“Mission Accomplished,” Donald Trump tweeted triumphantly after the recent limited strikes on Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons facilities. Critics were quick to portray the President’s boast as hot air, and pontificate about the need for a comprehensive White House strategy to deal with Syria and other long-term regional issues.
But Trump does have a strategy, which the strikes and the President’s tweets have made plain—a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria and a U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal. Washington has plenty of allies to work with and through in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both share an American interest in rolling back Iran. Further, the White House can work against Iran and its partners in Syria through proxy forces on the ground.
The peculiar fact is that neither the Iran deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, nor the U.S. troop presence in Syria was designed to push back on the clerical regime. Quite the opposite—they are part of a strategy purposed, perhaps unintentionally, to relieve Tehran. But now Trump intends to get out of both—while reserving the prerogative to use force, as the strikes made plain.
There is little evidence to suggest that Trump is a grand strategist in the classical mode, but his instincts are right. Contrary to the horror and scorn with which both ideas have been greeted by the Beltway foreign-policy consensus, Trump’s grand Middle Eastern strategy makes sense.
The irony is that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, sought to accomplish the same goal of withdrawing the United States from the mire of what Trump rightly describes as a “troubled” region. The difference is that Obama’s mechanism for extricating America from the Middle East was the nuclear deal with Iran, which has paradoxically entailed not only more bloodshed but also continuing U.S. military engagement on the ground. Obama’s big mistake was his naïve belief in Iranian PR, which transformed a militarily weak, economically backwards, and politically unstable country into a technological powerhouse fronted by the dashing revolutionary fashion-plate, Qassem Suleimani.
Obama’s grand strategy was to “balance” traditional U.S. allies against Iran to create a kind of stasis while the U.S. snuck out the back door. The problem with that strategy was that Iran was simply unable to fill the stabilizing role Obama had in mind. It’s too weak, and there are many, many more Sunnis in the Middle East than Shiites. Not even Vladimir Putin’s military escalation in September 2015 followed by massive infusions of U.S. cash to Iran and its clients could win a decisive victory for the Assad regime, which Russia and Iran support.
Why is this glaringly obvious failure in judgment still so difficult for D.C. pundits and think-tankers to understand? In part, because it would acknowledge that Obama wasn’t so smart, which means they aren’t so smart, either. It would also force the chattering classes to acknowledge years of U.S. complicity in the Syrian genocide. Americans, especially those on both the left and the right who see demonstrating American virtue as a main goal of U.S. foreign policy, still cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that Obama didn’t simply stand idly by while the Iranians and their allies slaughtered and gassed Syrians, although that prospect would certainly be bad enough. Rather, America actively assisted in the slaughter.
The money that the Obama White House provided Iran—tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, the $1.7 billion ransom for American hostages—helped fund Iran’s Syrian campaign. The weapons and the soldiers who committed genocide inside Syria were partly paid for with U.S. dollars. American aid to the Iraqi army and Lebanese Armed Forces helped stabilized Iranian holdings while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its partners like Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, nearly all of whom were Sunnis, many of whose villages were then subjected to sectarian cleansing and replaced with Shia loyal to Iran. While D.C. partisans of “fighting ISIS” point to the prevention of a future terror attack on U.S. soil as the main rationale for their mission, it doesn’t take a genius to see how helping kill 500,000 Sunnis in Syria is more likely to produce future terror attacks than to prevent them.
Trump’s strategy is simple: Pull the plug. The Middle East is a “troubled place,” Trump said after the strikes. “We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place. The United States will be a partner and a friend, but the fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people.”
What this means in practice is that the President is almost certain to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement next month. He’s given Secretary of Defense James Mattis six months to beat ISIS and then we’re out.
Trump has already gotten lots of pushback on both withdrawing from the JCPOA and from Syria. “To succeed in the long run,” said Sen. John McCain, “we need a comprehensive strategy for Syria and the entire region”—a strategy premised on the fight against ISIS.
ISIS is a red herring. As newly appointed U.S. national security adviser John Bolton told me in a Tablet interview in July: “Many Sunnis supported ISIS not because they like ISIS but because they don’t want to be ruled by Baghdad or, in Syria, ruled by Assad. If there’s no alternative, what will they do when ISIS is defeated except find another vehicle to fight Iranian allies?”
In other words, so long as Iran and its allies are oppressing the regional Sunni majority, there will be Sunnis to fight them. Because they are Sunnis, those fighters are going to embrace many of the same slogans, banners, and tactics as ISIS, or Jabhat al-Nusra. Will the United States therefore enlist itself in a conflict against any Sunni who does not willingly accept the regional domination of Iran and its allies? That is a recipe for permanent war—and unending terror threats against the United States.
