Donald Trump’s impulsive decision to withdraw American troops from the Kurdish region of northeastern Syria has had predictably chaotic consequences. He talks about getting out of the “endless wars” in the Middle East, but he obviously didn’t thought through what would happen.
Turkey of course has occupied a belt of Syrian territory, pushing the Kurds back. The Kurds, having lost their American partners, turned to the Syrian government, against which they had previously been fighting. This in turn helped Iran (Syria’s major Middle Eastern ally), which Trump has spent three years demonizing. Russia is the main patron of the Syrian government, so it now is in position to be the principal power broker in the region.
Exploiting that opening, President Putin met with Turkish President Erdoğan to agree on expanding the zone of Turkey’s invasion. This leaves Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the lurch, with only his erstwhile enemies, the Kurds, and Iran for support. Meanwhile, the Islamic State (IS), of whose defeat Trump boasts, has been given new opportunities to regroup and possibly again pose a direct threat to the United States.
Rarely has the redeployment of a handful of troops had such sweeping and immediate consequences.
Practically everyone outside Trump’s hard core base thinks he screwed up badly in Syria, but there is no agreement on what should be done instead.
The reactions back home have been almost uniformly negative: even Republican members of Congress have been quite critical. While Trump’s base seems supportive of his isolationist approach, Republican members of Congress seem largely to be in what we used to call the “Neoconservative” wing that advocates for assertive use of military power around the world in support of US interests. It was the neocons like former Vice President Dick Cheney who were the architects of our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. What Trump has done violates every core principle of neoconservative foreign policy. And it’s these Republican Senators that Trump depends on to block a Senate conviction if he is impeached by the House.
The Democrats, oddly, seem to be taking the stance that Trump is right: we need to get out of these endless wars, but he’s doing it all wrong. They don’t seem able to define what would be the right way. Progressives in general (I include myself) are quite critical of American involvement in the world’s trouble spots, and imagine that the world would be better off if left alone. The other wing of the Democrats are the Cold War liberals like Hillary Clinton, who favor an assertive international role for the US, but not as enamored of military power as the Neocons. Barack Obama straddled these two camps: he was rhetorically progressive but more of a Cold War liberal in practice.
So both parties are split between noninterventionist and interventionist wings. Practically everyone outside Trump’s hard core base thinks he screwed up badly in Syria, but there is no agreement on what should be done instead. Surely even the Neocons wouldn’t advocate another massive invasion followed by an endless occupation. The Cold War liberals of the Obama administration got us into Syria in the minimal way they did, to counter the ISIS without seriously trying to overthrow Assad, even though they agreed that Assad ought to be removed. The Progressives haven’t yet thought through what the US role in the world ought to be.
In response to Trump’s folly, we as a nation need to think seriously about our proper role in the world. Every American alive today has lived in and benefited from an international order in which the United States was the dominant power and loosely enforced adherence to liberal democracy in politics and capitalism in economics. Even though Democratic and Republican presidents supported Third World tyrannies when it served our perceived interests, even though Democratic and Republican presidents got us into wars we couldn’t win and couldn't get out of, the overall thrust of American leadership since World War II was to maintain the kind of liberal political and economic order on a global scale that we Americans are comfortable with. And this was most successfully done through soft power, not troops on the ground. We relied on our allies, and they on us.
Democratic Progressives need to come to terms with this: a world of independent states will be shaped by power. If the US does not choose to exercise its power to shape a world that we want to live in, others (China? Russia?) will do it, and we won’t like the results. Donald Trump doesn’t care. We should.