Trump's Jacksonian Syria Withdrawal

U.S. military vehicles in northeastern Syria, Oct. 7. Photo: /Associated Press

Under investigation for impeachment he may be, but President Trump can still shake the world with his tweets. Explaining his decision to pull U.S. troops away from the Turkish-Syrian border at the cost of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and open the way for Turkish forces to create what Ankara calls a “safety zone,” President Trump tweeted early Monday that “it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”

Hitting the caps-lock button, Mr. Trump went on to restate one of his bedrock beliefs, and a cornerstone of Jacksonian foreign-policy thinking: “WE WILL ONLY FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN.” As for concerns that a U.S. withdrawal would allow Islamic State to re-form, Mr. Trump was dismissive. “We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!”

Criticism of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal decision has been intense, with prominent supporters like Sen. Lindsey Graham and former officials like Nikki Haley joining longtime opponents of the White House. Much of that criticism is justified, and the erratic nature of Trump-era policy making, as well as the often-unpredictable policy mix that results, are undercutting American prestige and influence in much of the world. But not all of the problems dogging the Trump administration Middle East policy are caused by Mr. Trump’s sometimes idiosyncratic views or policy-making style. As two other news stories from the Middle East last week make clear, the American position in the region is an odd mix of dominance and impotence that makes good policy making hard—and that makes the task of building domestic support for smart policy even harder.

The first development is a success story that underlines how dominant the U.S. has become: Fearing U.S. sanctions, China National Petroleum Corp. has abandoned plans for a multibillion-dollar investment in Iran’s South Pars gas field. This is part of a broader Chinese retreat from Iran in the face of American pressure; the Middle Kingdom isn’t yet ready to challenge the U.S. in the Middle East.

The second development—the violent protests shaking Iraq—tells us something equally important. The U.S. may be the paramount power in the region, but nobody has a solution to the developmental and political crisis that continues to destabilize too many countries across the Middle East.

In Iraq there is no political party or social movement with the vision, discipline and competence to create the kind of country the protesters say they want. Iraq’s politicians can’t deliver the goods. Nor can its civil society, military or religious leadership. More, the U.S., the European Union and the international financial institutions engaged in Iraq don’t know how to bridge the gap between the aspirations of the Iraqi people and the shambles of the nation’s political life. The “reforms” a desperate Iraqi government is proposing in hope of quieting the unrest will mostly make things worse. Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi has promised, for example, to place every Iraqi with a master’s degree or above on the Education Ministry’s payroll. Such measures would degrade the country’s finances, tighten the grip on power of corrupt political parties and block the kinds of change that might someday put Iraq on the road to success.

Iraq isn’t the only country in the region that is trapped in a cycle of dysfunctional governance and blocked development. The forces that produced the Arab Spring—and those that frustrated it—remain at work in the region. Until and unless a path opens for serious economic development, the Middle East will continue to produce despotism, revolution, large streams of migrants, and fanatical religious armies and cults.

Mr. Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to try to hold America back from a Middle East conflict. President Obama made a similar, and similarly hasty, decision in 2013 when he chose not to respond to Syria’s violation of his chemical weapons “red line” with a military strike. Many of the same people criticizing Mr. Trump today criticized Mr. Obama then, and the subsequent course of the Syrian war underlined both the humanitarian and the strategic case against Mr. Obama’s decision. Mr. Trump’s Syria decision may also prove to be a mistake, but it should give the establishment pause that two presidents as different as Messrs. Obama and Trump reached similar conclusions about the political risks in the Middle East.

The U.S. may be the most powerful actor in the region, but it can’t resolve the economic and social conflicts that destabilize the Middle East. As long as this is the case, those who want presidents to commit to long-term military engagements, however limited and however advantageous, must expect a skeptical hearing in the Oval Office.

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