After Syria strikes, Trump right to declare ‘mission accomplished’

After Syria strikes, Trump right to declare ‘mission accomplished’
© Getty Images

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE is doing the right thing in Syria: penalizing the Assad government for using chemical weapons, but avoiding greater involvement in the civil war there, and laying plans to exit the conflict. His strategy is apparently baffling to some, but amounts to putting American interests first — and keeping our military focused on the threats of tomorrow, not yesterday.

Despite ample praise, Trump also received heaps of criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans for joining Britain and France to strike at Syria’s chemical weapons capacity late last Friday. For example, House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Trump signs largely symbolic pre-existing conditions order amid lawsuit MORE (D-Calif.), who once donned a headscarf to meet Assad in Damascus as his government facilitated the killing of Americans in Iraq, said on Saturday, “One night of airstrikes is not a substitute for a clear, comprehensive Syria strategy.”

Similarly, Democratic Senator Cory BookerCory Anthony Booker3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Bipartisan praise pours in after Ginsburg's death DHS opens probe into allegations at Georgia ICE facility MORE of New Jersey, who earlier in the week used his vantage on the Foreign Relations Committee to berate Secretary of State nominee Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPutin nominated for Nobel Peace Prize The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Pompeo accused of stumping for Trump ahead of election MORE about his views on the morality of gay sex, lamented that, “I’m deeply concerned that President Trump continues to conduct military operations without any comprehensive strategy or the necessary congressional authorization.” Of course neither Booker nor the other naysayers offer an alternative strategy for Syria — mostly because no good one is in the offing.

While Assad is odious, he has survived seven years of civil war and his forces have retaken control of much of the country including the most important cities. While it is unlikely he will regain control of all of Syria, he already has the upper hand generally. It would take a massive Western effort to displace him at this point, and there is no guarantee whatever person or polity that succeeded him would be any better. Replicating the chaos of Iraq and Libya is a real possibility, and sustaining the fight can only increase a body count that already stands at 400,000.

Certainly Syria’s partnership with Russia is unwelcome. However, it is overblown. Russia’s naval facilities in Tartus consist of a couple of mediocre piers and Russia’s ground forces in Syria are more of a liability for Moscow than an asset that can be used to project power regionally. Assad’s dealings with Iran are also unwelcome, but there is no chance the Alawite minority that has dominated Syrian politics won’t have a strong relationship with the fellow Shiites who run Iran.  

Amid this lamentable situation, Trump has the one clear strategy that makes sense. America’s military objective in Syria is to kill ISIS. With that goal basically achieved, it is time to recognize mission completion and resist our military-intelligence bureaucracies’ usual inclination to move the goal posts and fight on.

Trump’s strategy recognizes another reality. We need to wean our military from decades of playing cowboys and Indians in the Middle East and focus on the free world’s biggest threat: China. Since the 1991 Gulf War, our military has spent trillions trying to shape the Middle East. Some efforts have been necessary and wise, others have not. A focus on hunting violent jihadists in the years after the 9/11 attacks on America made sense, but that threat is now diminished. Al Qaeda and ISIS are shadows of their former selves in the Middle East and governments there have greatly expanded capacities to deal with insurgents who remain. The main threat to the West from Islamism is now posed by political and cultural influences, especially Islamist migrants.

A proper accounting of the cost of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria is probably close to $100 billion annually and that does not take into account the long-term cost of healthcare for injured troops.

The skills our forces heave honed for these “contingency operations” certainly have some value, and we love our Navy SEALs and other “snake-eaters” of the special forces. But they are not the strategic capabilities we need in order to prepare for — and therefore help prevent — a war with China. We desperately need to repurpose operational funds being sucked into the black hole of the Middle East to buy new ships, planes, satellites, and strategic-defense systems to deter China. We also need to focus our limited strategic attention span away from counterinsurgency and nation-building and toward thwarting China’s efforts to dominate data, technology, and more conventional military spheres.

Trump has long grasped this instinctively, promising in the 2016 campaign and since taking office: “I will make our Military so big, powerful & strong that no one will mess with us.

To get to this point we need to get out of Syria. And Iraq. And Afghanistan. Of course we can still partner with friendly political forces in each country, and provide resources in conjunction with our allies, assuming they pay their fair share.

Most fundamentally, we need to take yes for an answer to the question of whether we accomplished what we set out to do in Syria, which has the added virtue of being true. Trump has also restored the credibility of the presidency by establishing a cost for dictators who cross red lines related to chemical weapons. As such, his administration’s accomplishments in Syria are twofold. Mission accomplished.

Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the Donald Trump and George W. Bush administrations. He is a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest and the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.”