Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
President Trump is facing intense criticism for his decision to withdraw fewer than 1000 U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. The dispute largely reflects the bipartisan NeverTrump penchant for politicizing every Trump decision in order to weaken the president. But there are honest people on both sides of the issue who have compelling arguments for their positions. Unfortunately, no rational argument can resolve this disagreement over our presence in Syria, for its causes run much deeper than military tactics and foreign policy strategies: The divided aims underlying our interactions with the world that have left us with a schizophrenic foreign policy.
America has long tried to reconcile our desire to be wary of “foreign entanglements,” with our involvements abroad forced on us by changes in technology like the steamship and the telegraph, and by a growing global trade that enriched our own economy at the cost of increasing “entanglements” in foreign affairs. Our participation in the Great War of 1914-1918 made us a global power, just at the time that the ideology of “moralizing internationalism” had taken hold in the West, famously expressed in Woodrow Wilson’s call “to make the world safe for democracy.” For many, the return to isolationism following the war, evident in the Senate’s refusal to ratify the Versailles Treaty, was a disaster that helped spark the much more devastating Second World War.
During the Cold War, our standoff with a nuclear armed communist superpower legitimized our deep involvement in managing and defending the Free World we now led. Multinational alliances, conventions, institutions, treaties, and covenants were the means for promoting liberal democracy and human rights, and for adjudicating international disputes and global conflicts while limiting armed violence to proxy duels. The successful end of the Cold War created the illusion that our traditional isolationism was no longer viable, given what George H.W. Bush called the “new world order.”
Yet this global leadership still cut against the grain of America’s tradition of avoiding involvement in overseas disputes. In part these isolationist inclinations reflect the age-old flaw of democracies and their regularly scheduled elections, in which political power and policies shift from one party to another, empowering democratic voters to pursue their traditional preference for “butter” over guns. More important, democratic recycling of political leadership promotes short-term thinking, as writers from Demosthenes to de Tocqueville to Churchill have pointed out.
Writing after the spectacular carnage of World War II, for example, Churchill attributed the slaughter in part “to the structure and habits of democratic states,” which “lack those elements of persistence and conviction which alone can give security to the humble masses,” and in which “even in matters of self-preservation, no policy is pursued for even ten or fifteen years at a time.” If you think the Cold War policy of containment disprove this assessment, remember it was “cold” because of the Mutually Assured Destruction that would result from a direct confrontation. Imagine how the postwar conflict between the U.S. and the USSR would have played out if the Trinity nuclear test had failed on July 16, 1945.
Our foreign policy since WWII has many examples of the split personality of our foreign policy, in which engagements costly in lives and resources are abandoned because the voters become dissatisfied with their idealistic strategic goals, and costs in lives and money. And elections give them the power to change parties and polices. The worst example, of course, was the Vietnam War, when a victory hard-won on the battlefield at the cost of nearly 60,000 Americans, was squandered by a Democrat Congress that exploited the Watergate scandal and war-weariness of many voters to pass legislation abandoning the South Vietnamese. Or consider the betrayal of the Shah of Iran on the feckless watch of Jimmy Carter, who was addled by “human rights” internationalism. A geopolitically reliable ally was lost, and the seeds of al Qaeda and other jihadist outfits were sown. Iran went on to support and train jihadist terrorists, its prestige buoyed by its success in facing down and humiliating the superpower infidels. One of these proxies, later known as Hezbollah, in 1983 murdered with impunity 241 American servicemen and 17 diplomatic personnel in Beirut.
Other, less costly conflicts have followed the same pattern: interventions followed by failures caused by misguided strategies such as democracy promotion in nations lacking the cultural infrastructure for liberal democracy, as in Iraq and Afghanistan; or the pursuit of humanitarian or “peacekeeping” aims on the cheap, as in Beirut in 1983, Mogadishu in 1993, Libya in 2011, or Syria today. In each instance, American lives were lost, America ignominiously retreated, allies were abandoned, and the ostensible purpose was not achieved. Nor were our national interests and security enhanced. Today Iraq is a virtual satrap of Iran, Afghanistan is still under siege from the Taliban, Libya became a weapons arsenal for jihadists still trying to kill us, Israel’s northern border is threatened by thousands of missiles, and Syria still has the blood-stained autocrat Bashar al Assad in power. The only material change is that Russia and Iran are now more consequential in the region than we are.
