It would take a heart of stone not to laugh today at Rubio and Lindsey Graham, two guys who long ago dropped their misgivings about POTUS in exchange for the theoretical ability to influence him on foreign policy. They were repaid by Trump pulling the rug out from under them on what’s probably their single biggest foreign policy priority. Imagine working as hard as these two have to cover for him only to find out that the guy with real sway over his biggest interventionist decisions is … Rand Paul.
The planned troop withdrawal from #Syria is a "colossal" mistake that has "basically turned the country over to Russia and to an even greater extent, Iran," says @marcorubio https://t.co/56gMLOkIeH pic.twitter.com/D5BkLsoPyB
— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) December 19, 2018
Meanwhile, step back and look at the big picture. In the span of a couple of days, Trump has (1) seemingly caved on the wall, pissing off populists; (2) ordered a ban on bump stocks, annoying (some) gun owners; and now (3) authorized a full withdrawal from Syria, angering not just superhawks like Rubio and Graham but media fans like Mark Levin. By the end of the week, every wing of the party will be mad for one reason or another. The Pelosi era of the Trump presidency is really taking shape.
Snark aside, I’m open to the possibility that Trump is right about withdrawing from the quagmire within a maelstrom within a catastrophe that is Syria. A few points, though.
1. No one else within administration seems enthusiastic about it. Here’s Mattis three months ago:
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has also suggested that a precipitous withdrawal could enable militants to make a comeback, as they did in Iraq before the Islamic State’s rise in 2014.
“Getting rid of the caliphate doesn’t mean you then blindly say, ‘Okay, we got rid of it,’ march out, and then wonder why the caliphate comes back,” Mattis told reporters in September.
That … is basically what Trump’s saying. Russia’s pretty excited about his decision, though, as no doubt is Iran.
2. Despite how momentous withdrawal is and how complicated the logistics might be, the decision appears to have been made spontaneously. Watch a stunned Bob Corker describe how Congress was blindsided by this morning’s announcement.
WATCH: Sen. Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Cmte., tells reporters that his planned meeting with President Trump today was cancelled while he was sitting at the White House. https://t.co/H4W6rllUGW pic.twitter.com/KIu4nfjVHp
— NBC News (@NBCNews) December 19, 2018
It wasn’t just Congress that was surprised:
As we suspected, the Pentagon was not informed in advance that Trump would announce an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria.
Bigger picture: Trump got bored with the shutdown crisis he had created, so he manufactured a new, bigger crisis to take its place. https://t.co/oVIRRepe5I
— Christina Wilkie (@christinawilkie) December 19, 2018
It reminds me of his out-of-the-blue announcement in March that he was slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. That too was a case of Trump being interested in a particular policy for a long time, his advisors dissuading him repeatedly from doing it, then suddenly making a big move to enact the policy without any notice to relevant players. He wanted tariffs, his advisors convinced him to hold off, until finally one day he decided he was done waiting and pulled the trigger, leaving it to his aides to manage the repercussions. Same with leaving Syria, apparently. The state of play this afternoon:
A White House official who just briefed reporters on the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria could not say how many have come home, what the timeline is or when others will be leaving. The official referred several questions to DOD, who is referring questions to the WH.
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) December 19, 2018
“On the rare occasions Trump does something I think is fundamentally a good idea,” wrote Julian Sanchez, “I worry he’s doing it so ineptly the execution will end up discrediting the idea.”
3. Of all the reasons he might have conceivably given to justify withdrawal, this must be the worst. Another “mission accomplished” statement by a president?
After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home! pic.twitter.com/xoNjFzQFTp
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
We have not yet defeated ISIS, notes Eli Lake:
As usual, Trump’s assessment is hyperbolic. It is also technically correct. The Islamic State has lost enormous amounts of territory, thanks to a powerful alliance between U.S. and Kurdish fighters. But it’s not that simple.
Ambassador James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria, told the Atlantic Council this week that America’s goal is the “enduring defeat of Isis.” The adjective is important. “ISIS will come back if the underlying conditions are receptive to that kind of ideological movement,” Jeffrey said. That’s a fancy way of saying a withdrawal without a plan to protect civilians from barrel bombs and Iranian-backed militias will create the same kind of opening al Qaeda and the Islamic State have seized before.
Ordering withdrawal from Syria always would have involved Trump bearing blame eventually for any ensuing regional strategic advantages gained by Iran and Russia. But framing it in terms of total victory over ISIS means he’ll now also be called a failure if/when the group reconstitutes. I don’t know why he’d hand his political enemies a bludgeon like that. There’s a nonzero chance that the Democratic nominee in 2020 will be able to accuse him of being “soft on terror” depending upon how ISIS is faring 18 months from now.
4. The fact that this surprise decision was made against the backdrop of strained U.S.-Turkish relations over the Khashoggi killing makes it seem suspicious. Was this some sort of favor to Erdogan, who’s now going to pound America’s abandoned Kurdish allies? What did the U.S. — or Saudi Arabia — get in return for that enormous favor? It’s bad enough that Washington is as beholden to the Saudis as it is; delivering the Kurds to Erdogan as part of some deal to lower Turkish pressure on Saudi Arabia would make it that much worse.
Here’s Grahamnesty pulling no punches about Republican hypocrisy.
Graham tells reporters, “If Obama had done this, we’d be all over him as Republicans.” pic.twitter.com/5NjGCI6I0b
— Steven Portnoy (@stevenportnoy) December 19, 2018