Trump’s Middle East Retreat: Problems for Everyone

By Mel Gurtov

The flight of the generals is now complete with the resignation of General James Mattis—the last of the four generals to depart, and the last to give up the naïve belief he could bring sanity and order to the White House. Mattis refused Trump’s request to endorse the Syria withdrawal. His resignation letter shows, however, that more than Syria prompted it: “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” he wrote.

Some outcomes of the force withdrawals are fairly predictable. Turkey will be free to attack US Kurdish allies. Bashar al-Assad will have further opportunity to brutally impose his will over resistance forces, with Iran’s and Russia’s help and without fear of US counteraction. Israel and Saudi Arabia may now have license to intervene in Syria or further squeeze Iran, widening the zone of contest. US partners farther afield will have further evidence that Trump cannot be trusted to act rationally—in fact, cannot be trusted, period.

Trump will crow that he has kept his promise, saved a bundle of money, and brought the boys home in keeping with “America First.” (“We’re rebuilding other countries while weakening our own,” he said in the first major foreign-policy speech of his 2016 campaign.) But his rationale may not go over well with Republicans in Congress who are already smarting over Trump’s kowtowing to the Saudis in the Khashoggi affair and now are saying he has made a major error (Rubio) and acted dishonorably (Graham). Trump has overplayed his hand, not so much because of the withdrawal of US forces as because he has once again revealed how ego, arrogance, and impulsiveness drive his decision making. There was no process behind his decision, no consulting with his top national security advisers or anyone else, no weighing of consequences, no exit strategy.

Trump’s withdrawal decisions put Democrats in a difficult position. Progressives might well applaud the idea of force withdrawal from losing efforts even while criticizing the lack of a strategic rationale for doing so. Their problem is offering a credible alternative to inevitable accusations that they favor “cut and run.” Establishment Democrats are more likely to condemn the withdrawals outright, arguing that they are a gift to the Russians and an affront to allies, including Israel. Their problem is backing endless war—Obama’s dilemma. Both groups will have to decide how to handle the Mattis resignation. After all, he was no dove; to the contrary, as his letter indicated, he wanted the administration to focus on getting tough with China and Russia, the chief US adversaries, while sustaining war-making in Syria and Afghanistan. Hardly a position that liberals or progressives should stand behind.

There are no winners, here or abroad, in Trump’s decision. But there are important losers: innocent lives and prospects for peace. However remote a political settlement in Syria and Afghanistan might have been before, it is even more remote now. With the US largely out of the picture, incentives for adversaries—Syria and Russia in Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan—to negotiate war-ending or at least violence-reduction agreements are now gone. Civil war is likely to gain intensity. Civilian casualties and refugee numbers will rise substantially. A new regional war is possible. The defeat of peace should be the focus of critics’ concern.Φ

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

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