The current hysteria over Trump’s withdraw of a handful of troops from the Syrian-Turkish border is long on charges of “betrayal” and “damaged prestige,” but short on any clearly defined, long-term alternative strategy for achieving an equally ill-defined goal. What strategy would we have followed if Turkey had killed some of those troops had they not been withdrawn? What do the “remainers” want Syria to be in 5, 10, or 20 years? What state of affairs in the region do they envision that serves our national security and interests? Do they think a 1000 U.S. troops will dislodge Iran and Russia from the region, or establish an independent nation for the Kurds, or deter our NATO “ally” Turkey from its neo-Ottoman ambitions?
Or is it the protection of our prestige and bona fides as an “ally,” which serves our national interests by showing we are a reliable power? That horse left the regional barn in 2011, when Barack Obama withdrew our troops from Iraq, creating the vacuum that ISIS, al Qaeda 2.0, filled, along with Iran. From that betrayal of both the Iraqis and slain Americans was the beginning of today’s disaster in Syria that Trump has inherited. Any criticism of Obama for that blunder certainly wasn’t as personal and hysterical as what we’re hearing about Trump’s removal of a relative handful of troops, too few to be a credible deterrent to Turkey’s ambitions. Or does anyone think, as does The Wall Street Journal, that American airpower and its attendant risks of wider war could have garnered political support?
In fact, since Vietnam our deterrence prestige has been weakened, except for the brief vacation from history in the Nineties following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But of course, during that same period al Qaeda killed Americans in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen, and made its first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993. Except for some cruise-missile fireworks in the desert, those attacks were not punished––a blow to our prestige incessantly brought up in Osama bin Laden’s sermons to his recruits.
It took the devastating attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon to rouse us to retaliating and restoring our deterrent credibility––which within a few years was weakened yet again by our political and ideological conflicts. Remember the “Bush lied,” “1000 Mogadishus,” and Code Pink antiwar rhetoric during the Democrat presidential primary season? Remember when the Democrat Senators competing for the nomination repudiated the war they had voted to authorize, based on the same intelligence the Bush administration relied on? Remember when Michael Moore’s agitprop “documentary” Fahrenheit 9/11 won an Academy Award, its premier attended by the House and Senate Democrat leadership, and Moore given a seat of honor next to Jimmy Carter at the Democrat nominating convention?
Which brings up back to politics. We can justly fault the presidents and Congressmen who oversaw this long history of foreign-policy incoherence, particularly their dubious vision of foreign policy as the advancement of lofty global goals like human rights and liberal democracy, in spite of the explicit rejection of those Western ideals on the part of different cultures with different goods and aims.
But in the end, presidents and Congressmen all have to be elected, which means the mood of the voter has to be taken into account. Whether rightly or wrongly, after nearly two decades of war, the American people are not in the mood for further interventions in a region seemingly mired in ancient, intractable tribal and religious conflicts. To them the remaining ISIS fighters are the EU’s problem, one they brought on themselves with their virtue-signaling and feckless immigration policies. It was the EU that emboldened Turkey’s Erdoğan by paying him blackmail to keep Syrian refugees and ISIS fighters from flooding Europe. No one has explained to the American people how our interests and security are served by a few troops who, if left in place, could become casualties.
Just as Obama did in his “leading from behind” foreign policy, Trump has taken the measure of the voters’ bad mood. But there’s a big difference between the two presidents. Obama was a moralizing internationalist who endorsed democracy promotion and the “responsibility to protect” those subject to tyranny and oppression abroad. Trump is in the main a Jacksonian: Willing to use lethal force when America is attacked, if the action is limited in its goals, and the risk of casualties is low. He’s not interested in transforming cultures mired in centuries of illiberalism and tyranny. Most important, he explicitly campaigned on a promise to stop “endless wars,” and his move in Syria fulfilled that promise––a novel concept, no doubt, for our professional political class, who find it normal to dismiss campaign promises as expedient lies to be forgotten after the election.
What’s really at issue here, though, isn’t Trump’s alleged foreign policy ad hocker and inability to take advice from “experts.” It’s the longtime contradictory aims of the American people, their cyclic swings between wanting to see justice done and the evil punished, but not wanting to accept the costs and time required for achieving such a goal. We like our imperial global hegemony and stature, a product of history rather than intention. We like the cheap goods that a come from a globalized economy, but we chafe at being the “sheriff” of the global “market,” as Robert Kagan put it, especially when our money and lives are squandered on muddled and dubious aims. And as a nation founded in rebellion against an empire, we don’t like the responsibilities, costs, and international dislike that go with being even a virtual empire.
So here we are, illustrating the truth that Thucydides 2400 years ago put in the mouth of the Athenian demagogue Cleon: “A democracy is incapable of empire.” We can’t blame Trump for recognizing that for now, American voters have had enough of trying to prove Cleon wrong.