Alas, Esper is doomed if he leaves and doomed if he stays.
The staying part is obvious. Whatever comes out of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria—a Kurdish genocide, a resurgence of the Islamic State, an expansion of Iran’s sphere of operations and influence, a renewal of the migrant crisis in Europe, and most likely all of the above and more—it doesn’t look pretty. It is conceivable that Esper’s presence will help prevent or mitigate some of the bad outcomes—indeed, it is likely that Esper deserves credit for the president’s too-late attempt to walk back his Syria blunder—but all that is happening will have Esper’s signature on it as the secretary of defense who led the withdrawal.
But what if Esper joins the list of officials to quit the Trump administration in frustration? For a decade now, thanks to Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and congressional Republicans, the U.S. military has been bleeding as we move closer to a great power war. We hear a lot about military spending, but our civilian leaders are paying little attention to the structure and posture of U.S. forces. One should not put too much stock in wargaming, but in a recent Department of Defense-sponsored war simulation against Russia and China, the United States “got its ass handed to it.” Such wargaming losses are the norm and not the exception: For a decade, America lost every single simulation against Russia in the Baltics.