The announcement this week by President Trump that the US would begin withdrawing troops from Syria has set off a firestorm in response. Secretary of Defense James Mattis submitted his resignation. Republicans and Democrats in Congress united to express their displeasure. Talking heads in media registered their outrage and disbelief. To hear some of these reactions you might think that the president was doing something truly horrific, like suspending habeas corpus, invading a peaceful neighbor, or abrogating the Constitution. However, the reaction outside the DC/NY bubble is likely very different. If you ask a stranger on the street how many troops we have in Syria or what they are doing there you are going to get a lot of blank looks. Indeed, even those who are furiously attacking the president for this order do not agree on exactly why we should be in Syria, or for that matter the Middle East in general, in the first place.
A proper war must have specifically-defined victory conditions. When the United States entered World War II, we established total unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers as the only condition for victory. On the other hand, our military adventures in the Middle East since 9/11 have only had the most vague victory conditions, if they have them at all. What does victory look like in Afghanistan? What about Iraq or Syria? At what point can we say “We have accomplished our mission, time to go home?” Oubai Shahbandar wrote a long piece at The Federalist this week sharing his own views on Syria as one who has spent a lot of time there. He is not optimistic, and does not believe any good will be done by continued US presence in the region:
“So how can this current war-without-end be ever properly concluded? For starters, fresh thinking and a new approach in Syria is long overdue. The Pentagon-sponsored media tours of the Syrian cities that have been liberated from daesh and the local USAID funded projects that are meant to project a sense of progress, are in actuality more of a hollow chimera. Let’s face it, there would likely never have been a condition sufficient enough for Pentagon brass where they would have recommended withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The “metrics” for success are dutifully repeated by the public affairs officers — but the basic elements of the forever war remain in place: namely, the total dependence on the presence of U.S. forces.”
It is worth recounting how we got here in the first place. Syria has been a war zone for many years now. In 1971 the socialist Ba’ath Party took power in Syria alongside their counterparts in Iraq. Hafez al-Assad ruled until his death in 2000 at which time he was succeeded by his son Bashar. At first seen as a liberal reformer, Bashar al-Assad’s reputation was tarnished by his response to the Arab Spring revolts of 2011. Protests and revolutions had begun in Tunisia the previous December, toppling their government and spreading throughout the Middle East. The governments of Egypt and Libya fell and serious rebellions broke out in many other nations. A coalition of Sunni rebels rose up against the Shia Alawite Assad regime, supported in part by the CIA and other US government organizations. The Syrian government, meanwhile, was supported by Russia and Iran. Russia especially has had a longstanding alliance with Syria and leases a naval base on its Mediterranean coast. Assad and his government fought back fiercely, allegedly using chemical weapons against the rebels.
In 2013 President Barack Obama considered military action to punish Assad for crossing the “red line” that Obama had laid down regarding the use of chemical weapons. He admirably consulted Congress first and backed down from his desire to send in ground troops when they refused to authorize the plan. However, he did order small numbers of special forces – about 2,000 total – into Syria to assist the Syrian rebels. They have been there ever since, though their mission has changed since 2013. When Assad, with Russian assistance, gained the upper hand against the rebels, the US special forces were redirected toward helping Kurdish militia groups fight ISIS, which had captured territory in eastern Syria during the chaos. With ISIS militarily defeated, however, the continued purpose of these troops is unclear. Reading the news the past few days has yielded several rationales: Some wish for them to stay to assist the Kurds against Assad’s government. Others believe they should act as a deterrent to Turkey, which many fear has nefarious plans for the Kurds in Syria as well as within their own borders. Still others believe we need troops in Syria to counter Russian influence in the region.
Why are so many voices so outraged that President Trump would withdraw 2,000 special forces from Syria? What is it about indefinite foreign war that is so important to the globalist cause? It seems very few are asking the central question – why should we be engaged in the Middle East in the first place?
Lost in all of this discussion is a clear take on what is really going on in the Middle East. Our media and politicians often distill the situation over there into a binary hero and villain narrative, discarding context in favor of a simple story that can be used to convince Americans to support intervention. In this narrative, Bashar al-Assad of Syria is a villain, along with his evil friends in Russia and Iran. The heroes are the Sunni rebels in Syria, fighting against the evil Assad and his chemical attacks. Other regional heroes include Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. This narrative is complicated by the fact that ISIS, another villain in the story, overlaps significantly with the Sunni rebels. On the other hand, some in the Globalist Party have flipped the script, portraying Saudi Arabia and its crown prince Mohammad bin Salman as the villain of the story because of their murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi as well as their war in Yemen. Many of these voices are the same bureaucrats who worked with President Obama to pay off the Iranian government and end worldwide sanctions against that country. While they condemn Saudi Arabia’s part in the Yemen war, they often fail to admit that the Houthi rebels in Yemen are supported by Iran. Clearly the situation is more complicated than the simple story we are often told.
