Elephants in the Room
The Realists Are Wrong About Syria
Neither Trump nor the international relations experts who cheered his choice to withdraw U.S. troops have wrestled adequately with the costs of departure.
The news of the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a raid by U.S. special operations forces on Oct. 27 capped a dizzying three weeks in the Trump administration’s Syria policy. The turmoil began on Oct. 6, with President Donald Trump’s peremptory decision to pull back about 100 U.S. soldiers from their positions embedded with Kurdish forces in northern Syria. A few days later, he ordered the withdrawal from the north of the country of the entire U.S. presence of 1,000 troops, and then in late October he partially reversed that decision, redeploying several hundred U.S. troops back into northeast Syria to “take the oil.”
No doubt more news is yet to emerge, and perhaps more policy shifts, too. In the midst of all the breaking developments and about-faces, an important debate has emerged about U.S. policy and force deployments. Trump’s original decision to withdraw was met with scathing criticism across the political spectrum: from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Rep. Liz Cheney, from Sen. Chuck Schumer to Sen. Ted Cruz, from the Center for American Progress to the American Enterprise Institute, and on editorial pages from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal. Many of Trump’s senior officials seemed to disagree with the decision as well, according to their anonymous conversations with reporters, and the Defense Department had long tried to prevent it.
Qualified words of praise for Trump’s Syria policy came from one notable corner of the U.S. foreign-policy discourse, however: academics who embrace an approach to U.S. foreign policy variously called restraint, offshore balancing, neorealism, or defensive realism.
These specialists enjoy an enviable position in the academy, controlling the editorial boards of several of the most important academic journals in the field, holding endowed chairs at universities such as Harvard, Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Notre Dame, Brandeis, and Tufts, and drawing on tens of millions of dollars invested by the Koch Foundation in various graduate and faculty initiatives. They also feature prominently at Washington think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the new Quincy Institute. Despite their influential perches in the academic marketplace of ideas, they often bemoan a supposed lack of influence over actual policy, writing numerous books and articles claiming that a “blob” of establishment experts have ignored them when making foreign-policy decisions.
But in Trump’s Syria withdrawal, we see a major foreign-policy choice that clearly overlaps with their worldview—and some have acknowledged as much. William Ruger, a research fellow at the Cato Institute and a vice president at the Charles Koch Foundation, offered enthusiastic praise for the move. Trump “is right to pull back our troops from the Syrian-Turkish border,” he wrote. Michael Desch, the director of the Notre Dame International Security Center, said he appreciated Trump’s recognition that geopolitics is “cold-blooded business” and dismissed critics of the withdrawal as “naive.” Christopher Preble and Doug Bandow, both of the Cato Institute, describe Trump’s decision as “fundamentally correct.” Joshua Rovner, an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University, presented a more nuanced view, but nevertheless one that that on balance finds the case for leaving stronger than the case for remaining. Even Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and columnist for Foreign Policy who is one of the most prominent voices in this group and who has publicly called for Trump’s impeachment, has managed to embrace the essence of Trump’s Syria withdrawal (in its original form and in the latest variant), although he has criticized the way the policy was executed.
The embrace of Trump’s Syria policy is not unequivocal among realists. Most would follow Walt’s lead in bemoaning the haphazard manner in which Trump announced and implemented the decision. Yet, for the purpose of understanding the underlying debate between restraint and the more traditional forms of U.S. global leadership, the crucial fact is that they cheer the choice to withdraw.
Given the mutual disdain between academia and Trump, it might seem surprising that prominent academics back some of the most controversial aspects of his foreign policies. However, as one of us outlined in a piece co-authored with Hal Brands in 2017, there have long been important overlaps between Trump’s version of foreign-policy realism and the one offered by many in the academy—including a view that U.S. alliances are often more trouble than they are worth, an aversion to using military force, a high confidence that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is motivated by defensive rather than offensive objectives, a disdain for promotion of democracy and human rights, and a general preference for the United States to retrench its military deployments from abroad to behind its own borders. To be sure, there are also important differences. Most realists are more supportive of free trade and liberalized immigration than Trump is, and many of them do not share Trump’s affinity for Israel’s government and policies. Nearly all realists would denounce Trump’s offensive flights of rhetoric, whether concerning foreign, domestic, or purely partisan political matters. No one should blame the worst of Trump’s excesses on outsiders who are careful to pick and choose the actions they support.
