Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Trump's Syria Decision

President Donald Trump reacts before speaking at a rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Alex Brandon/AP.

Donald Trump decided to order the withdrawal of all 2000 US Special Forces stationed in Syria. Really, this shouldn't be a surprise.

He's wanted out of Syria for more than a year. Plus, withdrawing from Syria is right in line with his proto-isolationist America First doctrine that's embraced by his hardcore base of supporters. For almost two years Trump uncomfortably pressed on in Syria, despite his policy preferences, deferring instead to the US military, which advocated for a more open-ended, seemingly indefinite military commitment. The rationale was that increased air strikes and presence of US forces were needed to rout ISIS and contain Iran's influence in Syria.

Trump bucked the pressure from the military and decided to do it his way. And in response, establishment and mainstream journalists and analysts and even politicians are up in arms at Trump's decision. They see this as a replay of Barack Obama's 2009 decision to remove US forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, which provided fertile conditions for al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in Iraq to reconstitute themselves and eventually morph into the deadly and destructive ISIS. The conventional wisdom is that Obama's decision was a major strategic blunder by an antsy, naive, foreign policy neophyte.

Trump's decision carries all sorts of risks, critics say. It means Assad has free rein to do as he pleases in Syria. It gives Russia a decisive stake in Syria, making it the ultimate power broker there. Iran now has an opportunity to expand its influence, increasing the chances of Tehran creating its much desired "Shia crescent" in the Middle East. And without the US in Syria, the foot has been taken off the metaphorical throat of both al-Qaeda and ISIS, allowing both groups some breathing space to thrive Syria.

Meantime, as you might expect, Trump has a different take. He claims that it's a good time to get out of Syria, since "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency."

What should we make of these developments?

First, while ISIS has lost about 90% of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq, it's still holding on. It still has a presence in both countries, has thousands of foot soldiers, and the organization is still alive. So why not stay in longer to deliver a knockout blow? Okay, but that begs several questions. What’s a knockout blow? The complete eradication of all ISIS elements in Syria? Fine, but that's going to be more difficult than US hawks believe. As forces on sides close in, the organization on the ground in Syria might fully disappear, but many ISIS foot soldiers and leaders will remain alive and simply disperse, heading underground in Syria or fleeing for safe haven in other nearby failed states. Eventually, it will be like finding a needle in a haystack, and the US will have to cut its losses and leave.  

Additionally, at this point, al-Qaeda is arguably the bigger problem, as it's embedded itself in various communities in Syria, taking up local causes. And getting rid of al-Qaeda in Syria is no easy thing—something the US should fully know by now, after almost two decades of fighting the group in various global venuesUprooting al-Qaeda by force could take decades, if not longer, and so using anti-terrorism as a guidepost is a recipe for the US to remain engaged in an another endless war in the Middle East. Which is a wrongheaded move, on many counts. 

What about the Russia, Iran, and Assad angles? Shouldn’t Trump be concerned about those things and work to confront and contain them? Honestly, those are flawed reasons to keep US forces in Syria. For example, Russia is the main power broker in Syria and has been since 2015, when Vladimir Putin decided to up the ante with the Obama administration by sending in Russian forces. And both Russia and Iran have considerably more vested security, economic, and political interests at stake in Syria (in maintaining their influence there, keeping Syria as a partner, having Assad remain in power, etc.) than does the US. Furthermore, geographic proximity alone—the much shorter distance from Russia and Iran to Syria, compared to the US—automatically means that both nations highly value Syria and are extremely vigilant of what happens there. Syria, after all, is in Iran and Russia’s neighborhood; that’s hardly the case for Washington. As a result, the US is not going to dislodge a highly motivated Russia or Iran from Syria, at least not short of a head-to-head catastrophic confrontation inside Syria. 

Another important question needs to be asked: Even if motives and interests were roughly equal between the US and its rivals in Syria, are 2000 Special Forces enough to make life difficult for the tens of thousands of Syrian, Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah troops and militants and help the US advance its interests? So far, yes, but probably not over the long-term. Keep in mind that Assad, working in concert with his external backers, continues his march to retake territory that has been seized over the last seven plus years. He’s making progress and it’s fairly inevitable that all of Syria, except perhaps for certain pockets here and there, will once again be under his control. Might not happen soon, but it will likely happen. And at that point, any US troops in Syria would be a cornered, occupying force, illegally in the country and without permission from Assad. What happens then? I can think of a number of nightmare scenarios that could easily come to life.

Well, what about Assad? Shouldn’t the US remain in Syria to act as a check on Assad’s brutality? Obama didn’t think so and neither does Trump. And both are right. This kind of external intervention violates Syria’s sovereignty. It significantly expands America’s mission to Syria, which would then necessitate a new congressional authorization. It also runs counter to US national interests. It’s not the job of America’s military to police the leadership, politics, and governing structures of Syria. The US doesn’t have the foreign political capital, the backing of US citizens, and the requisite resources to act as a permanent warden to a failed and violent Syria.

