Bold foreign policy decisions aren’t wrong because they are bold. But they are wrong when they are poorly conceived, reflecting no coherent strategy.
President Donald Trump took two such hasty, heedless actions in recently concerning the future presence of American troops in unstable war zones. Trump is pulling all 2,000 ground troops out of Syria and, according to reports, is ordering home about 7,000 of the roughly 14,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan.
Those are significant military orders by the commander in chief, dispatched over the course of hours, despite warnings from his own advisers that he’s making potentially grave errors. All of which fits into the atmosphere of Trump’s chaotic, seat-of-the-pants leadership. Defense Secretary James Mattis wants no more of this drama. That’s why he quit.
Mattis’ resignation letter was a plea to Trump to grasp a fundamental tenet of America’s role as leader of the free world: The country is safest when it acts according to principles and works closely with friends and allies.
Spitting out orders to leave Syria and reduce the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan violates that doctrine. Trump gave little or no warning of his decisions, blundering ahead to fulfill a wish that the United States invest more money at home, and expend less effort abroad. That’s a legitimate ambition, but it’s not justified by facts on the ground in two destabilized countries that present terrorist threats to the U.S.
In Syria, the U.S.-led coalition has pummeled Islamic State into apparent submission, but the terror group and its ideology haven’t been stamped out. Syria remains in the grips of civil war and has become a handy romper room for Russia and Iran. American ground troops act as a stabilizing force, symbols of U.S. resolve and partners to Syrian Kurd militias, who have done much of the fighting against Islamic State. A U.S. departure leaves the Kurds vulnerable to attack by arch-enemy Turkey. If Islamic State mounts a comeback, or if Iran and Russia assert unchecked power and influence in the region, America becomes less secure.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. is mired in a frustrating war now in its 18th year. Drawing down troop levels is an option, but not in the short term, and certainly not without consideration of the risk factors and strong backup plans. Taliban insurgents remain in control of parts of Afghanistan, and al-Qaida and Islamic State both have a presence.
This is the legacy of 9/11. U.S. military operations in Syria and Afghanistan represent crucial missions in defense of the homeland. On both battlefields, America fights with friends and allies. Abrupt departures, as Mattis warned, threaten the stability of U.S. relationships with those partners.
If the president has a persuasive argument for military withdrawals that assure America’s safety, we’d like to hear it.