What I see here is a multifaceted situation in the Middle East that is just the latest iteration of centuries of conflict between ethnic and religious groups. Sunnis and Shi’ites have been fighting for over a thousand years, and battles between Arabs, Turks, and Persians have been going on even longer. It is extremely disingenuous for media and politicians to pretend that this is a simple hero/villain story in order to justify participation in this ongoing conflict by American soldiers. Not everything is black and white. Bashar al-Assad might be a ruthless dictator, but that does not mean the groups rebelling against his rule are unabashed good guys. The Assad regime is Shia Alawite, a minority sect in Islam, while many of the rebels are Sunni extremists who are far less tolerant of other sects, much less other faiths such as Christianity and Judaism. The real world is far more complex than the Globalist Party seems to believe. They seem to enjoy playing a real-life game of RISK on a global scale with no thought to the lives lost and nations wrecked in their wake.
Secretary Mattis, for all his virtues, is clearly a member of the Globalist Party. In his resignation letter Mattis explained what he believes is America’s role in the world:
“One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”
Mattis and others lament that our withdrawal from Syria will leave our Kurdish allies vulnerable to Turkish and Syrian aggression. Remember that the mission of the 2,000 special forces in Syria had evolved to working with the Kurds against ISIS. However, the Kurds are a stateless people, living in parts of the nations of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. On the other hand, we have ratified treaties that say Turkey is our ally because of their membership in NATO. When one of our allies conflicts with another, whom do we support? I believe this is exactly why the Founders of our country warned against entangling ourselves in alliances with foreign nations. In his Farewell Address in 1796, President Washington said:
“Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”
A few years later, President Jefferson echoed these thoughts in his first inaugural address, laying out the priorities of his administration:
“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
As Secretary of State in 1821, future-President John Quincy Adams agreed with this principle as well:
“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [the United States’] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
These sentiments stand in stark contrast to the prevailing wisdom since World War II that the United States has a duty to entangle itself in foreign alliances and to use its military and economic power to promote a certain ideology throughout the world. Washington, Jefferson, and Adams would surely be aghast had they known that the United States would spend so much blood and treasure on foreign shores. How did we get to this point? Why is US involvement in Middle-Eastern wars considered so normal that withdrawing a mere 2,000 troops provokes such outrage?
To get a handle on the Middle-Eastern conflicts, we have to go back in time at least a century. World War I was a tremendous turning point in the history of the world. The old empires of Europe were collapsing and the various ethnic groups they ruled were seizing sovereignty for themselves. The Ottoman Empire had ruled the Middle East for more than half a millennium but they were barely holding on at the start of the 20th century. World War I finished them, as a secular rebellion in Turkey ended the Empire shortly after the war. Diverse tribes of Arabs which had been ruled by the Ottoman Turks for centuries took this opportunity to throw off the imperial sultanate and establish their own nations. They could not accomplish this alone, however, as Great Britain and France supported them with money and material during the war. British soldier T.E. Lawrence was able to unite these tribes for a time, but once the Turks were overthrown their tribal divisions flared up once more. The British and the French created several nations out of nothing, with borders drawn not for the benefit of the Arabs and their neighbors but for the benefit of the British and the French themselves. The borders of Iraq, for example, encompassed Shi’ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and ethnic Kurds. Rather than creating an independent Kurdistan, the Europeans instead left them divided between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
The ensuing conflicts in the Middle East might have gone unnoticed by the rest of the world had oil not been discovered soon after. Suddenly this backwater became supremely important, as Middle-Eastern oil was needed to power the industry and militaries of the rest of the world. During the Cold War both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to gain supremacy among the Middle-Eastern nations. The creation of the nation of Israel in 1948 proved a flash-point for the ongoing conflict. The existence of Israel provided a unifying issue for the Arab nations. Arab alliances tried to destroy Israel several times, but with support from western powers Israel not only successfully defended her borders but expanded them as well. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the soldier-turned-president of Egypt who overthrew the British-backed king, attempted to create a pan-Arab state to stand as a third power against the United States and the Soviet Union. Egypt and Syria were briefly united under one government, but a coup in Syria put that idea to an end in 1963.
