Syria and Our Foreign Policy Muddle

Waiting for history to make our decisions is a dangerous strategy.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Donald Trump’s decision to pull ground troops out of Syria, followed hard by Defense Secretary Mattis’ resignation effective January 1, has sparked the usual complaints about the unpredictable, shoot-from-the-hip president. And as usual, the most important issue underlying the debate over his decision is ignored––our failure to settle on a coherent, long-term foreign policy strategy.

Apart from the by now reflexive NeverTrump harrumphing, more sober commentators have made serious arguments both for staying and for leaving. The most compelling of the former are the risks of ceding more regional influence to Russia and Iran. Both of these rivals are solidifying their presence in the region, and neither is that serious about destroying ISIS, which still boasts thousands of jihadists intent on wreaking havoc on Western infidels. The terrorist gang Hezbollah, for forty years Iran’s creature, likewise will continue to control territory from which it threatens Israel with missiles supplied via the Iranian Quds Force personnel stationed in Syria. And our allies the Kurds, who have been stalwart warriors against ISIS, will be left hanging, vulnerable to the aggression of Islamist Turkey, which likewise does not consider ISIS a threat to eliminate.

The proponents of withdrawal also have arguments that must be taken seriously. Our strategic aims in Syria have been all over the place the past several years––supporting “moderate” rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad regime; enforcing with noisy, carefully calibrated cruise-missile strikes international sanctions against the use of chemical weapons; and ameliorating the growing “refugee” disaster spilling into Europe. Finishing off ISIS does not seem feasible with the current strategy and low level of troops.  And our air power in the region, assuming it remains, along with ground forces in Iraq, can be quickly mobilized to answer any threat to our interests and security on the part of Russia or Iran.

And what exactly is our strategic objective now, and how much time and how many American dead is it going to take to achieve it? We have already spent nearly 18 years and 12,000 casualties in Afghanistan, and the only objective discussed these days is to bring the Taliban to the bargaining table–a dangerous delusion. For the Taliban, like Goldfinger, don’t expect us to talk, they expect us to die. And they are still killing American soldiers and bombing the Afghan government we’ve lost at least $2 trillion and over 36,000 casualties supporting.

Finally, there is no Constitutional authority for these military engagements. The post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, overly broad to begin with, and now as elastic as the much-abused Commerce Clause, is increasingly suspect as a legal document legitimizing military engagements whose aims continually change or often can’t be defined. And given how convenient the AUMF has been for letting Congress off the accountability hook, don’t expect a new authorization to be forthcoming, given how unpopular with the voters these deployments remain. Don’t forget, Obama slyly parried Republican critics of his failure to enforce his own red line against chemical weapons by asking Congress for an AUMF he knew they would never grant.

This muddle of arguments for both sides is partly partisan politics–– the left didn’t love General Mattis so much when Obama unceremoniously fired him.  But mostly our confusion reflects the deeper problem with our foreign policy that transcends the issue of withdrawing from Syria––the failure to understand just how much the end of the Cold War shook up the assumptions and narratives that had governed our strategies during that long conflict.

The stand-off between two superpowers possessing nuclear arsenals able to end civilization, ironically created relative stability. Mutually Assured Destruction was frighteningly absurd, but its global reach encouraged nations to bandwagon with one side or the other, and to calibrate their aggression according to the foreign policies of the two superpowers. Conflicts were still brutal and deadly, but they were kept limited by the foreign policy needs of superpower sponsors.

Additionally, the nuclear stand-off provided the stability in which the “international rules-based order” (IRBO) could develop. A reward for bandwagoning with the liberal democratic, free-market West was participation in the institutions that were overseeing the growing global economy, all while raking in foreign aid, and sheltering beneath America’s nuclear umbrella and global network of military bases.

The mistake many foreign policy analysts in the West made was to think that the IRBO was the product of the United Nations or NATO or a global “harmony of interests,” instead of American military power kept dominant in order to check an expansionist Soviet Union. When on Christmas Day 1991 the Soviet Union disappeared, many believed that the IRBO and what it represented––democracy, human rights, tolerance, and free trade––were now the default political paradigm for the whole world, the “single principle,” as Pierre Manent put it, for today’s 193 sovereign nations. No one was troubled that these nations comprised an intricate and often irreconcilable diversity of customs, cultures, religions, folkways, mores, beliefs, political orders, and goals.

This triumphalism had been foreshadowed more than a year earlier by the rapid success of the U.S. led, U.N. sanctioned first Gulf War, to which 34 nations contributed forces, and pacifist Germany and Japan added billions of dollars. The overwhelming lethality of America’s military, the speed at which Iraq’s forces were driven from Kuwait, the imprimatur of the U.N., and the multinational coalition of forces seemingly confirmed that the IRBO could be the mechanism for keeping global order and promoting liberal democracy and free-market prosperity.

George H.W. Bush’s speech to Congress a month into the Gulf War expressed the vision of the “new world order” that the imminent fall of the Soviet Union would make possible. This event would inaugurate “a new era”:

[One] freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony. A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor. Today that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.

