I hate to say I told you so, but well… as predicted, in the wake of Trump’s commanded military withdrawal from northeast Syria, the once U.S.-backed Kurds cut a deal with the Assad regime. (And Vice President Mike Pence has now brokered a five-day cease-fire.) Admittedly, Trump the “dealmaker” ought to have brokered something similar before pulling out and before the Turkish Army—and its Sunni Arab Islamist proxies—invaded the region and inflicted significant civilian casualties.
One must admit that a single phone call between Trump and President Erdogan of Turkey has turned the situation in Syria upside down in just over a week. The Kurds have requested protection from Assad’s army, Russian troops are now patrolling between the Kurds and invading Turks, and the U.S. is (for once) watching from the sidelines.
The execution has been sloppy, of course—a Trumpian trademark—and the human cost potentially heavy. Nonetheless, the U.S. withdrawal represents a significant instance of the president actually following through on campaign promises to end an endless American war in the Mideast. The situation isn’t simple, of course, and for the Kurds it is yet another fatalistic event in that people’s tragic history.
Still, while the situation in Northeast Syria constitutes a byzantine mess, it’s increasingly unclear that a continued U.S. military role there would be productive or strategic in the long term. After all, if Washington’s endgame wasn’t to establish a lasting, U.S.-guaranteed Kurdish nation-state of Rojava, and it hardly appeared that it ever was, then what exactly could America expect to accomplish through an all-risk, no-reward continued stalemate in Syria?
What’s truly striking, though, and increasingly apparent, is that President Trump possesses – as a foreign policy autocrat, of sorts – the power to derail the Democrats and place 2020 hopefuls in an awkward position of defending U.S. forever wars. It’s already happening, at least among mainstream “liberal” media and political personalities who’ve flooded the networks with anti-Trump vitriol since the Syria withdrawal.
Lest we confuse Donald Trump with a consistent antiwar dove, it’s important to remember that his behavior is erratic and often turns on a dime. Take, for example, his decision to impose sanctions on Turkey right after greenlighting the very invasion he now seeks to punish. He’s also prone to contradictory moves. Also, just as he pulled troops from Syria, he added an even larger number to Saudi Arabia, justifying the move on the grounds that the Saudis will foot the entire bill, making rather official the U.S. military’s gradual transformation into a mercenary force ready to serve the highest bidder. Trump has also surpassed, in his first two years, the number of drone strikes his predecessor Barack Obama launched overseas during the same phase of Obama’s presidency.
Nonetheless, Trump’s Democratic opponents have bet big on using Syria to attack the president without providing any real alternatives to withdrawal. In doing so, they might just hand Trump a winning hand for 2020. In fact, I haven’t seen so much foreign policy coverage of a U.S. war by the establishment media for over a decade, at least since Democrats finally turned against Bush’s failing war in Iraq as a tool for midterm electoral success.
The attention suddenly focused on Syria is rather cynical, of course, with the country’s civil war only receiving notice now because it’s a cudgel used to reflexively attack Trump. It’s not about Kurdish ethnic rights or women’s, rights—and it never was. No, this is all about partisan political advantage. And it might just backfire on the Dems.
Trump isn’t all that scared of criticism on Syria, even from the establishment wing of his own party. Firing back at critics this week, Trump tweeted: “Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other [in Syria]. Let them!”
See, this president knows what many congressional Republicans do not appear to realize: that the old conservative coalition—which included a powerful hawkish national security wing—is breaking down. The Republican base, well, they’re just about as sick of endless war as is Trump himself. Consider this remarkable turnaround: In recent polls, 56% of Republicans supported Trump’s Syria withdrawal, while 60% of Democrats opposed it.
Which brings us back to the mainstream Democratic machine and the potentially awkward position of even the most progressive of the 2020 presidential hopefuls on the “left.” By flipping the script and demonstrating that Trump and his conservative backers constitute the only serious antiwar coalition, he could expose that establishment Dems—who’ve almost all stood tall with the neocon retreads against Trump’s move—represent little more than Sen. Lindsey Graham lite. He could show that they’re hawks too, opportunistic hawks at that, figures mired in the Washington swamp. Disgust with that bipartisan beltway elite is exactly what got Mr. Trump elected in 2016 (along with a peculiar outdated Electoral College, of course), which is exactly why responding to Trump’s (tentative) war-ending propensity will be sensitive and awkward for Democratic leaders and presidential candidates.
Look, even America’s usually conservative, if (purportedly) apolitical, soldiers and veterans are now against these forever wars that Trump ostensibly seeks to end. A series of polls this summer indicated that nearly two-thirds of post-9/11 vets say they believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military engagement in Syria “were not worth it.” This should have been an alarm bell for both major parties, but expect the Democrats to once again squander the opportunity presented by these frustrated, alienated troopers.
By ignoring foreign policy—generally having ceded that political territory to the Republicans since midway through the Cold War—the Dems have ensured that most of these antiwar veterans won’t find a home, or land in the Democratic Party.
I personally know dozens of these sorts of exhausted veterans. Almost none have followed my own journey toward the left. In fact, the vast majority tell me they trust Trump, warts and all, over figures like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or any of the other Democratic elites that they find even more corrupt than the reality-TV-star-in-chief. My friends and colleagues may be wrong, may be off-base, but most truly believe it, which ought to worry Democrats. Only it won’t, or at least not in enough time.
So, while I’m cautious about giving sensible advice to Trump (luckily, he doesn’t read Truthdig, or read much at all), I think there’s potential for him to craft a winning strategy for 2020.
Here’s a modest proposal on just how it might go: He could end one of America’s illegal wars, particularly those clearly not covered by the post-9/11 AUMFs [Authorization for Use of Military Force], every three months. Little-to-no warning, ignoring the complaints of senior generals and national security officials; just pick an ill-advised military intervention (there’re plenty to choose from) and announce its end.
Not only would this distract from impeachment, but it would force Trump’s potential 2020 opponents to perform some awkward intellectual gymnastics. They’d be obliged to double-down and promise to end even more wars, even more quickly, than Trump. Or, more likely, they could join the bipartisan swampy establishment and half-heartedly (and disingenuously) defend continuing the very unwinnable wars with which the American people have grown so tired.
I know all of that’s unlikely, but it’s not unthinkable. Trump could even wrap himself in a new brand of patriotism and emphasize his concern for America’s beloved troops. Now, this president isn’t known for his sincerity, but he has previously claimed that signing condolence letters for the families of fallen servicemen “is the hardest thing he does.” So in my fantasy, Trump would address the nation in prime time, and, noting that 18-year-olds have begun to deploy to Afghanistan, assure the people that he intends to end these wars before a kid born after 9/11 dies in one of them.
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Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army Major and regular contributor to Truthdig. His work has also appeared in Harper’s, The LA Times, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, The Huffington Post and The Hill. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He co-hosts the progressive veterans’ podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.