Since the end of World War II the United States involved itself in various Middle-Eastern disputes, but usually without committing ground troops. In 1979 the US lent money and material to the Afghan tribes fighting against the recent Soviet invasion. Also that year the US-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran was overthrown by Shi’ite extremists led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The new Iranian regime declared that the US was their enemy and took hostages from the embassy in Tehran. When war broke out a few years later between Iraq and Iran, the US naturally lent money and material to Iraq. However, when President Saddam Hussein of Iraq attempted to annex Kuwait, the United States led an international coalition to the region to drive him out. President George H.W. Bush was careful not to exceed the congressional mandate for the invasion, deciding to stop short of attempting to overthrow Saddam himself. The Bush Administration did encourage the ethnic Kurds to rise up in rebellion, but Saddam crushed them easily.
Operation Desert Storm allowed the United States to establish a permanent military presence in the region. President Bill Clinton used these troops to enforce UN resolutions against Iraq, including a no-fly zone in the north that was supposed to protect the Kurds from further reprisals by Saddam’s government. Like our deployments to Germany, Italy, and Japan during World War II, a limited engagement had become indefinite. The rationale for keeping these bases and troops was to protect Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Israel from a belligerent Iraq. Terrorist attacks by a nascent al-Qaeda were used as further justification.
According to the United States Constitution, the power to declare war rests with Congress, while the actual leadership of the military is in the hands of the president in his capacity of Commander-in-Chief. The last time Congress exercised its war power was in 1941 in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan and the subsequent declaration of war by Germany. Yet the United States has been involved in many conflicts in the 77 years since then without actually declaring war. American troops were in active combat for three years in Korea, ten in Vietnam, nine in Iraq, seventeen and counting in Afghanistan, not to mention dozens of smaller skirmishes throughout those years. How? In most cases Congress granted the president authorization to use force, while falling short of actually declaring war. In 1973 Congress passed the War Powers Act which sought to restrict a president’s ability to use the military without congressional oversight. Despite every president since Nixon has maintaining that they are not constitutionally bound to seek such authorization, they have usually done so out of a courtesy for the opinion of Congress.
This situation changed dramatically in 2001, however. Three days after the 9/11 terror attacks, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. This act granted the president wide latitude in the use of the military to destroy the terrorists who precipitated the 9/11 attacks as well as to prevent any further attacks in the future. California Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the only representative to vote against the resolution, calling it a “blank check” for military action. Yet in those hectic days after 9/11 there was strong fervor for retaliating against the terrorists and tremendous fear of another attack. However, unlike previous authorizations for which the use of force was constrained to specific nations and places, the 2001 AUMF has been interpreted liberally to apply to any terrorists in any nation or place in the world. Since 2001, Presidents Bush and Obama have used the AUMF as justification for ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. It seems Congresswoman Lee’s concern about a blank check has been proven true. It was this AUMF that President Obama cited when he deployed special forces to Syria after failing to get specific authorization from Congress in 2013.
In the 17 years since the AUMF was passed, American soldiers have established a near-permanent presence across the Middle East. US forces have ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Only Bashar al-Assad was able to remain standing. Regional chaos only increases with every intervention. One of the reasons given for our continued presence in the Middle East is to fight the terrorists “over there” so they don’t come “over here”. Despite this rhetoric, our national defense remains extremely porous. More Muslim refugees have been admitted to the United States since 9/11 than there were beforehand. So many Muslims have migrated to the United States that they make up the constituency of several congressional districts. Somali immigrant Ilhan Omar, for example, won election to represent Minnesota’s fifth district in Congress despite likely committing immigration fraud and saying things about Jews that would destroy the career of anyone else. Half of our country thinks that enforcing our southern border is simply racist and should not be attempted at all. When President Trump deployed troops to the southern border to help repel a large migrant caravan threatening to cross illegally, more than one pundit criticized the move, outright claiming that the purpose of our military is to fight in the Middle East. In the wake of President Trump’s order to withdraw, mainstream news quoted an anonymous Republican as saying “Syria is crumbling and we’re talking about a [expletive] wall.” That statement clearly demonstrates the priority of the Globalist Party. Imagine if after 9/11 that the resources of the United States had been used for border security and immigration controls rather than foreign adventures. Would our country not be in a better place? Yet the globalist Right demands we invade the world and the globalist Left demands we invite the world, so we end up doing both.
