The strategic incoherence that has been a hallmark of the Trump administration was on vivid display over the last three weeks in Syria and the broader Middle East.
In the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, the U.S. put in place a system for orderly, informed decision-making on key national security issues. It was centered on the National Security Council that became the gathering point for carefully vetted inputs from the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA and other relevant agencies — all designed to equip the President with information, analysis and policy options he/she needed for informed judgments.
The entire setup was driven by an appreciation for how difficult and consequential presidential decisions in the international arena would be. It is a system that has been honed and tweaked over six decades and has produced policies that have sustained the role of America as the world’s primary and most influential power.
Contrast that history with what we have today. President Trump, with ultimate decision-making authority over American foreign and security policy, reads nothing provided by the agencies that work for him and barely listens to his senior advisors. Instead, he spends hours every day alone watching FOX news. His opinions on policy, from all evidence, are shaped by FOX and Friends and Sean Hannity, not the Pentagon or the State Department.
Syria and the broader Middle East have been, and remain, fiendishly complex challenges that would test any policymaking system. The Trump administration has never provided a comprehensive statement of its strategy toward the region. But a compilation of tweets and statements over recent months provides a list of key goals: (1) Defeat ISIS (2) Frustrate Iranian efforts to control events in Syria and Iraq (3) Protect the Kurds, our battlefield allies against ISIS (4) Support Israel (5) Collaborate with NATO ally Turkey (6) Oppose the Assad regime in Damascus (7) Resist Russian efforts to become the primary external influence in the Middle East.
In support of these goals, the Pentagon has mounted a military assault against ISIS in Syria. The objective was to exterminate every vestige of the ISIS “caliphate” without directly supporting the Assad regime or its ally, Iran — both of which stood to benefit from ISIS’ defeat. To thread the policy needle, the Pentagon turned to indigenous Kurdish forces that saw ISIS as a mortal enemy. With U.S. advisors, equipment and air support, the Kurds have fought a determined and bloody series of battles, losing thousands of fighters in the process. By best estimates, they were within a few months of complete victory when Trump announced via Twitter that he was ordering an “immediate” withdrawal of U.S. forces. The Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of the CIA — none of these was consulted or even informed in advance of this watershed decision. Apparently, Trump’s decision was made during a phone call with President Erdogan of Turkey (who, incidentally, hates the Kurds). There was no national security decision-making process at all. Secretary Mattis, the loyal soldier, could take no more and resigned. That had no discernible effect on the President who, true to form, took to twitter to disparage the four-star Marine general. Critics in Congress and the media focused on the fact that Trump’s withdrawal would constitute a lifeline to ISIS and would betray and expose the Kurds. Probably the most influential voice attempting to walk back the policy came from Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu who wants a continued, robust American military presence in Syria. The same was true of U.S. Arab allies including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who saw Iran as the big winner out of Trump’s decision.
Consequently, the President announced that the withdrawal would be “slow.” Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton were dispatched separately to the Middle East to repair the damage. Bolton departed from Tel Aviv with Israeli commentators openly wondering whether the White House knew what it was doing. Upon arriving in Turkey, Bolton stated that the U.S. would insist Turkey not attack “the Kurds.” Erdogan, who has made it abundantly clear that he intended to do just that, was incensed. He denounced Bolton’s “serious mistake” and cancelled the meeting they had scheduled. Meanwhile, Pompeo, on the basis of no credible evidence, announced that Turkey had agreed to protect the Kurds fighting alongside the U.S. in Syria. Trump, in a tweet, threatened economic “devastation” if Turkey attacked the Kurds. While in Saudi Arabia, Pompeo declared with a straight face that the ruling Crown Prince had agreed to a “full investigation” into the murder of a Washington Post columnist, knowing full well that the Crown Prince had ordered the killing. Pompeo also declared that the U.S. would not relent in its military assault against ISIS until the terrorist organization was destroyed. The next day the Pentagon announced the beginning of its military withdrawal from Syria per the President’s order. Most informed observers see a real possibility, even a probability, of an ISIS comeback as U.S./Kurdish military pressure eases.
So where does this all leave us? The Assad regime is expanding its control over Syrian territory and its ally, Russia, is openly asserting its role as the key geopolitical force in the Middle East replacing the U.S. Turkey is angry. Iran is empowered just as the Kurds are weakened and imperiled. And ISIS sees a Trump-sent chance to recover. It would be hard to find another American national security decision that has produced such an impressive array of disastrous outcomes.