Trump’s Wars After Mattis

Despite President Trump’s generally bad policy and potentially authoritarian behaviors outside democratic norms, it took his order withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria and his plan to halve the number of American troops in Afghanistan to really rile the Washington establishment, especially Republicans. This program prompted Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Ret.) and incoming Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) to swing into action to denounce Trump. Trump’s foreign policy seems to have played a prominent role in triggering Romney to write in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, which began: “The Trump presidency made a deep descent in December. The departures of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, the appointment of senior persons of lesser experience, the abandonment of allies who fought beside us, and the president’s thoughtless claim that America has long been a ‘sucker’ in world affairs all defined his presidency down.”

Yet as the old saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Trump’s decisions to cut U.S. losses in Syria and Afghanistan, despite Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s objection and resignation, are the right ones—that is, if the U.S. national security establishment actually lets him carry them out.

The U.S. military’s idea that American troops need to be deployed in such unstable countries to prevent terrorists from attacking America at home—”the best defense is a good offense”—was adopted as policy by post-9/11 presidents, starting with George W. Bush. Trump laudably never bought into that paradigm—because it is flawed. In fact, the horrendous episode that originally caused the policy actually refuted it. After the 9/11 attacks, an overwhelming majority of Americans were so consumed with blind rage for revenge against the perpetrators of the despicable attacks or had such a vested interest in the already rather imperial U.S. policy of policing the globe—the U.S. interventionist foreign policy establishment—that dispassionate analysis of U.S. foreign policy has been made impossible in all the succeeding years until Trump intuitively and correctly began questioning the underlying assumptions of the policy.

After 9/11, George W. Bush told Americans that they were attacked because of their freedom. Whereupon the vile perpetrator of the despicable attacks, Osama bin Laden, got spun up and asked if that was the case, why hadn’t he attacked Sweden. He then reiterated his long-standing beef with U.S. military intervention in and military presence on the soil of Muslim countries, especially his own country of Saudi Arabia that was home to the Islamic religion’s holiest sites. Not wanting to seem unpatriotic in the wake of a detestable villain’s heinous attack on America, few people came forth to notice that it might be wise to pay attention to the person most expert in the motive for the attack—not a U.S. politician with his own possible agenda but the evildoer himself. Bin Laden said clearly to anyone who chose to listen that the 9/11 attacks were essentially imperial blowback from the decades of U.S. meddling in the Greater Middle East.

Had America paid attention to bin Laden, the war on terror might have unfolded more sensibly and successfully than the broad debacle and quagmires that have unfolded in that region. The United States has used its dominant military to take the fight to “the enemy” in at least eight Muslim countries, mostly against terror groups that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Usually, such wars have been waged with unpiloted drones, manned aircraft, and Special Forces on the ground—for example, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Niger, and Syria. The one major exception was Bush using the 9/11 attacks as justification to launch a full-blown invasion of yet another Islamic country—Iraq—which is exactly the type of U.S. meddling that spun up bin Laden to declare war on the United States in the first place. Instead of flailing about publicly attacking Islamist militants all over the world, the United States should have focused like a laser beam on finding and killing bin Laden and decimating his al Qaeda group, which was mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with as little collateral damage as possible to avoid stirring the hornets nest of Islamist militants everywhere else. (Because valuable intelligence and military assets were diverted to these many unrelated wars, especially the big war in Iraq, bin Laden was not killed until ten years after the 9/11 attacks.)

Militant Islam has existed for centuries, and today many groups around the world are focused on local issues, not on attacking the United States or its nationals, businesses, or embassies abroad. So why meddle in Islamic countries and make unneeded enemies? For example, Trump is correct that the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, and maybe even Turkey have incentives to eradicate ISIS (a group that the United States created by invading Iraq) without US participation. With the decimation of ISIS, U.S. forces have been staying in Syria essentially to occupy the third of Syria that is desert—what a prize! In Afghanistan, where Trump will be drawing down troops, U.S. forces have long ago transformed their original mission of smashing al Qaeda—successfully accomplished—to the nation-building task of preventing the locally oriented Islamist Taliban group from retaking large parts of the country—at which the U.S. has been failing. Trump needs to go even further and fully withdraw from this unsuccessful bog—but drawing down some forces is a start.

Mysteriously, however, Trump does not regard U.S. meddling in the aggressive Saudi war in Yemen in the same way he sees U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan and Syria. The United States has provided aircraft, bombs, targeting software, pilot training, mechanics to maintain and repair the planes, and valuable intelligence and tactical advice to the Saudi air force. The Saudis have repeatedly ignored “no-strike” lists and have purposefully struck targets that have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians and brought the country to the brink of famine—all while making little progress in attaining their war goals.

Trump should not only withdraw from Syria but continue his drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to zero and end U.S. support for the war in Yemen and those in Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, and Niger. None of these countries are strategic to the United States, and U.S. wars there have only the potential to turn terror groups focused on local goals into organizations trying to hit U.S. targets abroad or maybe even in the United States itself.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include The Empire Has No Clothes, Recarving Rushmore, and No War for Oil.
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