The Fire in Syria Is Shedding Light on the United States

There’s only one positive aspect to the disaster in Syria: It’s forcing an overdue conversation about U.S. grand strategy.

2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
From left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg are introduced before the Democratic presidential debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, on Oct. 15. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard—who seems to have been kept afloat because of, rather than despite, her implacable hostility to U.S. military engagement abroad—blamed the current carnage in Syria on the “regime change wars” that the United States has been fighting there and elsewhere in the region. When she puckishly invited Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a front-runner for the nomination, to join her call to end such wars, the latter demurred but agreed that the United States should “get out of the Middle East” and remove all troops.

In their own ways, Gabbard and Warren were each effectively endorsing U.S. President Donald Trump’s order last week to withdraw all American troops from Syria. In that sense—and only that sense—Trump deserves a measure of thanks. He has clarified a question that has flickered at the edge of previous Democratic debates and agitated the foreign-policy world: Should the United States end its military role in the Middle East? Put less tendentiously: Are there any goals worth pursuing in the Middle East that cannot be attained without military means?

Gabbard’s implicit analogy between the U.S. presence in Syria and George W. Bush’s war in Iraq was so grotesque and ill-informed that several other candidates rushed to rebut it. However, she would have provoked a milder response had she instead used the vogue term “forever war” or “endless war.” This year, both Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders signed a call to “bring the Forever War”—in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, as well as Niger, Thailand, and elsewhere—“to a responsible and expedient conclusion.”

Figures on the left and right have joined hands under the banner of halting endless war. As I noted in an earlier column, the fact that George Soros and Charles Koch have together funded the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which calls for a demilitarization of U.S. foreign policy, shows the bipartisan appeal of this doctrine of restraint. Advocates include Trump himself, who has explained his decision to leave Syria as an earnest expression of his commitment to shrink America’s global military footprint.

The fact that Trump thinks something is right does not prove that it’s wrong (though it’s usually a pretty good indication). Both Andrew Bacevich, the head of the Quincy Institute, and Stephen Wertheim, a Columbia University professor who serves as the group’s research director, have included Syria among the endless wars that must be brought to a close. Like Warren, they might think that Trump has done the right thing in the wrong way.

Has he? Does the U.S. military presence in Syria constitute a war? Is it endless? More important, has it accomplished anything important? In his heated response—at least by his standards—Pete Buttigieg said Gabbard was “dead wrong.” In fact, he pointed out, “a small number of specialized special operations forces and intelligence capabilities” in Syria had prevented wider war and suppressed an Islamic State resurgence. Whether or not that was obvious before, it certainly is now in the aftermath of Trump’s mad-scientist laboratory experiment. The president had only to announce the redeployment of 50 soldiers, and then the withdrawal of a thousand or so others, to rejuvenate the Islamic State, provoke a new war between Turkey and Syria, embolden Iran, and create a void to be filled by Russia.

Trump, of course, acted too precipitately. He should have withdrawn after a “negotiated solution,” as Warren put it. But Barack Obama had reluctantly dispatched a very modest contingent of U.S. forces to Syria precisely because he could not reach a negotiated solution among Syria, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the Kurds. No one, of course, has managed to negotiate with the Islamic State. Leaving aside any moral obligation to the Kurds—whom Sanders, to his credit, passionately defended—the United States needed a military presence in northeastern Syria to keep a very bad situation from getting even worse. Whatever negotiating leverage it had, for example with Gulf countries inclined to throw in the towel and back Bashar al-Assad, derived from the military presence.

“Restraint” is a good word, a prudential word that reminds us of the virtues of the Cold War doctrine of containment. Bush should have exercised restraint in Iraq with a containment policy rather than a war. Obama should have heeded his inner voice and restrained the generals who argued for a wider counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan. Trump should have restrained Saudi Arabia in Yemen rather than giving the Saudis free rein to massacre civilians there. We now know, after years of failure, that the United States has consistently tried to do that which cannot be done in the Middle East. Don’t do stupid shit, as the older-but-wiser Obama once put it.

But that is a tautology, not a doctrine. What does restraint dictate in a world of determined adversaries? Wertheim has advocated a doctrine of pluralism to replace endemic conflict. Presumably he means that the United States should accept a polycentric world rather than the hegemonic one it enjoyed after 1989. But does that acceptance entail a willingness to grant the spheres of influence that China, Russia, and Iran now seek? Should Washington tell its allies in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East that the era of diplomacy backed by force has come to an end? That certainly is the message that Trump is now sending. And that would be the implicit message if the United States withdrew from its air and naval bases across the Middle East, as Warren appeared to advocate. What would happen then?

Syria is a test case for the new dogma of restraint. Gabbard’s wild allegations notwithstanding, Obama chose restraint when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, arguing that giving military support to civilian rebels would unleash a host of unforeseen effects. Yet the remote consequences of action are always more discernible than the consequences of inaction. Obama did not foresee that a raging civil war would contribute to the rise of the Islamic State and lead to the mass flight of Syrian refugees. Perhaps he made the wrong choice not just morally but strategically. Obama only agreed to use military force when the Islamic State posed a danger to the United States and the West. Doing so, it’s true, entangled the United States in a war and one whose exit point was hardly clear. But U.S. troops weren’t fighting a war; they were helping allies to do so. And it worked, at least until Trump decided that America could achieve its objectives without a military presence.

Restraint isn’t wrong; it’s insufficient. I agree that the United States has become addicted to military force since 9/11, that it needs a smaller defense budget and a larger diplomatic one, that the great problem of our time is not competition with China and Russia but climate change. Yet we cannot redefine our problems to fit our preferred solutions. We must not imagine that we can preserve the tattered liberal world order through wholly voluntary means or that it would survive the growing power and prestige of deeply illiberal nations. This, too, is a great challenge. We know that on this, as on other questions, Republicans, whatever they believe, will ultimately take their marching orders from Trump. It will be up to Democrats to find a way to balance the cooperation the United States must forge with the conflict it can’t avoid.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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