Hawks Cheer and Doves Cry as Trump Fails to Follow Through on Syrian Withdrawal

For now the U.S. stays stuck in Syria.


Oliver Contreras/Sipa USA/Newscom

President Donald Trump has again failed to follow through on his sporadically promising rhetoric about rolling back U.S. intervention abroad.

Last Thursday, Trump told a crowd in Ohio that the United States would be "coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now." This was followed on Friday by a freeze on $200 million in Syrian reconstruction spending, and on Tuesday by Trump declaring that our primary mission in Syria "was getting rid of ISIS…we've completed that task and we'll be making a decision very quickly."

Yet Trump was reportedly dissuaded from an immediate Syrian withdrawal at a Tuesday meeting of his National Security Council. An unnamed senior White House official tells Reuters that the president left the impression that he now "would like to withdraw in a year or less."

We'll see if he follows through on that. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has argued for a continued U.S. presence in Syria even after ISIS is gone. Mike Pompeo, Trump's reliably hawkish incoming secretary of state, and John Bolton, his even more hawkish incoming national security advisor, have expressed similar sentiments.

Anti-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) lambasted Pompeo and Bolton on Twitter today, urging Trump to "to go with HIS instincts, not their bad advice, or he will be in these places forever."

While a candidate, Trump was skeptical about several U.S. interventions, arguing against regime change in Syria, attacking the Obama administration's intervention in Libya, demanding an end to the war in Afghanistan, and calling the Iraq War "a big fat mistake."

Since he became president, few of these views have been converted into concrete policy. Instead, Trump promptly ordered a missile strike against a Syrian military base; in August he followed up by sending an additional 4,000 troops to Afghanistan. The U.S. has conducted eight drone strikes in Libya under Trump, and the U.S. and its allies have conducted about 10,000 air strikes in Iraq and Syria since Trump was inaugurated. Some 2,000 American troops are currently fighting in Syria.

Trump is hardly the first president to fail to live up to his promises of a less interventionist foreign policy. Barack Obama won election in no small part because he spoke skeptically about U.S. intervention in the Middle East. In office he proceeded to escalate an existing war in Afghanistan and start a new one in Libya.

In his 2000 campaign for president, George W. Bush said America should be a "humble" nation whose role was not to "go around the world saying this is the way it's got to be." That didn't quite work out as planned.

Trump's pledge to forgo "nation-building" has always been paired with a willingness to use military force against a constantly hyped terrorist threat. The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald summed up this dichotomy nicely last year, describing Trump's foreign policy worldview as a desire to "fight fewer wars and for narrower reasons, but be more barbaric and criminal in prosecuting the ones that are fought."

It thus becomes increasingly easy for the GOP's hawks to convince the ever-mercurial Trump that his desire to pull U.S. troops out of the Middle East will have to wait as long as more terrorists wait in the wings.