Sure, withdrawal does carry risks, especially for the Kurds, America's main partner in Syria. But the risks of staying much longer outweigh the benefits of America reducing its footprint there. Frankly, working with America’s counterterrorism partners in the region, in combination with vigorous US air strikes, is probably a better path and one that Trump will likely follow. 

The bigger problem is the chaotic, ramshackle nature of the policy process that produced Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. As we know now, it wasn’t the product of careful deliberation and consultation with defense and policy experts. There wasn’t a meeting of the minds within the Republican Party. According to the latest reporting, Trump made his decision unilaterally, keeping almost all other relevant US actors in the dark. The Pentagon and State Department weren’t consulted. In fact, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was so bothered by Trump's unilateral decision that he resigned his position, citing conflicting views with Trump. GOP members of congress were caught off guard, and several desperately hope that Trump will reverse course. 

All of this is one more instance—like Trump’s North Korea dealings, his climate change stance, his criticisms of the EU and NATO, and so on—of Trump making a policy announcement and then other parts of the US government, caught flat-footed, then having to either flesh out the details after the fact or walk back Trump’s comments. As should be obvious, this just isn’t a good way to run a government or to make policy. Look, the Syria decision and the political fallout, in combination with the dramatic stock market downturn and the prospect of an imminent government shutdown, has effectively created massive instability and a near panic among US political and economic oberservers.

At bottom, what's happening is a clear example of what James Goldgeier and Elizabeth Saunders call “The Unrestrained Presidency.” In their Foreign Affairs article, Goldgeier and Saunders lament the lack of constraints on the ability of US presidents to exercise dominant power and authority on foreign policy matters. They write:

Going forward, any attempts to stem the growth of presidential power will have to confront not just the damage done by Trump but also the deeper problem that damage has exposed: that the bodies charged with constraining presidential power have been steadily losing both their willingness and their capacity to rein in presidents. Many have written eloquently, particularly since 9/11, about the need for checks on presidential power. But the reality is that Congress is in no shape to reclaim its role in foreign policy—and neither are the other traditional sources of constraint on U.S. presidents. It may take a major shock, such as the rise of China, to reboot the system.

While it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to give an exhaustive analysis of this predicament, it’s sufficient to say that the US presidency, especially under Trump, is demonstrating highly troubling despotic foreign policy tendencies. Do we really want anyone, let alone Trump—someone who knows little about foreign affairs, has shown little interest in understanding substantive foreign policy issues, and cares little about the importance and intricacies of diplomacy—to possess unchecked power on us national security affairs? I sure don’t. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

Remembering George H. W. Bush

Image result for george h w bush

Over the past few days, Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman held a short conversation over email on the recent death of former US President George H. W. Bush. Below is that conversation. 

Brad Nelson: What are your thoughts on the passing of George H.W. Bush?

Yohanes Sulaiman: It is the passing of a great man, a world leader, a mensch, etc.

Three more thoughts.

First, the media talk about how Bush Sr. is different from Trump, and how Bush Jr. wasn’t able to exhibit the kind of caution and restraint in his foreign policy as hid dad did. So I don't want to discuss that. What I want to talk about is about the change in global order. Some argue that without Bush Sr., the collapse of the Berlin Wall might not have been so peaceful. The Russians, Brits, and French were actually aghast at the prospect of German unification, and it was only because of Bush’s diplomacy that those three nations finally allowed Germany to unite. Perhaps there is a lesson somewhere here about the rise of China?

Second, it can be argued that Bush was probably the most prepared foreign policy president, with stints as the head of the CIA, vice presidency, etc. Compared to the leaders who followed, who lacked any foreign policy experience, I could argue that Bush Sr.'s foreign policy was successful because he knew the levers he could pull.

And third, while it could be argued that Reagan won the battles to break the Soviet Union, it was Bush who won the war by presiding over a peaceful transition. Is it a fair assessment, or am I giving too much credit to Bush?

BN: My initial reaction is this: During and for years afterward, George H. W. Bush’s (GHWB) presidency was completely overshadowed by more electric personalities—first by his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, and then by his successor, Bill Clinton. Reagan was seen as the modern GOP Jesus, a conservative exemplar who strengthened the party by bringing evangelicals back into politics and flipping Midwestern and rust belt democrats into Republicans. He kept the US out of costly wars, burnished America's image as a beacon of freedom, and had a hand in winning the cold war. Clinton was young and hip and cool, understood the plight of the common person, and, oh, and he was credited for rejuvenating the US economy in the 1990s.

Bush's legacy was also hamstrung by the fact that he only served one term. Americans—citizens and academics alike—typically don't view one-term presidents as successful. It's basically taken as given that one-termers screwed up somewhere along the way and that's why they weren't reelected to office. 