There are as many reasons given to keep our troops in the Middle East as commentators with keyboards. Tiana Lowe of the Washington Examiner tweeted yesterday:
She says that accusations of “endless war” are dishonest, but also says that we should only leave when “Putin and Iran are no longer at large.” What does that mean? Must we wait for President Vladimir Putin of Russia to die or be overthrown before we withdraw from Syria? Do we need to invade Iran and depose the ayatollahs before our mission there is finished? If this is not a desire for endless war then I don’t know what is.
Former Governor of Vermont and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean tweeted:
Many commentators pointed out the irony of Dean’s statement. As a presidential candidate in 2004, Dean based his entire campaign on his opposition to President George W. Bush’s Iraq War, despite Bush and his administration rationalizing the invasion partly upon humanitarian grounds. The fact that we have been unable to completely defeat the Afghan Taliban is to our shame, and at some point we must cut our losses and come home from the Graveyard of Empires. If we accept Dean’s reasoning here, then what keeps us from invading every other nation on earth that mistreats its citizens? Why not deploy troops to Mexico to take out the brutal drug cartels? Saudi Arabia executes people for things we do not consider crimes, should we invade and occupy that nation too? Even peaceful nations such as Japan and Singapore have different standards of human rights. Should we remake them in our own image?
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a committed member of the Globalist Party, tweeted:
Surely Senator Graham has not forgotten that Congress debated sending troops to Syria in 2013 and rejected the idea. President Obama sent them anyway; perhaps a smaller contingent than he might have preferred, but they went nonetheless. President Trump’s withdrawal can be seen as fulfilling the wishes of Congress back in 2013 which wanted to stay out of Syria in the first place. It would be better if Congress reaffirmed its war powers and held hearings and debates about sending troops abroad before any invasions. In any case, Senator Graham clearly just wants to keep our troops deployed, despite the wishes of President Trump and a large number of Americans. Like Secretary Mattis, Senator Graham believes that America must be constantly projecting strength outward. The globalist worldview is one where the world is a giant RISK board, and if the United States is not dominating then it is losing.
One of the more hysterical takes comes from Dana Milbank at the Washington Post, who claims that by withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan we have officially lost the Cold War to Putin’s Russia. Perhaps accusations that some pundits are still living in the world of 1988 are not so far from the mark:
“The TV series “The Man in the High Castle” imagines a world in which Nazis won World War II. But we don’t need an alternative-history show to imagine a Soviet victory in the Cold War. We have Trump.”
Perhaps the most absurd take came from longtime globalist conservative commentator Mona Charen at National Review: That withdrawing 2,000 troops from Syria is a shameful betrayal akin to withdrawing from South Vietnam:
In June of 1973, with Richard Nixon wounded by Watergate, the Democratic-dominated Congress passed the Case-Church amendment, which forbade any further military action in Southeast Asia. We had withdrawn most of our troops the previous March. South Vietnam was attempting to fight the Viet Cong and North Vietnam (both backed by the Soviet Union and China) by itself. Congress liked to tell itself that this was “Nixon’s war,” conveniently airbrushing out John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, not to mention that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which passed the House with a vote of 416-0, and the Senate by 88-2. For 10 years, Congress had authorized the war through funding.
By 1973, however, most Democrats were endorsing a revisionist history that suggested that they had no role in the decision to fight; that it was forced on the nation by presidents. They passed the War Powers Resolution and cut funds for our ally, South Vietnam.
There are many lessons we can draw from the Vietnam War. Perhaps we should never have gotten involved. After all, history shows that victory for Communist North Vietnam did not lead to the rest of the dominoes falling in East Asia. Vietnam today is a relatively peaceful and prosperous country on good terms with the United States. Alternatively, we could have left sooner, perhaps after fighting a more focused war. I am not a military strategist, but there are surely many books that have been written about what our strategy should have been. It is hard to fathom looking back at the Vietnam War nearly fifty years after the fact and concluding that we should have stayed in 1973. The American people were tired of war. The media had turned against it. Our soldiers were dying in a foreign jungle for no apparent reason. Does Mona Charen think our young men and women should continue dying in the Middle East for no apparent reason too?
To National Review’s credit they also published a piece by Michael Brendan Dougherty titled “Let’s Leave Syria:”
“When the U.S. embarked on its bid to transform Iraq, it did so while touting a “democratic domino theory.” A free Iraq would be an example that weakens the grip of authoritarians and despots across the Arab and Muslim world. So we were told.
