Fifty years ago we were young men, and women, and the war in Vietnam had to end. It seemed so simple back in 1968 – just get out – but it wasn’t that simple. The nation was caught in the sunk cost dilemma – we had invested so much, and so many had died, that if we left, all those costs, and more importantly all those deaths, would be meaningless. It would have all been in vain. That was unacceptable. The war was going nowhere, and many more would die, but the answer was to fight harder and win this once and for all, to doubled-down, again and again.
And then, suddenly, that became absurd. On April 22, 1971, John Kerry became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before Congress about the war – he spoke for nearly two hours to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presenting the conclusions of the Winter Soldier Investigation – a good number of our guys had been doing some very bad things over there – and then discussing the larger policy issues. He had his three Purple Hearts and his other medals, but now he had long hair and told the senators that this war was stupid. There was no point in continuing, and even if ending the thing would be difficult, we couldn’t go on like this. And then he blew up the sunk cost argument with a simple question. How do you ask someone to be that last man to die for a mistake?
John Kerry ended up as Barack Obama’s secretary of state. He kept asking that question, but earlier there was George Aiken – one of those old-school “progressive” Republicans of the Teddy Roosevelt sort. Aiken arrived in the Senate in early 1941 and did turn out to be a bit of an iconoclast. Toward the end of his Senate career he was all for food stamps and taking care of the poor, and he was big on the environment long before Nixon suggested the Environmental Protection Agency – he had been president of the Vermont Horticultural Society after all – and he was big on infrastructure spending before Eisenhower came up with the Interstate Highway System. There’s nothing wrong with spending money to make things better. There’s nothing wrong with adding a bit to the deficit to make things better.
Maybe he wasn’t a Republican. He’d say he was a pragmatist. Be careful and cautious, taking small steps, but also do what’s necessary for the greatest good, for everyone, even the poor folks. The whole Ayn Rand concept of there being only Makers and Takers in this dog-eat-dog world would have puzzled him.
Admittedly the guy is obscure. The only thing anyone remembers him for was what he said about the Vietnam War in 1966 – maybe we should just declare victory and head on home. He explained that “the United States could well declare unilaterally” that “we have ‘won’ in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam.”
What more do you want? And that wasn’t copping-out either. This was sensible and pragmatic, because such a declaration “would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam.” That would change everything. People would shout at each other, not shoot each other. Isn’t that more sensible? There’s no need for any more to die, and he added this – “It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked.”
In short, declare victory and come home. Why not?
Everyone decided George Aiken was crazy. Republicans and the right said we had to fight on. It was a matter of honor. Democrats said that claiming “victory” was absurd. The United States would look absurd. The antiwar left decided George Aiken was clever, a fine fellow with a wicked sense of humor, but crazy – no president would ever claim victory without the slightest bit of evidence and simply withdraw all the troops. They may have been long-haired dope-smoking hippies but they knew there was a real world out there. No president would do that.
CNN covers the news. Donald Trump did just that:
President Donald Trump has ordered staff to execute the “full” and “rapid” withdrawal of US military from Syria, declaring that the US has defeated ISIS.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.
That statement made him seem as wise as George Aiken:
The decision, a sharp reversal from previously stated US policy, surprised foreign allies and lawmakers, sparking rebukes, rebuttals and warnings of intensified congressional oversight, even as the White House said troops are already on their way home.
No one thought this was a good idea:
The President’s decision flew in the face of policy statements made by administration officials, just days earlier, and military statements about the threat of ISIS, highlighting the continuing dysfunction at the most senior levels of Trump’s administration.
Even though the US will continue to maintain troops in Iraq with the capability of launching strikes into Syria, many analysts said a withdrawal of ground forces will please US enemies by clearing the way in Syria for the Assad regime, Russia and Iran. A US departure could leave allies questioning Washington’s commitment, reduce US awareness of dynamics on the ground and diminish Washington’s influence in the region.
It is “extraordinarily shortsighted and naive,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, who added that the decision will not only leave Iran hawks – including lawmakers and Cabinet members such as national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – feeling “betrayed,” but also plant the seeds for rebellion among Republican ranks.
“This is a specifically Trumpian decision, and one that will be deeply unpopular within the vast majority of the GOP’s foreign policy machine,” Lister said. “Whether it takes hours or months, we will see some serious resistance coming out of this.”
The fallout for Iran policy will be significant, said Derek Chollet, a US assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration and now an executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund. “This drives a stake into the heart of the administration’s Iran strategy.”
And this made no sense:
“Trump himself said on the campaign trail that he may not have liked being in Iraq, but Obama ruined a lot by pulling out too early and not thinking about what would happen next,” said David Adesnik, the director of research and a Syria analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Here he is ignoring precisely that lesson.”
“Every indicator that would tell you this is a premature withdrawal is back again,” Adesnik added.
