The conventional wisdom in Washington these days says that Secretary of Defense James Mattis is the one man who can save the nation from war. The new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is a hawk's hawk. And don't get the foreign policy establishment started on incoming National Security Adviser, John Bolton. President Donald Trump himself pines for military parades and asserts that torturing terrorists "works."
Like most conventional wisdom in the Trump era, however, this is all wrong — for a number of reasons. But the first and most important one is Syria. Trump actually wants to cut and run from this tragic country. This is why there is no real strategy for the moment to counter the Russian-Iranian led campaign to unify the country for the dictator in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad. U.S. forces are in Syria only to destroy the Islamic State.
Trump made this point on Thursday at a rally in Ohio. "We're knocking the hell out of ISIS, we'll be coming out of Syria very soon," the president told the crowd. "Let the other people take care of it now."
"Let the other people take care of it" is a good summary of Barack Obama's approach to Syria. Consider this searing farewell statement from former diplomat Fred Hof as he prepares to leave his post as director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center this week. (Hof took on that post in 2012 after resigning from government to protest Obama's inactions on Syria.)
"President Obama would caricature external alternatives by creating and debating straw men: invented idiots calling for the invasion and occupation of Syria," he wrote. "He would deal with internal dissent by taking officials through multi-step, worst-case, hypothetical scenarios of what might happen in the wake of any American attempt, no matter how modest, to complicate regime mass murder. The ‘logical’ result would inevitably involve something between World War III and an open-ended, treasury-draining American commitment."
Hof concludes: "He did not mean to do it, but Barack Obama’s performance in Syria produced global destabilization."
This was the world Trump inherited in 2017. And despite his campaign rhetoric about the pointlessness of interventions, Trump did not just bug out. Instead he lifted restrictions on the rules of engagement for U.S. Special Forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and, in one of his administration's best moments, struck regime airfields after a nerve gas attack a year ago.
It's possible that Trump's promise to exit Syria is just bluster for the crowd. This was not a policy speech. It was a rally that focused mainly on building the border wall and immigration. Yet it's also possible Trump is finally taking control of the government, and we should expect policy to reflect his rhetoric in a way it has not up to now.
There are good strategic reasons to stop Assad from taking back the territory in Syria he has lost. It would deprive his patron, Iran, from a land bridge to the Mediterranean Sea. But the best reason to stop Assad is humanitarian. This butcher has killed enough. He should pay, if only to stop him from killing more and as a message to the other butchers watching.
This is where the conventional wisdom on Bolton and Trump's 'war mongers' collapses. The incoming national security adviser is no neoconservative. He does not believe in nation-building or using the U.S. military for humanitarian reasons. He is a cold-eyed realist who opposed President Bill Clinton's belated intervention in the Balkans. In his 2005 confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton said he didn't know if it would have been feasible for America to try to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Pompeo had a better record on humanitarian intervention when he was a member of Congress, but he also went along with a policy to end the feeble U.S. effort to fight the Assad regime. In July, when he was CIA director, Pompeo pulled the plug on the agency's program to support anti-regime rebels in Syria.
This leaves Mattis. He, too, is reluctant to use military force and was wary of getting involved in Syria in Obama's first term when we was the commander of U.S. Central Command. But Mattis is also a keen student of history. He understands the consequences of a hasty retreat from Syria, particularly if the alternative is a vacuum that could be exploited by the remnants of the Islamic State. This is particularly dicey at the moment now that Turkey has entered the war against America's allies, the Kurds.
No wonder Mattis signaled the U.S. would transition to stabilizing Syria in December, which undercuts the message Trump delivered in Ohio. While Mattis was not quite as keen on expanding the mission in Syria as outgoing National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, he understood the folly of a hasty retreat from a war that Obama entered with half-measures and empty promises.
And that counts as an irony. The Washington establishment worries about Bolton and Pompeo for their bellicosity. It felt better when Trump was constrained by an axis of adults. And while that may have been true for the Iran nuclear deal, it is false when it comes to Syria. The grown-ups have urged Trump to give the war he inherited a chance. It's Trump who wants to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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