A few days ago I wrote a column lamenting Trump’s rash decision, apparently made on the advice of Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan, to immediately pull all US forces out of Syria. A horrible idea, I said.
Let’s begin by stipulating that I could be completely wrong about this. There are a number of reasons why people whose politics and intelligence I admire believe that overall, despite the ham-fistedness of Trump’s execution, a general withdrawal from Syria, and all of America’s “forever wars”, is long overdue. I understand their position thoroughly. Afghanistan, for example, is the sort of project that takes about 200 years, and a lot more resources than presently committed, to pull off properly, and at some point a decision to leave that mess to its fate will have to be made. Moreover, the argument that “if we pull out now the whole region will go to Hell in a handbasket” starts to wear thin, even when it’s true. America has been playing geopolitical whac-a-mole all over the globe for going on 18 years now, with no end in sight. It’s not only draining, and generally fruitless; aspects of the global military effort, particularly the ruthless drone strikes, are both immoral and counter-productive, tending to breed more enemies than they kill.
Yet Syria, and Iraq too, are rather special cases. For one thing, America is itself to blame for the appalling hash made of the whole region. The foolish, hubristic invasion of Iraq set off a horrendous chain reaction, and anything the US can do now to contribute to the eventual long term stability of the area is pretty much a moral imperative. The current US contingent in Iraq is not an invading army, but was invited in by the lawful elected government to help destroy large swaths of the ISIS Caliphate, and should remain until any credible threat of a true resurgence of that Hellish organization is removed. America is perhaps less on the hook for Syria, but the mess made in Iraq has everything to do with the rise of ISIS, and the takeover by those terrifyingly brutal extremists of large sections of Syria, too. Something had to be done about it – Obama, extremely reluctant to create foreign entanglements, wouldn’t have started this process if it wasn’t obviously necessary – and the job isn’t finished.
Moreover, a commitment was made to a really very brave and noble population of Kurds, and leaving them flapping in the breeze, waiting to be pounced upon by Turkey, would be both disgraceful and terribly, terribly sad. In the battle against ISIS in Syria, it is the Kurds, not US forces, who’ve been doing the dying. America has lost something like four soldiers, so far. It’s a moral failure of a sort to describe this as “only” four deaths, but as military commitments in vicious war zones go, the US deployment to Syria has been financially burdensome, but otherwise nothing at all like, say, Vietnam, or even Afghanistan. Not for the Americans – just for their allies, who have fought hard, courageously, and expensively. Promises were made, and the Kurds deserve better than to be left there alone to be killed.
So what’s the end game? Beats me, which is why I understand the contrary point of view. The only idea anybody has is to hang tough and hope some opportunity arises. In Iraq, I think there’s a fair chance that one day, the country will emerge as a stable democracy, just as South Korea did, over the decades after what was, at the time, widely regarded as the military failure and grave mistake of the Korean War. In Syria, honestly, the prospects look bleak. The time may come to reassess. Before that happens, though, somebody had better figure out how to protect the Kurds, and it would be best if ISIS was more thoroughly obliterated too, which is well within US military capabilities. There will always be something that calls itself “ISIS” of course, but the US can keep pounding it for a while longer, leaving it incapable of raising armies of tens of thousands, and creating its own Islamo-fascist Hellscape of a country out of the rubble of a US-wrecked Middle East.
Says me, anyway. But not just me. The entire policy community, and even large segments of the political left (including, I swear to god, Noam Chomsky) were appalled at the thoughtlessness, the sheer recklessness, of announcing that US forces would be pulling up stakes immediately and the Hell with everybody else, especially you, you poor Kurdish bastards. Mattis resigned over it. Bolton and Pompeo probably had both kittens and cows. I have to imagine, too, that there were phone calls that went very much like this:
White House Operator: Mr. President, please hold for Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Trump: Bibi! My man! How’s the weather in Tel Aviv?
Netanyahu: It’s nice, it’s nice, really sunny and a good ocean breeze. Say look, Mr. President, ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND?
It looks like John Bolton may have taken a few such calls too, both from the Israeli PM and Saudi boy potentate MbS, both of whom dread the prospect of Iran and its proxies filling the vacuum that US forces would leave behind. He and Pompeo have been running around frantically doing damage control during visits to Istanbul, Cairo, Tel Aviv and Amman, and no doubt they got an earful. Turkey really wants US forces gone, to clear the decks for an assault on the poor Kurds, but the Saudis, Israelis, Egyptians and Jordanians most emphatically do not. It looks like the latter four carried the day.
So yesterday, Bolton announced that what Trump of course meant to say was that US forces will be withdrawing from Syria immediately as soon as the security of the Kurds can be guaranteed and ISIS is well and truly beaten to a pulp for all time.
I really, really hate to do this, but attaboy, Evil Walrus!
This has been the purest geopolitical shit show, but Bolton, a nasty piece of work and fundamentally and dangerously misguided on nearly all policy questions, has nevertheless somehow set the matter right for the moment, just as Mattis, last year, stopped Trump from removing US forces from the Korean peninsula. Lord knows what mix of flattery, remedial education, and hand puppetry it took to bring The Donald around. One wonders, too, how many times similar catastrophes can be averted, which is just one more reason why Trump’s removal from office is imperative. There isn’t always a walrus around when you need one, and anyway, the big toothy bastards are unreliable.