While Americans have been enthralled with the battle over a border wall and the latest revelations on President Donald Trump and Russia, world leaders and concerned residents of the Middle East have been perplexed, and more than a little anxious, watching the twists and turns of Trump’s plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. The most recent source of befuddlement came on Sunday evening, when the president appeared to announce yet another major change via Twitter, threatening to economically “devastate” Turkey, a NATO ally, if it harms Syria’s Kurds, America’s partners in the battle against ISIS.
The Trump administration has staged quite a foreign policy spectacle in recent weeks, with top officials, including the president, publicly battling out differences over Syria—over the future of the Middle East, in fact—churning out a befuddling series of statements, counterstatements, affirmations and contradictions about what the U.S. intends to do, is already doing, or would never do.
This would all be embarrassing for almost any country. But when the policymaking apparatus of the world’s only superpower spins out on such a pivotal issue, it is a sign that something is very wrong.
The idea that something is very wrong with the way the Trump administration makes decisions is hardly breaking news. Consider, for example, his offer to let Russian security question a former U.S. ambassador, his flirtations with military action against Venezuela, or his impulsive decision to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, which granted him coveted prestige in exchange for nothing.
But the Syria policy show has become Exhibit A, a case study on why the United States needs a functioning process for designing and implementing foreign policy. Without it, as the entire world can see, what results is an incoherent mess with the potential to further destabilize unstable regions, signaling that the United States is an undisciplined, unreliable and untrustworthy ally.
This latest chapter began on Dec. 19, when Trump triggered shock waves around the world with a tweeted video message announcing the U.S. would withdraw its 2,000-person force from Syria. “They’re coming back now,” he announced, because ISIS has been defeated.
Reaction was swift and the alarm was widespread, with a few notable exceptions: Russian President Vladimir Putin applauded the decision, declaring “Donald is right.”
Elsewhere, foreign policy hands spoke out in a rare show of bipartisan near-consensus, arguing that the abrupt and premature withdrawal would benefit America’s foes and harm its friends. Winners would include Iran, Russia, ISIS and Syrian President Bashar Assad. The move, critics maintained, constituted a betrayal of the Syrian Kurd forces, whose very survival would now be threatened by Turkey, who sees them as dangerous enemies. Other U.S. allies hurt by the move, include Israel and Sunni Arab states concerned about Iran’s rise.
Trump’s abrupt Syria withdrawal prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to immediately send and distribute a scathing resignation letter, telling the president that America’s own strength derives from its alliances and partnerships and from a clear-eyed view of who are malign actors and strategic competitors. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump backer, took to the Senate floor to decry the move as “disastrous to our national security,” and “a stain on the honor of the United States.”
The Kurds declared themselves “betrayed” by the U.S., civilians expressed their terror of an impending Turkish onslaught. European allies with forces in Syria tried to dissuade the president.
The lack of planning exploded in full view. Pentagon officials said they had orders to get out in 30 days, but Trump started to backpedal amid the fury, sending national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Middle East to calm nerves.
That’s when things turned even more chaotic.
Back home, the timetable for withdrawal appeared to slip, with Trump claiming falsely, “I never said fast or slow.” (In fact, he said, “Now.”)
Bolton, meanwhile, traveled to Israel, where the government had been careful to not criticize Trump in public, saying only that Israel could and would continue to defend itself. Privately, a senior Israeli official revealed, “We are in a state of shock. Trump simply doesn’t understand the extent of the Iranian military presence in the region.” It didn’t help when Trump dismissively said of Iran, “they can do whatever they want in Syria.”
Bolton made news with what appeared to be a sharp turn, telling reporters that U.S. forces would stay in Syria until the last ISIS fighter was defeated and until Turkey guaranteed it would not attack America’s Kurdish partners.
The withdrawal seemed to be off, possibly for years.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was fuming. When Bolton arrived in Ankara, Erdogan refused to meet him. Erdogan called U.S. demands for Kurdish protection, “a serious mistake,” and “not possible for us to swallow.” Meanwhile, his defense minister defiantly announced “intense” preparations to strike Kurdish forces.
By then, no one was sure what U.S. policy was. Adding to the confusion, Pompeo declared that Erdogan’s threats against the Kurds would not stop Trump’s planned withdrawal.
From Bolton’s comments, it seemed the withdrawal was indefinitely delayed. Pompeo, who had privately opposed the withdrawal, suggested it was happening. But he also told America’s Arab allies, bewildered like most others by the shifting narrative, that the U.S. remained firmly committed to expelling “every Iranian boot on the ground.” The Syria withdrawal, he said, is just “a tactical change.”
By now, the policy disarray has mutated into a political knife fight in Washington. Bolton appears to have a bull’s-eye on his back, judging by the leaks that blame him for the mess.
But if the blame lies with one man, that man is Trump. To be sure, Syria policy is extraordinarily difficult; I believe President Barack Obama’s was disastrous. It is uniquely complicated by the fact that America’s allies are on opposite sides (most notably in this case, Turkey’s burning animosity toward Syrian Kurdish fighters, the key U.S. allies in pushing back against ISIS). But that’s precisely why the policy should have been choreographed carefully before being rolled out in a tweet.
The latest news is that the withdrawal started last week—possibly. Now, Trump is threatening to devastate a problematic ally, but an ally nonetheless. The murkiness of the plan included a report that the U.S. plans to maintain a presence at the Tanf base, near the Syria-Iraq border in an effort deter Iran. Then there are the newly reported claims that Bolton asked the Pentagon to prepare options to strike Iran.
The outcome of this tactical and strategic jumble is that all of America’s partners feel betrayed to one degree or another. The Kurds know Trump abruptly turned his back on them, regardless of how the policy materializes. Turkey has been harshly threatened by the U.S. president. Israel, Saudi Arabia—and anyone watching, really—has seen Washington’s policy unpredictability in action.
So, America has unnecessarily made itself less credible. Even Trump’s own former Defense secretary has said that the U.S. has undercut the source of its strength, made itself weaker by the treatment of its friends and allies. And it wasn’t exactly the decision to withdraw that caused the injury, it was the way Trump disregarded the vast expertise at his disposal, choosing again to go with his gut, and carelessly launch an undercooked policy with a tweet.