President Donald Trump is facing strident criticism from members of his own party — and even the administration itself — for his sudden decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, after declaring victory over the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS).
While some of the criticism is on target, especially as regards U.S. allies in the region, some of the criticism from foreign policy hawks has been hysterical — and risks being taken less seriously in the future.
The president’s has articulated three reasons for withdrawing from Syria. The first is that ISIS is defeated — a claim that is true with regard to the “territorial caliphate,” though the group still exists and its sympathizers continue to carry out worldwide attacks. The second reason is that Trump promised to bring the troops home, not only on the campaign trail but as recently as April. And the third reason is we cannot be the “Policeman of the Middle East.”
Against these arguments, Trump’s critics offer three responses. First, leaving Syria could repeat the mistakes of the hasty withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which allowed ISIS to rise in the first place. Second, while Trump made promises to voters, the U.S. has obligations to protect the region’s minorities, including Christians and especially the Kurds, who fought ISIS with us. And third, withdrawal hands a strategic victory to Turkey, Russia and Iran.
All of these are valid objections, though there are important differences from President Barack Obama’s retreat from Iraq. Obama had opposed the Iraq War and was determined to leave Iraq regardless of the consequences. Trump backed troop deployments to Syria for the purpose of defeating ISIS. Moreover, while observers debate whether the U.S. has achieved “victory,” President Obama avoided the very use of that word; it was never his goal.
There is little risk that Syria will become a “vacuum”; if anything, it is now the opposite, overrun by armies from several nations, some with competing interests. The risk is less that ISIS will return and more that Turkey, Russia, and Iran will use Syrian territory to further their own geopolitical ambitions. But countering those rivals’ ambitions will require much more than 2,000 U.S. troops — who, while brutally effective fighters, are also potential targets.
Trump’s critics ignored the nuances and simply blasted him. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) called it a “terrible mistake” and a “major blunder.” He claimed that Trump’s decision “was made despite overwhelming military advice against it” — though so, too, was President George W. Bush’s decision to launch the “surge” in Iraq, which in retrospect was brilliant even though Obama squandered it.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also called the Syria decision an “Obama-like move,” adding later that the claim to have defeated ISIS was “FAKE NEWS.” He even suggested Trump was “tired of fighting radical Islam.”
The problem with such hyperbole is that it suggests there is no conflict from which the hawks would ever withdraw if there were a risk America’s enemies might find some way to exploit it.
The most cogent criticism of Trump’s decision was also among the most measured. Gov. Mike Huckabee tweeted: “I want troops home too, but leaving Syria abruptly is betrayal to Kurds who have sacrificed and shed blood for Americans and it leaves Syrian Christians as sitting ducks. Please @realDonaldTrump re-think this! Your friends and supporters hope you reconsider.”
He is right — and pulling out of Syria is, absent further information about what guarantees Trump might obtain in return from Turkey and Russia, probably wrong. But it need not be a disaster.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.