Nevertheless, Trump’s reflex to retreat—to turn away from rather than confront military challenges—is something the realists support. It gets to the heart of the debate between advocates of traditional Cold War and post-Cold War internationalism and advocates of retrenchment.
In the case of the Middle East, Trump and the realists both tend to present the debate as a false choice between endless wars and total withdrawal. And both offer the false comfort that immediate withdrawal will not impose high costs to U.S. interests.
In the case of Syria in particular, Trump and the realists present the calculus as a decision between the costs of U.S. leadership versus the benefits of withdrawal. Both sides of the formula are inflated, but the rest of the equation—the benefits of leadership and the costs of withdrawal—are waved away.
Restraint advocates tend to blame the inherent folly of military interventions whenever they encounter implementation problems or adverse developments. But when retreat leads to disaster, as in Syria, they find something else to blame—some hiccup, some spot of bad luck, the perfidy of the enemy—anything but the withdrawal itself or the failure of withdrawal advocates to confront the “and then what” question.
When all other rhetorical gambits fail, restraint advocates (and Trump) resort to their ultimate card: Blame some earlier intervention for creating the problem in the first place, as if this absolves them from dealing with the actual consequences of the policies they advocate. They seem to argue that if we can trace the current situation to an earlier policy decision we opposed, we get a free pass and can blame all of the bad consequences of the next policy we recommend on the previous policy we opposed.
This is a fundamentally flawed approach to policy evaluation. If the direct results of withdrawal are disastrous costs, those costs are properly attributed to the withdrawal proposal—especially if, as we argue here, there is a lower-cost alternative of sticking with the sustainable policy.
Sometimes restraint is the right decision. Sometimes it is not. For instance, advocates of restraint were right that intervening in Iraq was a mistake in 2003. They were wrong that the correct decision in 2006 and 2007 was therefore to withdraw rather than implement the surge.
Advocates of restraint would never allow advocates of the 2003 Iraq War to wash their hands of the costs of the conflict on the grounds that it could be traced to President George H.W. Bush’s decision to show restraint at the end of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Why should advocates of restraint today deserve a pass from history that they would not give their policy opponents?
The current debate over the Syria policy presents this problem in its purest form. The cost of the strategy Trump jettisoned was not nothing, but it was, in policy terms, quite small. The 1,000 or so U.S. special operations forces deployed as enablers and trainers throughout Syria represented a very modest investment in the much larger Syrian Democratic Forces, giving the United States political leverage in a crucial region. In exchange, the United States realized benefits such as inflicting severe losses on the Islamic State, protecting Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities, creating a partial safe haven for Syrian refugees, and preventing Russia and Iran from having a free hand to operate. It was by no means a perfect policy, and Trump supporters were correct in saying that it was itself a lesser-of-two-evils choice driven in part by mistakes the Obama administration made five years ago.
But most realists simply avoid wrestling with these facts and prefer instead to speak in vague terms about the undesirability of a commitment without an obvious endgame or exit strategy already in place. They likewise warn about mission creep—the idea that a minimal investment can, over time, grow out of all proportion to the interests at stake. These dangers are real, but they are not the trump cards realists believe them to be—especially not in the case of Syria.
