Trump may be basically right about Syria

Instead of allowing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, to serve until the end of February, President Donald Trump moved his departure up to Jan. 1 and said he had “essentially fired” Mattis.
REUTERS/Jim Young
Instead of allowing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, to serve until the end of February, President Donald Trump moved his departure up to Jan. 1 and said he had “essentially fired” Mattis.

What is Jim Mattis thinking right about now?

President Trump’s defense secretary, widely considered to be one of the dwindling number of reality-based officials keeping the president from dangerous and permanent derailment, resigned on Dec. 20. Although his resignation letter made no specific mention of Syria, Mattis chose to hand it in the day after Trump surprised advisers and nearly everyone by announcing that the U.S. was pulling its small military force from Syria. The decision shook many in Congress, including senior Republicans. But Vladimir Putin thought it was a great idea.

Mattis is all about being very clear who your friends and enemies are, and in each case treating them as such. The president, he said, deserved a secretary of defense who better reflected his values.

So what happened after he resigned? Instead of allowing Mattis to serve until the end of February, the date he had offered to leave the Pentagon, Trump moved his departure up to Jan. 1 and said he had “essentially fired” Mattis. That’s predictable enough, since Mattis made Trump look bad. He already was on shaky ground, and it had only seemed a matter of time before Mattis joined the rest of the “adults” in the administration on the outside looking in.

But also note what’s happened to Trump’s dramatic shift in Syria policy. On a visit Monday to Israel, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the 2,000-member U.S. force wouldn’t leave Syria until several conditions are met, including total defeat of the Islamic State and security for America’s Syrian Kurdish allies. Bolton refused to even talk about a timetable for withdrawal.

Of course, this being the Trump administration, that might change tomorrow. It probably will change again sometime during Trump’s presidency. But as of now, we appear to be back where we were the day before Trump made his announcement — except that the Defense Department now is being led by a guy whose last stop before the Pentagon was a senior vice president of Boeing, rather than a former Marine general who commanded troops in Afghanistan and both Iraq wars.

Judging from how he has handled his many other personnel issues, you have to think Trump feels okay about this one. In any case, no one is talking about it much — the discussion in Washington now is all about the government shutdown and border wall. His new acting defense secretary can sit at the next Cabinet meeting next to an acting chief of staff, acting secretary of the interior, acting head of the environmental protection agency and acting attorney general. The U.S. doesn’t have an ambassador to the U.N. right now, either — which on balance might be a good thing, since Trump’s nominee is a former Fox News host.

Mattis almost certainly knew this day was coming; just not exactly when or what issue would precipitate his departure. Despite a sense of duty honed in four decades in the Marine Corps, it has to feel good to stop hitting your head against the wall. And perhaps he created enough of a stir on his way out that he helped force the reversal we appear to be witnessing. It’s not clear what happened. But Trump enemy-turned-friend Lindsay Graham, for example, declared such an immediate withdrawal from Syria “against sound military advice” to be “a stain on the honor of the United States,” that would make the country less secure. Israeli officials expressed concerns that departure of U.S. troops would make it easier for Iran and its ally Hezbollah to build up forces on the Israeli border. Perhaps that gave Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo an opening to slow Trump down.

To be clear, this is less about the policy than about how it is or is not implemented. Keeping a couple of thousand troops in a dangerous place like Syria fulfills a couple of U.S. goals — pressuring Iran, keeping up the fight against remnants of the Islamic State, keeping faith with an ally, countering Russia. But it’s not much of a long-term plan. It’s what you do when you feel like you need to do something, but all the options are lousy. President Obama discovered the same thing in Syria. In a nutshell, that’s why we’re still in Afghanistan.

Trump may basically be right about Syria — just going about it in the worst possible way. As usual. The method may be as worrisome as the policy itself. If Trump insists on getting out, it should be accomplished in a clear and carefully scripted manner. America’s friends must know what to expect; rivals must be clear about the consequences should they try to take advantage.

