurds. The ugly truth however is that although the Kurds did the heavy lifting in routing the caliphate, as President Trump has explicitly acknowledged, they may well be sacrificed as a result of our withdrawal.

The alternative is a permanent U.S. occupation of Syria. Any of you who are all for that raise your hands.

Then there’s the problem that our friends like Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham note.

The ISIS caliphate is kaput, but some of its beheaders are still milling about looking for infidel throats to cut.

We leave; they resurge.

That’s the caution of the Mattis-minded among us.

Probably wrong. Syria’s Assad, Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan have the self-interest and military might to hold down the death-worshipping vest-strippers in Syria.

The alternative in this case is to have Americans rat-a-tat-tating till we gun down the last ISIS fighter in Syria and Afghanistan, or —flashback — the last Viet Cong in Vietnam.

That rapidly private-enterprise developing communist domino is one of those places with which we now have warm diplomatic relations.

We could probably have had peaceful if not admiring relations with Ho Chi Minh land 50 years ago. And spared the lives of 58,220 Americans in uniform.


By not assuming we have the right knack for building our-style nations at gunpoint in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

There is no last ISIS fighter just as there never was any such thing as the last Viet Cong.

You can find Stalinists in mother Russia and Nazis in today’s Germany.

And jihadists probably in, yes, Cleveland — or jumping our southern border. That’s where we can play seek-their-hide and stand a high probability of winning.

But the heart-wrenching agony for every American of goodwill remains in these in Mr. Trump’s having said:

“We lost tens of thousands of Kurds, died fighting ISIS. They died for us and with us. And for themselves. They died for themselves. They’re great people. And we have not forgotten. We don’t forget.”

He said this before announcing the pullout. This is the awful kind of situation we get ourselves into when we solicit or accept help from people we will probably have to abandon in the end in order to preserve our own vital interest and survival.

Remember the searing images of April 30, 1975, when the last American helicopter left Saigon. Remember those South Vietnamese who had allied themselves with us and whom we left stranded. They struggled in vain to clamber over the gate of our embassy. We were pulling out of one of those pointless, unwinnable wars.

We had launched it in our wonderfully American belief that we can and will make the world a better place if we just try a little harder and longer at rat-a-tat-tating the bad guys.

Merry Christmas.

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