Over the last few years, especially since the release of Jon Meacham's bio of GHWB in 2015, there's been a critical reassessment of Bush's legacy. And that's allowed Bush's presidency to stand alone, to be evaluated on its own terms. And rightly so. His presidency wasn't perfect, true, especially on domestic matters. But Bush accomplished so much in his 4 years. Mostly seamless German unification. NATO kept intact. Stable Russian-US relations. Norms against conquest upheld. The UN had one of its few shining moments on his watch. And it's not just the individual, discrete accomplishments that matter most, it's that Bush applied a steady hand in a massively changing world, as you point out. He safely, confidently guided the world as it moved from the cold war to a new unipolar era. And given how the US prosecuted the Iraq War in 1991, this unipolar era wasn't one to be feared, as the US wielded its power as a benign hegemon. All credit to Bush.

And so I agree with you on Bush. While Reagan helped bring the USSR to the precipice of the end of the cold war, it was Bush who actually won the cold war. He won it in a literal sense, in that the USSR folded on Christmas Day 1991. But besides that, Bush had the harder part of dealing with the reality of a defeated, nuclear great power. There are lots of ways in which bad things could've happened and then spun out of control. What if Bush had decided to immediately consolidate US gains in his remaining time in office? He resisted those temptations. And frankly, that's something Russians remember to this day and why he's still fondly remembered by them.

BN: And going back to your first point, the GHWB administration does offer lessons for the future of US-China relations, especially for the Chinese. Going forward, China could well be in the position the US was in the late 1980s/early 1990s: riding high atop the international system, flush with power advantages and confidence, faced with the dilemma of what to do about its fallen superpower competitor. Bush showed how a deft touch toward a defeated great power—via diplomacy, face saving tactics, great power cooperation—can yield significant benefits. China should take note. Will Beijing find a way for the US to decline with grace and dignity? Or will it try to harass and humiliate an enervated US in Asia and globally?

YS: The problem with the current Chinese leadership is in their inability to think about what others think. We could argue whether it is due to China's authoritarian leadership. Or China's culture that emphasizes itself as the center of the world. Or the idea of the "Century of humiliation. Whichever is the case, it is a fact that the Chinese leadership is simply unprepared to face a global backlash against their current policies. I doubt that the current Chinese leadership could behave like Bush Sr., who understood what was going on behind the Kremlin walls and tried to make sure that the Soviet Union didn't overreact to the fall of Berlin Wall, thus wrapping up the Cold War. And such experience is unfortunately lacking among current or recent global leadership.

BN: Are you surprised by the sustained, lavish praise, especially here in the States, by talking heads, the media, foreign politicians, and like since GHWB's death?

YS: Not really. Though from what I observe, the media, especially CNN, praises Bush to draw contrasts against Trump.

BN: You're exactly right. The very positive coverage of the passing of GHWB—whether intentional or not--has been a stinging rebuke of Trump. Bush was a devoted father and husband. Bush was a fairly decent guy. He served in war and was a war hero. He was very experienced, in terms of politics and policy. He was a "true" conservative. He ran an organized WH, one that was filled with highly qualified people (Haass, Scowcroft, Baker, among others). And so on. All of these things have been exhaustively discussed and analyzed by the media over the last week, and they all stand in sharp contrast to Donald Trump and his presidency.

But the other interesting part is a clear nostalgia for the late 1980s/early 1990s. The undercurrent of the praiseworthy reporting on Bush, at least as I see it, is that the Bush presidency was a good era, particularly for the US. 

It was a simpler, more stable world. Nations were turning liberal and democratic, enmeshing themselves in the liberal world order, with only a few minor rogue actors posing a threat to the international system. The perils of globalization, jihadist terrorism, the rise of China, a resurgent Russia—these were either minor problems to the US or were light years away from becoming one. The US sat at the apex of the international system, as it won the cold war and stood as the unquestioned lone superpower globally. It quickly and successfully kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, whereby the US demonstrated its enormous raw might and reach of the American military, highlighted its role as a careful protector of long-established liberal norms and rules, and showed sincerity in gaining the requisite buy-in from other nations, including Muslim-majority nations in the ME, in order to prosecute the war. The US had good relations with most of the world. The world wanted to be friends and allies with the US, and the US worked hard at maintaining their friendship. Despite the economic blip that helped to boot Bush out of office by November 1992, it was a period when the US felt good about itself, its role in the world, and saw the promise of better days ahead.

That's a bygone era we now wistfully look at. By contrast, the world today is messy, complicated, filled with ghosts and demons everywhere. The US is turning on itself, as polarization is sky-high. There are large and deep-seated questions percolating these days throughout the US: Who is an American? What is America? Does America still have a global mission? America is engaged in a very self-help dialogue: we're troubled, we need help, but we don't know what to do or where to go, or who is best equipped to lead us out of the wilderness. That's a far cry from where we were in the Bush years.