Mattis may no longer be at the Pentagon, but he has an important role in this debate. He certainly would argue against a precipitous withdrawal. Perhaps more important, he should be answer questions in public about his decision to resign, and about his overall relationship with Trump. He should testify openly if asked by House committees. He should do interviews, write articles, perhaps go on a speaking tour. He might prefer not to, but that’s where duty should take him now.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/08/2019 - 10:15 am.

    The biggest damage being done is that our allies will, from now on, know that any agreement/plan/treaty is entirely dependent upon the current occupant of the White House.

    In fact, the next President may spend much time undoing Trump’s doings.

    What alliances can you build or plans can you make if 4 years is the practical time limit of any agreement ?

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/08/2019 - 11:08 am.

      Israel can defend itself. Other than that we have no real allies over there. The wars need to end. Time to just being all of our troops home and let those people fight their own civil wars.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/08/2019 - 11:36 am.

        ….Lord Palmerstone’s philosophy: “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”…

        Well, if no permanent allies or enemies, then what are our interests in the region ?

        None ?

        Some research on your part may be required.

        • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/08/2019 - 12:31 pm.

          Or to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson …trade with all , ally with none. We’ve only been over there because of the oil. We have more than enough of our own so we should just leave the ME and let them sort it out.

          • Submitted by richard owens on 01/08/2019 - 04:28 pm.

            The Kurds have sacrificed much and have been good fighters and excellent allies.

            The issue is simply protecting them from being wiped out by Erdogan.

            I read today the Kurds are now seeking alliance with Assad- an even worse scenario.

            The President does not have a basic understanding of the Middle East, and it shows. He does not “know more than the generals”, nor does he understand the need for allies.

            Yes, we need a new AUMF. Speaker Pelosi?

      • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 01/08/2019 - 07:09 pm.

        On foreign policy the libertarian right and progressive left generally are in agreement, which is the USA should not be meddling in the internal affairs of other sovereign nations. It would be nice to see these two political factions joining forces on these issues.
        It is interesting, and sad, to see the neo-liberal Democratic establishment now promoting military intervention and endless wars. Recently William Arkin, an award winning journalist with MSNBC, resigned stating that the network had become a propaganda arm of the Pentagon, CIA, and FBI. Reading his lengthy email message explaining his resignation should cause concern over our nation’s military adventures.
        Rarely, if ever, in the nation’s corporate news media do we hear that the Syrian government invited the Russians, while the USA has troops there illegally under international law. Actions of the USA in Syria and other nations are why about 25% of the people surveyed in a WIN/Gallup international survey about five years ago stated that they regarded the USA as the biggest threat to world peace with Pakistan coming in second at 8% and Russia at #12 with 2%. Of course, we do not receive anything challenging “American exceptionalism” in the corporate media, which is why many people get their news from other sources, which are more factual and legitimate.

  2. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/08/2019 - 10:25 am.

    For a group that claimed to be against the wars over there, the left sure is beating up Trump for actually trying for to get us out of at least one of those wars. There will never be a good time to leave nor a way to win. You can’t defeat an ideology with bombs. Trump should simply declare the wars are over and bring all of our troops home from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya etc. Israel can defend itself. The rest are none of our concern. We should also stop dealing with Saudi Arabia over all the stuff they keep doing.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/08/2019 - 11:18 am.

      Quite often, it is how things are done, not what is done.

      That is what diplomacy is all about.

      Apparently Erdogan irritated Trump during a phone call mid-December and Trump said he had enough and subsequently announced the withdrawal of troops immediately.

      This surprised all of our allies in the region. Bolton was sent to Israel to smooth things over, saying the withdrawal may take months or years. Then, when Bolton stopped in Turkey, Erdogan made his anger at the back-tracking clear. Who to believe–Bolton or Trump ?

      So you tell me, was this handled in a correct fashion ? Is the current result any different than a gradual pull-back after the defeat of on-ground forces in Syria ? Who is the boss ?

      All at the cost of angering multiple putative allies in the region.

      And besides, if Iran is our biggest threat in the world (now that North Korea is solved !?!) what are we doing in turning more of the Middle East over to their forces ?

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/08/2019 - 12:34 pm.