And we did set the dominos in motion. But instead of stable democracies, what spread was chaos, Sunni radicalism, and an intensifying of the Sunni–Shia conflict across the Islamic world. Knocking over Iraq’s government put Baghdad in the grasp of Iran-sympathetic Shia, whose misgovernance encouraged a revolt across Iraq’s Sunni triangle and eventually in Syria. Similar Sunni radicalisms swept over Libya and Egypt. The results have been the destruction of minority religious communities of Christians and Yezidis and an ongoing refugee and migration crisis that has destabilized politics across almost the entirety of Europe.
We were told that we have to fight them over there, so that we do not have to fight them at home. But instead, we went to fight them over there, and find we are fighting them everywhere.
America has been conducting its terrorism fight according to the logic that obtains in imperial orders, where the great power at the center maintains an expansive, world-bestriding reign and tries to pick its fights along the permeable periphery of that order. Christmas markets and major public buildings at the centers of that order are reinforced and protected by concrete barriers.”
Finally, Victor Davis Hanson wonders why there is such hysteria about this withdrawal. Writing in National Review, Hanson (who would personally rather we did not withdraw) lists five reasons why this is not the end of the world. He closes with a cogent question:
“…on matters of entering or leaving the Middle East, U.S. strategists in the cases of Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq must develop a more coherent rationale to justify long-term occupations — to convince Americans that these increasingly numerous and optional interventions (whether six months or 18 years) enhance U.S. strategic advantages, and in cost/benefit analyses are worth the human and material costs of maintaining them. So far, we rarely receive any real information on what the actual ends are, and whether the means to obtain them are sufficient or justifiable, at a time of $21 trillion in national debt and a seeming absence of gratitude from those we seek to help.”
The Globalist Party relentlessly pushes foreign military adventures. Whether it is to rush in and save an oppressed population, or to deploy troops on the other side of the world to defend American freedom, their stated reasons rarely seem concrete and achievable. Many of the deployments over the last two decades seem to have less to do with protecting American citizens than with simply maintaining American supremacy in the world. Our ruling class adopted the postwar paradigm of the United States being the leader of the free world. Despite the Cold War being over for more than 25 years, we are still told that Russia is our implacable enemy. We are taught to take it for granted that American troops should be deployed all across the world. The sun never sets on the American military, but we are not supposed to ask how it benefits the American people to perpetuate this system. Professor Hanson’s questions are legitimate. However, all of this commentary ignores the largest question of them all: Should the United States continue to maintain a global empire?
Cold War media was black and white: The USA good, the Soviet Union bad. Now that the Cold War is over, the US remains the “good” superpower followed by an ambitious second tier. We are told that American foreign policy and military interventions are a force for good. Yet even as our forces are stretched across the globe, even as our blood and treasure emptied for nebulous causes, our nation back home is in trouble. As Professor Hanson said our national debt is over $21 trillion. Unfunded liabilities threaten to destabilize the economy in the near future. The opioid epidemic is claiming tens of thousands of lives. Automation threatens to outpace employment, leaving millions with no hope of supporting themselves or their families. Insidious propaganda is destroying the family and the traditional American community. Unfettered migration is changing the character of American culture. How can we hope to control the destiny of the world while our own country is falling apart? Like the Ottoman Empire of 1914, the United States is a civilization in decline. Can we find a way back from the precipice, or will we join the countless empires of the past on the trash heap of history?
There is no law of the universe that says the United States must be a global empire. We are told that we must maintain troops in Syria to keep Russia from gaining a stronghold in the region. Yet Syria is over 5,000 miles away from the United States while the Russian border is within 400 miles. Russia and Syria are allies, and Russian involvement in the region is based upon requests from the legitimate Syrian government. Our part in the matter began with clandestine support for the rebels trying to overthrow that government. One can make a moral case for trying to overthrow this or that dictator but it is hard to see how it relates to the national security of the American people. The Globalist Party agenda requires ever-increasing frontiers; invading the world and inviting the world.
The nationalist plan is straightforward: America first. No more nation-building in the Middle East or anywhere else on the globe. Control our borders. Use American money to help American citizens first, before doling out foreign aid to half the nations of the world. Quit playing RISK on a global scale. The battle between globalism and nationalism is a battle for the soul of America. The Globalist Party reaction to President Trump’s long-promised withdrawal from Syria is nothing short of astounding in its hysteria. For the first time in decades, the globalists find themselves on the defensive. I pray that President Trump continues to fulfill his promises to bring our troops home and to put America first.