Whatever might be said about Donald Trump, I always figured him for a savvy New Yorker who knew a good deal when he saw one.
A prime example was in Syria where the commander in chief, despite understandable misgivings about foreign entanglements, had deployed a small contingent of highly skilled troops to accomplish a mission vital to America’s national security.
In military jargon, President Trump was employing “economy of force.” In the context of recent history, he had adopted what might be called a Goldilocks Doctrine.
In 2003, President Bush sent 177,000 troops to Iraq to overthrow a mass-murdering, anti-American dictator. That was too much.
In 2011, President Obama withdrew all troops which Vice President Biden claimed was “one of the great achievements of this administration.” That was too little.
But President Trump got it just right: Fewer than 1,000 special operators training, equipping, advising and providing air support to the Syrian Defense Forces, 60,000 tough fighters, mostly Kurdish but also including Christian Syrians, Arabs, and others who, like us, oppose jihadism.
Thanks to this sustainable investment, the SDF had been degrading the Islamic State, preventing the Islamic Republic of Iran from running roughshod across the region, holding Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in check, and making Russian President Vladimir Putin understand he could go only so far.
Mr. Trump’s decision to retreat from Syria has thrown all that away. His defenders say he is doing it for the troops, bringing them home where they’ll be safe. But America’s warriors volunteer not to be safe at home but to keep their fellow Americans safe at home by targeting our enemies wherever they live and plot.
Our troops forged bonds with their allies in Syria. The last thing they wanted was to leave those allies and their families defenseless. Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin spoke to one such warrior soon after he was ordered to abandon his comrades-in-arms. “I am ashamed for the first time in my career,” he told her. She added: “This US Special Forces soldier wanted me to know: ‘The Kurds are sticking by us. No other partner I have ever dealt with would stand by us.’”
The Kurds have long been America’s best friends within what is now called the Muslim World. A proud and ancient nation with no state of their own, they have nevertheless managed to survive, and they have no wish to be gobbled up by a new anti-Western, Islamic empire — the goal of both Sunni salafi/jihadis and Iran’s Khomeinist/Shia rulers.
Apparently Mr. Trump doesn’t get this. Neither does Sen. Rand Paul who seems to have Mr. Trump’s ear. The only reason Americans are in Syria, Mr. Paul asserted last week, is because of “the bloodlust of the neocons” which, he added for good measure, “knows no bounds.”
“We need an end to endless war,” Mr. Paul has said repeatedly. Senator, I feel your pain, but the reason we have an “endless war” is because we have enemies who are patient and determined, and encouraged by the knowledge that Americans like you are neither.
These enemies regard themselves as men of faith, divinely ordained to defeat all infidels everywhere, heirs to Caliph Umar who conquered Jerusalem in 637, to Saladin who defeated the Crusaders in 1187, to Sultan Mehmed who occupied the Christian capital of Constantinople in 1453.
That the “endless war” we’re fighting is already more than a thousand years old is not an opinion. It’s the conviction of our enemies. Refuse to process that reality and progress is unlikely.
Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL officer now serving in Congress, noted that the “great irony” of the “endless wars” argument “is that removing our small and cost-effective force from Northern Syria is causing more war, not less.”
Whatever might be said about Donald Trump, I figured him for a guy who could smell a con a mile away. But he seems to have succumbed to the charms of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish president is an Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood supporter and neo-Ottoman posing as an ally. He has shown little interest in suppressing the Islamic State (indeed, IS terrorists were operating from Turkish territory as recently as last year) and he has conspired with Iran’s rulers against America on multiple occasions.
He also has brutally repressed the large Kurdish minority in Turkey. Yes, some Kurds have responded with terrorism. But the Kurds in Syria posed no threat to Turkey as long as they were under America’s wing. Indeed, America’s influence, sustained over the long term, can be transformational. Japan, Germany and South Korea are examples.
One more thing: If President Trump considered it essential to withdraw from Syria, he could have instructed his new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, his new Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, and his even-keeled Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to hammer out a plan to leverage America’s military power to protect American interests; accommodate legitimate Turkish security concerns (negotiations were well underway to create a “safe zone” along the Syrian border); prevent the escape of thousands of Islamic State prisoners from Kurdish-guarded camps; and not betray America’s friends, leaving them to Mr. Erdogan’s tender mercies.
In other words, he could have cut a good deal — for America, his re-election campaign, and those who have trusted us. If America is to be great again, America will need trusting partners to help fight a war that can end one of two ways — with us giving up, or with us making clear that defeating America is neither realistic nor divinely ordained.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.