The anti-ISIS campaign is a continuation of an open-ended war detailed in the senate’s new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The executive is empowered to strike a host of Sunni terrorists from Syria to Somalia and Afghanistan to Algeria. Notably absent from the list are the IRGC, Hezbollah, Iraq’s Iranian-backed Shiite militias, etc. In other words, the AUMF is a blueprint to continue America’s nearly two-decade-long war against Sunni Muslims in various theaters.
“You guys want me to send troops everywhere,” Trump is reported to have told Mattis. “What’s the justification?”
“Sir,” Mattis replied, “we’re doing it to prevent a bomb from going off in Times Square.”
It is not the Pentagon but the Federal Bureau of Investigation that is responsible for protecting Americans from terrorist acts at home. But Mattis isn’t really talking about preventing acts of terror in American cities—rather he’s describing the political effect of seeming to prevent attacks at home.
A senior Obama administration official recently explained to me how the White House he served perceived the anti-ISIS campaign. Since any domestic terrorist attack on America is a potential disaster for the president, fighting Islamic terror abroad provides the commander-in-chief with some political cover in the event a bomb really does go off in, say, Times Square. Partisan critics can’t accuse the commander-in-chief of being blind to the threat of Islamic terror if there are American forces fighting terror in Muslim lands. Thus, U.S. servicemen and women dispatched to fight ISIS are defending U.S. national security less than they are the political interests of the country’s ruling establishment.
Trump is right that 17 years of war in the Middle East and Central Asia have won the United States very little in return for its investment. The government of Iraq that American men and women sacrificed their lives for is now under Iranian control. The war in Afghanistan is a boondoggle for Beltway contractors—military and security as well as aid and development—that is being waged for no strategic purpose.
Yet 17 years of U.S. gyrations in the Middle East have created no shortage of stakeholders in the U.S. war footing. Some U.S. allies are clearly worried about the prospect of an American withdrawal from Syria, for entirely valid reasons of their own. French President Emmanuel Macron is keen to convince Trump to stay in Syria for several reasons. ISIS is a domestic problem for France, with thousands of its citizens of North African descent rotating through Syria and returning home where French security services are overwhelmed by the sheer number of potential terror suspects. The way Macron sees it, the United States should share the responsibility of keeping the citizens of the Fifth Republic safe from their fellow Frenchmen.
Further, France has a significant financial stake in the outcome of the Syrian war. The nuclear deal and suspension of sanctions makes Iran a potentially lucrative market for European business. But with the Iranian rial in free fall, Tehran is hemorrhaging capital in financing its expeditionary wars. Accordingly, from Macron’s perspective, the Americans should relieve some of Iran’s military burden by fighting ISIS—i.e. the Sunnis—so that the Iranian economy can stabilize, and French companies can make money.
Europe and Iran both have clear stakes in America’s continued presence in Syria. But if they want the United States to fight for them, they should write out a big fat check to the Department of Treasury. Otherwise, the United States should pull out of Syria now, even before Trump’s six-month deadline. Why waste American lives and other resources on an endless campaign that serves the interests of U.S. adversaries like Iran and Russia?
Defense Secretary Mattis reportedly didn’t want a larger strike on Assad earlier this month because he didn’t want to risk a larger conflict with Iran and Russia. But if you don’t want troubles with Tehran and Moscow in Syria, then simply withdraw. When Iranian-backed Iraqi militias threatened American troops after the Syria strike last week, the purpose was to remind the United States that they are allowed to fight ISIS only because Iran sanctions it—a privilege Washington risks forfeiting should the United States dare target another Iranian ally. In other words, the American men and women trained and armed to defend and advance our national interests are actually potential Iranian hostages, whose presence helps keep the United States in the Middle East, on terms dictated by Iran and Russia. That’s madness.
For American friends of Israel, it may be painful to admit that U.S. actions in the Middle East over the last 17 years are largely responsible for the fact that Iran now sits on two Israeli borders, in Lebanon and Syria. The Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq relieved Iran of a Sunni foe and then gave it Baghdad. The Obama White House funded Iran and legitimized its nuclear program, instead of eliminating it. The Trump administration has continued programs that arm Iranian allies, like the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Iraqi army. U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria fighting ISIS helped clear room that Iran and its allies spanned with the famous land-bridge that now links the Persian Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean and Israel’s borders.
The consequence of the failed American order in the Middle East is that there will soon be a war between Iran and Israel—in Syria, Lebanon, and maybe beyond. As an ally, the United States should ensure Israel wins the conflict quickly and decisively, supplying Jerusalem with whatever it needs, from ammunition to intelligence. Besides that, we’ve clearly done enough damage fighting our own wars of choice in the Middle East—to the region, to young American soldiers, and to our society. It’s time for America to come home.
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