Yet this optimism would quickly become questionable as the Nineties progressed. The aftermath of the war had left the psychopathic Saddam Hussein in power, and in possession of weapons he turned against the Iraqi Shi’a minority. Sanctions became a propaganda weapon that the international left used against the U.S., and our own allies sought to undermine sanctions in order to resume business with the regime. U.N. member states were caught colluding with Hussein in the Oil for Food scandal to the tune of $10 billion. And one of those international institutions charged with keeping global order, the Internal Atomic Energy Agency, was useless for inspecting Iraq to determine if Hussein still had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and the capacity to produce them. Hussein finally just kicked the inspectors out with impunity.

The debacle in Iraq showed that an “old world” predicated on a flawed human nature had “supplanted” the “rule of law,” that some nations had objectives and values quite different from sharing the “responsibility for peace and justice,” and many had contempt rather than respect for “the rights of the weak.”

More important, two years after the seemingly successful defeat of Hussein in 1991, jihadists bombed the World Trade Center. One of history’s greatest imperial powers––which today still occupies Roman North Africa and, except for Israel, the Near East, and which once had occupied a third of Christian Europe for centuries––now put us on notice that it had not signed on to the “new world order,” and was determined to show the world that history hadn’t ended the millennia-long debate about the form of rule best for human beings.

After all, Islam had a storied history of conquest, and a 14-century-long tradition of Muslim warfare and sharia law, a totalizing code governing all human behavior and action, with a history of practice much longer than that of liberal democracy or communism. And it had a divine command that made the faith inherently expansionist and intolerant of other faiths: “Fight all men until they say there is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.”

Moreover, we had been warned years earlier. Before the rise of al Qaeda, the 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew America’s ally the Shah had more spectacularly announced with its kidnapping of America’s diplomatic staff and holding them hostage for 444 days. By violating one of the central institutions of the global order, Iran made it clear that Islam was back as a player in the bipolar Cold War world. The same year the mullahs supported the mujahedeen attacking the Soviets in Afghanistan, which became a training school for future jihadists.

Yet the endemic failure of imagination that continues to hamstring our foreign policy philosophies left us trying to understand two religious revolutions as anticolonial movements for national sovereignty, human rights, political freedom, and all the other cargo that makes the West so rich, free, and powerful. No matter how often the mullahs tell us the religious imperatives behind their policies and action, no matter how much American blood they shed through jihadist proxies, we still preach that jihadist terror has “nothing to do with Islam.”

That assumption of a universal thirst for democracy and freedom, of course, spurred the nation-building that vitiated the war against Iraq in 2003, and contributed to its failure. Before that conflict began, George W. Bush, in his 2002 National Security Strategy, had repeated the post-Cold War belief about the proper aims of U.S. foreign policy: promoting a “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” for “these values of freedom are right and true for every person, every society.” But decades earlier the Ayatollah Khomeini, still today the godfather of modern jihadism, had repudiated in word and deed that simplistic assumption. As Khomeini said, he didn’t start a revolution to lower the price of melons. And despite our spending $2 trillion and suffering 36,000 casualties, Iraq today is still riven by internal tribal and confessional conflicts, now worsened by the malign influence of Iran and Russia.

The Syria mess is in part a consequence of this same misunderstanding on the part of our strategists, which explains the lack of clarity about our strategic aims. And except for Andy McCarthy’s recent argument for withdrawal, few analysts discuss the dilemma in terms of an accurate assessment of the larger context for the struggle––as one with a militant, proud faith that justifies violence as a legitimate tool for fulfilling Islam’s doctrines, and that seeks to restore the purity of its faith and the global power it once possessed.

Failures of imagination, institutional group-think, and shop-worn paradigms created by moralizing internationalists have created our Middle East muddle. But even if we had collectively sought to create a foreign policy more realistic and suited for the post-Cold War world, it’s hard to imagine that our politicians and citizens would assent to carrying it out.

For the simple truth is, history’s only successful global hegemons have been empires. And they were successful because they believed that they deserved to rule, they were tough and disciplined, and they were confident their political order was superior to any other and worth killing and dying for. They had no illusions about human nature and its irrational penchant for evil, and so knew that a great power was better off being feared than loved, and that a willingness to be ruthless was necessary for establishing deterrence and keeping the peace.

We are very different––full of fashionable guilt and specious self-doubt, accustomed to comfort and pleasure, filled with the therapeutic sentiment that suffering is an anomaly rather than a foundational constituent of human existence, and more eager to be liked and admired than respected and feared.

Should we stay in Syria, or should we go? It depends on whether we can do what has to be done when the baleful consequences of either decision come due. The evidence so far is that we can’t and won’t, and so will remain in this muddle, our tactics and aims blowing with the political winds while we wait for history to make the decision for us. And that’s a dangerous strategy for the greatest power in history.


Photo by Christiaan Triebert