        Bolton is for perpetual war. He was a terrible pick There is no diplomatic way out of that mess over there. Just announce we are leaving and leave. We need to stop being Israel’s attack dog. They have plenty of military might to defend themselves.

        Trump was initially right and Bolton wrong. Trump should have stuck to his claim that we are leaving and made it happen ASAP.

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/08/2019 - 04:34 pm.

          While you may imply Bolton is a free-lancing war-monger, Trump’s poodle Pompeo is now making the apology tour of the region.

          Now what is Trump doing having two chicken-hawk war-mongers telling our former allies “don’t worry” about cutting and running ?

          So what is the real message ?

          So much winning….

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/08/2019 - 11:23 am.

      I agree with much of what you say. I do have reservations about leaving the Kurds to the tender mercies of Turkey. Regardless of whether we should have been in Iraq (and I happen to think we should not have been), the Kurds joined the fight on the side of the United States. Abandoning a vulnerable ally is wrong, both strategically and ethically.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/08/2019 - 12:39 pm.

        We still have troops in Iraq. The Kurds will forever need help at this rate. They need to defend themselves. If need be, we warn Turkey that attacks on the Kurds won’t be tolerated. We don’t need troops on the ground there. Our foreign policy should be something along the lines of if you kill an American, we will level one of your cities. If you attack America, we will nuke you back to the Stone Age. One of the very few things I can agree with Teddy Roosevelt on was his idea of speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/08/2019 - 03:22 pm.

          “The Kurds will forever need help at this rate.”

          A good case for the independent Kurdistan that the Treaty of Sevres would have made possible.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/08/2019 - 12:41 pm.

    Yeah, Trump is ultimately right, but he still managed to screw it up. His word is completely worthless at this point.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/08/2019 - 02:43 pm.

    I find it strange how this article seems to put the onus of the Trump “gut” decision on our troops in Syria on the departed Secretary of Defense, and not Trump!

    Mattis was clear in his letter of resignation: he profoundly disagrees with Trump’s apparent “values.” He goes on at length on his own values and we assume that Trump holds the opposite. He could no longer abide Trump’s sudden and rather violent mood swings, or his listening to foreign leaders rather than his own military and diplomatic (not to speak of intelligence) staffs. Mattis had had enough of trying to contain Trump’s worst of very bad instincts on foreign policy and the use of the military.

    My understanding is that Trump decided, suddenly and without consulting with any American official or expert on our interests in the Middle East, to abandon our support of the Kurdish troops who have been successfully doing the ground battle against ISIS in Syria. He did so because Erdogan of Turkey persuaded him to do so. Not that he somehow got angry with Erdogan and did this somehow to spite him (suggested in a comment above).

    Mattis has no explaining to do, although he–unlike Trump–would probably testify openly before Congress if asked. Mattis values allies, and doesn’t abandon his friends. He is not isolationist, as Trump is.

    Mattis also is a steady personality.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/08/2019 - 06:54 pm.

      You can’t prove any of your claims and it’s just your opinion. Trump even ran on getting us out of Syria. Mattis likes perpetual war, like many others in DC and the Pentagon. They would have us bogged down in the ME forever if it was up to them. 17+ years and counting is way too long to be at war. The best course of action is what Trump suggested… just leave. Those people have been fighting for centuries, we’re just in the middle of their civil war.

      • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/09/2019 - 03:42 pm.

        Well, I read very carefully Mattis’s letter of resignation (Trump initially tried to spin Mattis leaving as a retirement, until he actually read Mattis’s letter, too!). So, there’s fact there.

        That Mattis is in favor of all war? That’s an assumption you’ve made Mr, Barnes, about all military figures.

        That Trump’s decision was from his gut, and without any consultation with any American expert or official–well, that was all over the news. How did you miss that? He had just had a phone conversation with Erdogan, and it was the latter who said he encouraged Trump. . . . Oh, well. You probably don’t want to explain why Trump is suddenly full of Russian propaganda points on the former Soviet Union states, either (it’ a matter of who Trump is secretly talking to).

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