Lister said it was “extraordinary to see (Trump) repeating the same mistake and I actually think this could be worse,” as Syria is in far worse shape than Iraq had been.
And then there are our friends:
US allies in the region were blindsided by the announcement. Two diplomatic sources from two countries in the region said they had not been consulted or informed and that news of the planned withdrawal came as a “total surprise.”
Tobias Ellwood, a minister in the British Ministry of Defense, said in a tweet that he “strongly” disagrees with Trump’s comment on Wednesday that ISIS had been defeated. “It has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive,” Ellwood wrote, while the Defense Ministry told CNN there would be no immediate change to its current operation in Syria.
And even Bibi was upset:
According to a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, Trump informed Netanyahu on Monday of his decision. Netanyahu also had a conversation Tuesday with Pompeo. The two men reassured the Prime Minister that the US had “other ways of expressing their influence in the area,” the statement added.
That’s just confusing:
Iran is Israel’s central concern. In September, Bolton said the United States wouldn’t leave Syria as long as Iranian forces continued to operate there, directly linking any withdrawal of American troops to the departure of Iranian forces.
“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton said at the time.
Netanyahu should be worried.
How did this happen? The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung covers that:
In April, President Trump repeated his campaign promise to end U.S. military involvement in Syria. “I want to get out,” he said. “I want to bring our troops back home.”
In September, senior administration aides said at the time, the president was persuaded to change course. Some 2,000 U.S. troops would stay in Syria indefinitely, not only until the Islamic State was defeated, but also until a political solution to the overall Syria conflict was in place and, in a key part of Trump’s newly announced Iran policy, all Iranian forces and their proxies aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had left the country.
On Wednesday, Trump set heads spinning within his own government and around the world by apparently reversing himself again. His decision was made on Tuesday, according to people familiar with the issue, following a small meeting attended only by senior White House aides and the secretaries of defense and state, most of whom if not all sharply disagreed.
That’s because they had made commitments:
In just the past week, senior officials – including the administration’s special envoys to Syria and the counter-Islamic State coalition – had said that defeating the last organized Islamic State pockets, in southern Syria near the Iraqi border, could be months away and that thousands of militants remained underground throughout Syria, waiting to reemerge.
The officials reiterated that the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-dominated group of U.S.-trained and -equipped ground fighters, remained valued American allies who would not be deserted.
So, what changed? This changed:
The only potential upset in recent days was a threat by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who spoke with Trump at the Group of 20 summit three weeks ago and again on the telephone Friday – to send troops across the border to attack the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northeast Syria.
Officials familiar with the Friday call said that Erdogan, among other things, had stressed to Trump that the Syrian Kurds were terrorists – allied with Kurdish separatists in his own country – and asked why the United States was supporting them rather than its NATO ally. He noted that the Islamic State had been vanquished and questioned the need for an ongoing U.S. troop presence, saying that Turkish troops already massed on the Syrian border could handle any problem there.
The Erdogan call, many concluded as they tried to understand the reasoning behind a decision widely considered rash and unwise, was the only thing that could have provoked Trump. A senior congressional aide speculated that the call and the withdrawal were “definitely related.”
Trump might have shot back that Syrian Democratic Forces are not the PKK or the KDP or the KNC or the PUK – they’re not terrorists – but Trump isn’t a detail guy. Kurds are Kurds, if Erdogan says so, but there was something else:
Jonathan Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that the Syria decision also coincided with the administration’s notification to Congress late Tuesday that Turkey’s long-sought purchase of U.S.-produced Patriot missile defense batteries had been approved after a years-long battle over the terms of a deal between Ankara and Washington.
“It would be disturbing if a strategic gesture was made for commercial reasons,” Alterman said.
It might be that there was money to be made. The United States could show a profit. So let Russia have Syria. We’d have the cash, and Trump would be the hero:
Trump himself made no public appearances, canceling a scheduled meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). Instead, he communicated via Twitter, where he posted a late-afternoon video of himself standing outside the Oval Office, saying that “it’s time for our U.S. troops to come home.” Fallen American warriors, he said, pointing at the sky, were “looking down” in approval.
The ghost of every dead America soldier ever loves Trump now, and everyone else, the little people, will just have to deal with this:
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.
Let them complain and whine:
“It’s obviously a political decision,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters, after going to the White House for a previously scheduled meeting with Trump where he planned to ask him about the Syria decision. Instead, while he was waiting, Trump canceled on him without explanation…
Over a lunch on Capitol Hill, other GOP senators excoriated Vice President Pence for supporting Trump’s move.
“There was a great deal of concern… what is going to happen to the Kurds, who have fought by our side and helped defeat ISIS and probably need our protection?” said Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “I asked the vice president, ‘Who are going to be the members of the coalition to prevent ISIS from reconstituting and keep Iran from completely taking over, Iran and Russia, from completely taking over Syria?’ “
They did not receive satisfactory answers.
