Foreign Policy

Middle East Troop Pullbacks: A Calculated Risk

Trump appears to have successfully opted for smart strategy over reckless retreat.

Harold Hutchison · Sep. 15, 2020

President Donald Trump is drawing down American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and, not surprisingly, some critics are questioning those pullbacks. Given what happened after Barack Obama’s disastrous withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which led to the rise of ISIS, among other things, it’s a valid concern. But the context of Trump’s withdrawals is much different than that of Obama’s reckless action.

For starters, Trump ditched the Obama administration’s awful Iran nuclear deal. Then he took out Iran’s terrorist mastermind. Trump also loosened the rules of engagement in the Middle East and Afghanistan, allowing American troops to fight to win rather than merely stay alive as an occupying force — this after eight years of being hobbled by Obama.

But while Trump has been able to turn things around on the battlefield against ISIS and in Iran against the mullahs, he’s also been pulling us out of a hole created by Obama’s eight years of neglect for our geopolitical first responders. This, coupled with George W. Bush’s errors of omission in the early stages of the Global War on Terror, forced our nation into some tough choices and made continued fighting a harder sell.

The other major difference is that Trump is also helping to build peace in the region — with demonstrable results. Recently, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to normalize diplomatic relationships with Israel. The question is when Oman will be next. Saudi Arabia has been allowing overflight rights for Israeli planes on direct flights to the UAE, and there are signs that Trump is leveraging close ties with the Saudis to push that country toward normalization as well.

In addition, Trump’s weapons sales to our allies in the region will make it much more costly for any malefactor, be they terrorists like ISIS or the genocidal theocrats of Iran, to start trouble. Since Trump took office, Yemen’s Houthi rebels are no longer taking potshots at American ships.

Which brings us back to our nation’s revived alliance with Saudi Arabia. While the Obama administration was dithering in its efforts to stop the Iranian regime from gaining control of a country, Yemen, astride a key maritime chokepoint, Trump instead made the call to back the Saudis in that nasty proxy conflict. This was clearly a case in which Trump picked the least bad option.

But Trump’s moves also reflect something else: It’s one thing to pull out on a timetable regardless of conditions in the region, as Obama did. Trump’s troop moves are different in that he’s not only beaten down the threats but has also built up the capabilities of American allies. This has allowed us to maintain a much smaller American footprint.

The fact is, Trump has taken and effectively applied the lessons America learned from the Global War on Terror. This is the difference between a reckless retreat and a smart strategy.

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