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Trump should follow his instincts, de-escalate in the Middle East and pivot to great powers

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Prior to the U.S.-led strikes on April 14, President Trump directed the Pentagon to prepare for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. In this instance, President Trump’s instincts are dead on.

While on the campaign trail, Trump exhibited realist, anti-interventionist impulses. He regularly called the Iraq War “dumb” and recently labeled it “the single worst decision ever made.” Hyperbole aside, he wasn’t far off. Now, just this past week, Trump dropped a bomb on the overly interventionist Washington establishment — and his own military planners — by announcing the United States will be “coming out of Syria, like, very soon.”

{mosads}Liberal critics — for whom all things Trump are anathema — and Pentagon fears aside, this is the right call. Yet too many mainstream hawks, inside and outside the administration, seem determined to thwart Trump’s de-escalation instincts in detrimental attempts to “normalize” his foreign policy.


Exactly how well did the “normal” foreign policies of Trump’s most immediate predecessors work out? I count a few defeats and several painful draws. Neither George W. Bush’s regime-change campaigns nor Obama’s low-intensity, air-powered versions of the same strategy achieved anything but a costly Middle East stalemate.

It’s long past time for something new, some forward thinking, even if it comes from an often coarse, sometimes inconsistent, commander in chief.

The president’s instincts have been right before — and he should have followed them.

In August 2017, Trump acquiesced to the status quo playbook, repackaged by outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, which called for one more (the fifth so far) “mini-surge,” or escalation, in Afghanistan. Still, Trump publicly acknowledged his “original instinct was to pull out.” Eight months later, with that war mired in what the impartial special inspector general recently called “a stalemate,” it’s obvious that Trump’s intuition was correct.

Though “his” generals, and other so-called adults in the room, have convinced Trump to double down on failed strategies and pursue a standard interventionist foreign policy, Trump’s off-script remarks on Syria demonstrate he remains sympathetic to de-escalation. It’s not too late for him to change course.

For starters, he could follow through on his promise — and recent instructions to military leaders — to get U.S. troops out of Syria. Post-ISIS Syria is all risk (and cost) and no reward. The longer the United States stays put, the more it will own the outcomes on the ground. That’s nation-building, and it will cost loads of American blood and treasure.

As matters stand, U.S. soldiers are one mishap away — such as killing more Russian mercenaries or downing a Turkish plane — from a regional war with Russia, Iran, Turkey, or Syria. Critics have crowed that leaving Syria is a “win” for Vladimir Putin, but pay them no mind: ISIS’s caliphate is smashed, and Russia will find more quagmire than glory in piecing Syria back together.

Trump could reverse McMaster’s planned escalation in Afghanistan, which comes with a $45 billion annual price tag. That money could otherwise pay for improved readiness, modernization, or pay down our $21 trillion national debt. With corruption in Kabul rampant, record numbers of districts contested by the Taliban, and the enemy profiting from a record opium crop, it’s safe to label that war a sinkhole for U.S. lives and resources. Recent high-profile attacks demonstrate that after 17 years, the Afghan military can’t adequately defend its capital. Ending ineffective nation-building and focusing instead on counterterrorism is the sensible path.

Trump could pair good politics with good policy by joining a congressional coalition so broad that it includes Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), to halt U.S. military support for the Saudi bombing of Yemen. That war only tarnishes America’s image on the “Arab street,” amplifies famine and cholera epidemics, and empowers al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Trump should also take a chance on (cautious) bilateral negotiations with North Korea. There are no good policy options on the peninsula, so the United States must focus on deterrence indefinitely. But taking a longer view, the United States could hardly do worse than Trump’s predecessors. Let’s give the president a chance to demonstrate his oft-touted deal-making skills with Kim Jong Un. After all, the Clinton, Bush and Obama “mainstream” strategies led us to today’s predicament.

Finally, Trump could stick to his guns on Iraq and eschew future regime-change efforts. The 2003 invasion was dumb; so was Obama’s 2011 creeping overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

Upon invading a country, the U.S. gains responsibility for the hopes, dreams, welfare and problems of millions of locals. That’s proved a losing game for two decades, so, Mr. President, please ignore the forthcoming advice of the foreign policy “elite” and don’t repeat the Iraq folly with a counterproductive invasion of Iran.

Trump has stated he’s “the only one that matters” on foreign policy. That’s a treacherous formula for executive overreach, but given the national security cabinet Trump has assembled, it could be America’s saving grace. As a major in the U.S. Army, I trust this president more than I trust the failed strategies championed by National Security Adviser John Bolton and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. America would be better served if Trump followed the foreign policy instincts he touted on the campaign trail.

So, Mr. President, go with your gut. Avoid costly wars that neither secure the homeland nor qualify as vital national security interests. In foreign affairs, there’s much wisdom in the slogan “America First.”

Danny Sjursen is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He served combat tours with U.S. Army 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, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Tags American-led intervention in the Syrian Civil War Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Foreign policy of Donald Trump Mike Pompeo Rand Paul War in Afghanistan
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