For instance, the minimal force presence there, in a largely supporting role, presented few of the costs or pathologies that often come with the combat deployments of large conventional forces, such as in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The U.S. deployment in northern Syria did not inspire widespread local resentments and resistance to a perceived occupying force. Rather, the locals overwhelmingly welcomed the U.S. presence. Nor did it create passivity and dependency on the part of local military forces. Rather, the Syrian Democratic Forces fought with courage and effectiveness, losing some 11,000 fighters in combat (compared to eight U.S. combat deaths, six military and two civilians). The United States did not divert scarce troop resources from other vital missions, sow major political divisions on the home front, or impose unsustainable strain on the U.S. military or budget.
It is reasonable to ask how long the inherently unstable arrangement between U.S. and Kurdish forces in the region could have continued. Our view, and the seeming view of most of Trump’s own team of expert advisors, was that it was sustainable and viable for the foreseeable future. It was untidy, to be sure, but the president was not forced to make a decision by circumstances on the ground. Rather, this was unambiguously a retreat of choice, not of necessity.
The benefits of the Syria mission were considerable and the costs not too onerous. But the costs of Trump’s abrupt withdrawal form a painful tally. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Islamic State adherents have escaped detainment. This could potentially lead to a resurgence of terrorist attacks in Europe and even the United States. The potential slaughter of Kurdish soldiers and civilians, untold numbers of whom have already been killed, is an ongoing risk. A new round of displacement has begun in a country that has already endured the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Some 176,000 people, 70,000 of them children, have been forced from their homes since Trump’s withdrawal, according to the United Nations.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hand has been strengthened, despite his growing pattern of actions against U.S. interests. Iran has been bolstered by the regional retreat of its principal great power foe, the United States, the consolidated power of its main ally in the Assad regime, and the completion of its land bridge to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea (which also puts Israel at further risk). Russia has gained strength, replacing the United States as the great power holder-of-the-balance in the Middle East. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has grown ever stronger, putting millions of Syrian civilians at further risk. The withdrawal could lead to the destabilization of Iraq as it sees its primary great-power patron, the United States, casually abandon another longtime ally without regard to the consequences.
An incomplete mission and the abandonment of a devoted ally will demoralize the U.S. military. Troops will be at greater risk the next time they seek to team up with local partners, after the casual way Trump abandoned the Kurds. In future conflicts, the United States will still be able to find partners when interests align, but the price of those partnerships has gone up considerably—and U.S. soldiers will be the ones to pay it. The United States will also lose access to crucial intelligence on the Islamic State and other threats. As Brett McGurk, a former special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, said, the operation against Baghdadi only succeeded because of indispensable intelligence provided by Kurdish partners and other local actors, enabled by the U.S. troop presence.
In leaving Syria, Trump revealed yet again that he can be easily manipulated by foreign autocrats. No doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have taken note of how deftly Erdogan played Trump. And the betrayal of the Kurds has damaged U.S. credibility. Realists generally dismiss the importance of this notion, but in the real world of policymaking, allies and adversaries believe in it, and they routinely weigh their own choices in part according to whether they regard the promises of the United States as credible or not.
If those are the costs of Trump’s withdrawal, a fair assessment should also consider the benefits of his decision. Trump and the realists may see a benefit in having induced Russia to take an even more active role in the region: Putin swiftly deployed Russian forces into the Kurdish zone just as U.S. forces withdrew. Given Putin’s aggression, Russia’s war crimes in Syria and Ukraine, Moscow’s attacks on the U.S. political process, and other nefarious endeavors, we dissent from this view.
Likewise, some might see the withdrawal as paving the way for Assad—with whom the Kurds were forced to strike a deal after the United States backed away—to eventually restore his regime’s full control over Syria, thus providing a somewhat more conclusive ending to the civil war. Again, given Assad’s barbaric behavior—including war crimes, the use of chemical weapons, and sponsorship of terrorism—it is not clear to us that this belongs on the positive side of the ledger.
