This morning for whatever reason it popped into my head that Graham once called for making Quran-burnings in the U.S. illegal because, and I quote, “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.”
So, something to bear in mind when he’s lecturing on honor and stains.
“We have been dishonorable. This is a stain on the honor of the United States,” Graham said…
The senator said US deployed forces are necessary to keep Americans safe and act as a “virtual wall.” He said they are the “best hope we have of stopping another 9/11, protecting ourselves and our allies.”
“I’m not saying we need to be in Syria forever. I’m saying now’s not time to leave,” Graham said.
“I share the president’s desire to withdraw our forces when it makes sense,” he emphasizes in the clip below. I don’t believe him. I’d be surprised if Graham has ever once in his 23 years in Congress declared “now’s the right time for a withdrawal” during or after any conflict. Russia and Iran could flee the battlefield today, the Kurds could roll over what’s left of ISIS, and Graham would demand that the U.S. stay put to “preserve gains” or whatever. That position would be based on a credible fear, that a country devastated by war is prone to power vacuums. If the good guys don’t hang around to provide security, the bad guys will. But it means in practice that withdrawal is never wise, at least not until there’s been something like 10 years of peace and reconstruction a la World War II. Which there’ll never be in the Middle East.
I think in a moment of candor he might admit that there are strategic advantages to having a presence in Syria too. America really can’t have too many foreign bases in the Graham worldview; the more we have, the easier it is to deploy rapidly to all four corners of the world if need be. Damon Linker asks a fair question:
Here’s a question for all the Republicans having a conniption fit about this today: Is there any place anywhere in the world where you would support withdrawing American troops? Anywhere at all? https://t.co/8iyXhLLW30
— Damon Linker (@DamonLinker) December 19, 2018
Chris Matthews(!) asks a fair question too. Why should Trump care what the Iraq war’s most devout advocates think about pursuing another adventure right next door?
That said, Graham’s not wrong that there are highly dishonorable elements to this, starting with the U.S. once again abandoning the Kurds to their fates versus a ruthless regional autocrat. If you believe Fox News, Trump was given an ultimatum by our “friend” in Ankara — and obeyed:
Sr US defense official tells me: The President made the decision to pull out of Syria last Fri Dec 14 after speaking with Turkish President Erdogan, who told Trump Turkish forces were planning to enter Syria to go after the Kurdish PKK and warned US troops to get out of the way.
— Jennifer Griffin (@JenGriffinFNC) December 20, 2018
Cutting some of the world’s most knowledgeable people out of his deliberations also seems … ill-advised, let’s say, if not necessarily dishonorable:
Senior lawmakers of both parties said they had no warning the decision was coming. Many were sharply critical, saying it left the door open for Assad allies Iran and Russia, abandoned Kurdish allies, and undercut U.N. efforts.
A number of close U.S. allies who are members of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State said they were not consulted and were given no prior warning. One European defense secretary put in a call Tuesday to Jim Mattis after hearing rumors of the decision and received a late-night call back from the defense secretary with confirmation. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not participate in the meeting with Trump and was in the dark until after it took place, according to several people familiar with the situation.
Trump doesn’t like to disappoint an audience. It’s a cliche by now that he strains to avoid direct confrontation, to the point where he’ll leave deputies whom he dislikes in place for months on end (Jeff Sessions, John Kelly) rather than haul them in and tell them they’re fired. He’s spent the past two years holding occasional meetings on Syria with everyone in the room telling him “don’t do it!” He was never going to be able to tell them face to face that he’s withdrawing. So, it seems, he ended up ordering the withdrawal and then told them. Why he did it when he did it I leave to your speculation. Maybe it’s a matter of him wanting to fulfill a campaign promise on foreign policy at a moment when it looks like he’s about to thwarted on a major domestic one, the wall.
As for Graham, my theory for his chumminess with Trump all along has been that he believes he’ll catch more flies on policy with honey than with vinegar. Make an enemy of Trump and he’ll tune you out apart from the sporadic insult on Twitter. Make a friend of him and he’ll listen to you — in theory. In practice, Graham just found out in the starkest way that Rand Paul seems to have more influence over Trump’s foreign policy thinking than he does. Between this and POTUS refusing to withdraw support for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince despite Grahama’s stern opposition, Grahamnesty must be wondering what exactly his Trump friendship is buying him. Too late to change course now, though, as he’s up for reelection in 2020. Can’t make an enemy of the president and hope to survive a primary in South Carolina, as Mark Sanford might tell you.
A lurking question: Is this Syria decision a one-off or is it part of a trend in which Trump increasingly dispenses with advice from his aides and follows his instincts? He held back on trade for his first year at their urging, then said “to hell with it” in March and started a trade war. He held off on withdrawing from Syria for nearly two years, then said “to hell with it” yesterday and ordered an evacuation. When does he say “to hell with South Korea” or “to hell with NATO”? Graham had better be extra nice to him going forward. Exit question: If “we have defeated ISIS in Syria,” as Trump claimed last night, why will Russia, Iran, and Syria “have to fight ISIS” going forward, as Trump claimed this morning?