President Donald Trump’s behavior is unprecedented, but his decision to withdraw our troops from Syria, while unprecedentedly abrupt, is actually part of a tradition of unforced errors in American foreign policy.
Out of spite, or sometimes as a smokescreen to evade responsibility, Congress and past presidents have managed to lose wars that could have gone the other way. Seeking to make partisan points, we have cost ourselves dearly.
In June of 1973, with Richard Nixon wounded by Watergate, the Democratic-dominated Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment, which forbade any further military action in Southeast Asia. We had withdrawn most of our troops the previous March. South Vietnam was attempting to fight the Vietcong and North Vietnam (both backed by the Soviet Union and China) by itself. Congress liked to tell itself that this was “Nixon’s war,” conveniently airbrushing out John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, not to mention that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which passed the House with a vote of 416-0, and the Senate by 88-2. For 10 years, Congress had authorized the war through funding.
By 1973, however, most Democrats were endorsing a revisionist history that suggested that they had no role in the decision to fight, that it was forced on the nation by presidents. They passed the War Powers Resolution and cut funds for our ally South Vietnam.
Could South Vietnam have withstood the onslaught with only American money and equipment? It’s impossible to say. What is clear is that a combination of pique and score settling caused Democrats to guarantee defeat. As Sen. Edward Kennedy explained, aid would “perpetuate involvement that should have ended long ago.”
President Barack Obama opposed the Iraq War. Fine. But when he took office in 2009, Iraq was largely pacified. Al-Qaida in Iraq had been defeated. ISIS did not exist. Iran was not pulling the strings in Baghdad, and no Americans were dying.
Obama could have said to the American people: “I opposed this war. I thought it was a mistake. But this is not 2003. More than 4,000 Americans have given their lives, and taxpayers have spent $757 billion to ensure a better future for this country and this region and to prevent the incubation of more terrorists to threaten us at home. A too hasty withdrawal could jeopardize what has been achieved. Accordingly, I plan to leave a residual force of 20,000 troops (fewer than we deploy to South Korea), to stabilize the situation.”
But Obama had a point to make. Instead of remaining to midwife a secure Iraq, he beat a retreat. Whatever you think of the decision to invade, at that moment in 2011, there was still a good possibility of stability. As Vali Nasr, a former State Department employee explained to The Atlantic: the “fragile power-sharing arrangement … required close American management. But the Obama administration had no time or energy for that. Instead it anxiously eyed the exits, with its one thought to get out. It stopped protecting the political process just when talk of American withdrawal turned the heat back up under the long-simmering power struggle that pitted the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds against one another.”
And so, we turned our backs on the Sunni tribes who had helped defeat al-Qaida, as well as the moderate Shiites who sought to resist Iranian domination. The aftermath is well-known: the rise of ISIS, the torment of the Yazidis and Iraqi Christians, the victory of Iran in controlling its neighbor and the ongoing agony of Syria. At least Obama achieved one end — nearly everyone now says Iraq was a disaster. It needn’t have been.
Against the advice of everyone save Vladimir Putin, Bashar Assad and Recep Erdogan, Trump has decided to pull all 2,000 American troops from Syria. This is a gift to our enemies and a betrayal of our friends — especially the Kurds, who fought ISIS when no one else would, and the Israelis, who will now have Iran more firmly on their doorstep. This is as foolish and short-sighted as Obama’s Iraq withdrawal, but with Trumpian flourishes, such as the claim that we have “defeated” ISIS (30,000 fighters remain) and that “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there (sic) work.” No, the greatest enemy ISIS faced were the Kurds, thousands of whom died fighting ISIS, and who currently hold 2,000 ISIS prisoners. Turkey is threatening an offensive against the Kurds, which would be unthinkable with Americans in the way.
On April 30, 1975, the last helicopters lifted off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. This betrayal of an ally is equally shameful.
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