These issues aside, we struggle to find any benefits in Trump’s decision. It did not meaningfully advance any U.S. interests or reduce any risks. Trump himself seemed to realize that he blundered, judging by his belated pleas to Erdogan not to move into northeastern Syria and his rushed dispatching of Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara, where they asked Erdogan to stop doing what Trump’s peremptory retreat gave him a green light to do. The deal Pence and Pompeo worked out, sealed by a subsequent agreement Erdogan struck with Putin, gave Turkey and Russia everything they wanted. The only thing Trump won was the cold comfort that the absolute worst-case scenarios of mass atrocities, large-scale ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide have not occurred—yet.
Trump’s futile appeals ironically illustrate an important point that has been neglected in much of the current debate: the diplomatic benefits of military leverage. A small, calibrated deployment can bring outsized political gains. This is often the case even when the military does not take a leading combat role but rather trains and equips missions, presents as peacekeepers, or serves only to deter aggression.
The presence of U.S. forces in strategic locations can reassure allies and partners, deepen diplomatic ties through training and assistance, preserve fragile peace agreements, support democratic transitions, deter adversaries from aggression, and enable allied forces to fight and win. In various ways, such are the roles that the U.S. military plays or has played in nations as diverse as Kosovo, Djibouti, South Korea, the Philippines, Colombia—and Syria, until last week. Of course, restraint advocates in the academy could quickly counter that these entanglements belong on the “cost” side of the equation, but once the benefits are also factored in, we are confident the net assessment is a positive one for U.S. interests.
In short, when aligned with diplomatic efforts and political goals, the U.S. military can be at its most effective without firing a shot.
There is another irony in the restraint position, which often gets disguised under the moniker of realism: its implicit utopianism. When restraint advocates critique U.S. internationalism for not achieving ambitious goals of peace, stability, and freedom, they counsel instead a military retrenchment beyond the country’s borders. But in truth, internationalism often offers more restrained goals. Sometimes the U.S. presence in the Middle East is only meant to manage problems, not solve them. Sometimes it is not to produce grand outcomes but merely to prevent worse outcomes. In contrast, realists seem to be the true optimists when they argue that the United States can retreat at minimal risk, with few threats from abroad and little harm to its interests.
It is more pragmatic to deal with the world as it really is, not as we wish it would be. This means that policymakers have to confront the geopolitical problems they inherited. Yes, sometimes those problems are created by earlier military interventions, as was the case when President Barack Obama inherited the Iraq War from President George W. Bush. And sometimes those problems are created by earlier retreats, as when Trump inherited a fight against the Islamic State that arose, in part, from Obama’s effort to withdraw from Iraq.
Advocates of restraint do not want the terrible things that sometimes happen when their preferred policy prevails, any more than we think advocates of military intervention want the unintended consequences that attend the use of force. Nor are we saying that restraint and retreat are always wrong whereas intervention and standing strong are always right. For instance, we do not think Trump’s recent decision to send additional troops to Saudi Arabia was wise, given the circumstances, and we suspect many of our realist friends would agree. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has proved a problematic partner, and foreign troops, especially U.S. troops, are a significant irritant given Saudi Arabia’s unique role as custodian of several of the holiest sites of Islam. Even administrations like that of George W. Bush, which embraced an active role for the United States in the region, saw the need to limit the U.S. military footprint within Saudi Arabia proper.
Rather, it is important for restraint advocates to answer the very same questions they claim advocates of military intervention sometimes fail to address: What will you do after the enemy responds to your move—or after your allies respond to your move, for that matter? Once the enemy has taken advantage of your retreat, and once the allies have hedged against the lost trust in U.S. security commitments, how will you mitigate the second- and third-order consequences for U.S. national interests? Neither Trump nor those in the academy who have applauded his Syria withdrawal have wrestled with these questions adequately.
What we are calling for is the essence of strategy: balancing short- and long-term considerations and adjusting statecraft and strategy as necessary. It is very hard to do, but when done right, it can produce dramatic results even in very dire circumstances. Trump has done the opposite, and he, or his successor, will eventually have to pay the costs and confront the questions he is avoiding now.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.