“The Russians already sent out a statement saying it was great. The Iranians think it’s great; the Syrians think it’s great,” Corker said late Wednesday afternoon…
Trump also seemed not to be dissuaded by the criticism. On Wednesday evening, he tweeted a video of himself, with the message: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”
Max Boot doesn’t see that at all:
Earlier this year, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal on the grounds that it was too generous toward Tehran. But by withdrawing U.S. troops, who were in control of one-third of Syria, he is handing a Christmas present to the mullahs. So much for Trump’s conceit that he is the most pro-Israel president ever – a U.S. withdrawal from Syria will entrench the Islamic Republic of Iran on Israel’s doorstep. That damage vastly outweighs the empty symbolism of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
Boot sees nonsense here:
Why would Trump do this now? Who knows? Given that he is acting at odds with his advisers, this is clearly not the result of a normal policy-review process. This is the Trump Doctrine in operation: Trump does whatever he wants. It could be based on what he had for breakfast – or there could be something more sinister going on.
The New York Times quotes “one Defense Department official” who “suggested that Mr. Trump wants to divert attention away from the series of legal challenges confronting him over the recent days: the Russian investigation run by the special counsel as well as the sentencing of his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in a hush-money scandal to buy the silence of two women who said they had affairs with Mr. Trump.”
When presidents normally “wag the dog,” they start a war. Trump is unique in all sorts of ways, including that he may now be wagging the dog by ending U.S. involvement in a war that remains far from finished.
That’s not the half of it. Victoria Nuland, the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security – home to the neocons from the Bush years – and a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs – lays out the interventionist argument:
With his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria, President Trump hands a huge New Year’s gift to President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State, the Kremlin and Tehran. He also guarantees the reversal of U.S. military gains there and extinguishes any leverage Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, may have to drive a diplomatic settlement that meets the administration’s own goals of keeping the Islamic State and Iran out. Most important, Trump falls into the same trap that President Barack Obama did when he withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. Trump’s decision virtually ensures that security will disintegrate further, that the Islamic State and Iran will surge again, and that the United States will be compelled to come back into Syria at even greater military cost and in more adverse conditions than if we had stayed.
But we have to deal with what we have at the moment:
Everything about this mercurial decision imperils U.S. national interests as defined by Trump himself. First, the Islamic State is far from gone in Syria. Just six months ago, the Pentagon estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 fighters remained active in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State may no longer control vast swaths of Syrian territory, but its fighters are hiding in ungoverned pockets in the east and in the back alleys of Idlib. As soon as the United States withdraws, the Islamic State will make three moves. It will claim victory over the U.S. infidels, turbocharging a recruiting binge across the Middle East and South Asia. It will pour fresh fighters into eastern Syria. And it will come out of the shadows to retake territory across eastern Syria from the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which can’t hold Raqqa or any other cleared territory without continued U.S. help.
Now add this:
Iran will also flood the zone the United States is abandoning. Tehran has likely already given orders for some of the tens of thousands of Hezbollah militias it controls in western and southern Syria to turn east. Just three months ago, national security adviser John Bolton pledged that the United States would stay in Syria until every last Iranian fighter had been driven out. With one tweet Wednesday, the president has instead invited Tehran to deepen its military, political and economic grip on this vital piece of the Middle East. In the process, Iran will also gain control of the major oil fields in Deir al-Zour protected by U.S. forces and the SDF, allowing it to self-finance its land grab.
And then add this:
Moscow is celebrating, too. After years of pretending to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis with Washington, Russian President Vladimir Putin can ignore the entreaties of Trump’s envoys because the United States will have no military skin in the game to back its diplomacy. The Kremlin will proceed as it has long planned, consolidating control over the rest of Syria for Assad until 2021 and then rigging an election for a new figurehead. Moscow will be too smart to expand its own ground presence in Syria, and will instead broaden its tacit support for the Iranian-backed militias that already serve as de facto local police forces in western Syria. Maybe it will allow Tehran to split the spoils from the Deir al-Zour oil fields; maybe all that cash will go back to Moscow.
This does seem to be a dumb move:
A few thousand tweets ago, Trump criticized his predecessor for leaving Iraq to the Islamic State in 2011, then having to return in force in 2014. The United States currently has 5,200 troops deployed to Iraq and spends $13.6 million-per-day on military operations there. By that measure, the president should consider our 2,000 troops in Syria a bargain, an insurance policy and vital leverage against far worse outcomes for us, and for Syria and for the global balance of power.
But no, Trump had to play the Aiken Gambit – simply declare total victory, in spite of the evidence, and come home. Even the hippies back in 1966 knew that wasn’t how things work in the real world. And there was George W. Bush on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, standing tall and proud in front of the giant “Mission Accomplished” banner. That was not the real world either.
None of this was what George Aiken had in mind. He was being ironic. Perhaps he knew that the only way wars ever end is when they’re overwhelmed by irony.