Andrew Preston is a professor of American history at the University of Cambridge whose books include Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.
It doesn’t happen often, but Donald Trump sometimes does the right thing.
On Dec. 19, Mr. Trump abruptly announced he would be withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, where they have been fighting a slow-burning but intense war against the Islamic State. Withdrawal fulfills a longstanding campaign promise (though the timing has little to do with the current situation in Syria. By acceding to the wishes of his base, Mr. Trump is hoping he can remove some of the pressure his supporters are piling on him to fulfill another, more difficult promise, a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, where he has clumsily boxed himself in).
The Syria withdrawal announcement was made possible, Mr. Trump said, by America’s success in the fight against Islamic State (or ISIS). “We have won against ISIS,” Mr. Trump said. “Our boys, our young women, our men – they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.” In this, he was unwittingly channelling the advice of Vermont senator George Aiken, who in 1966 suggested the United States should “declare victory and get out” of Vietnam.
While some of Mr. Trump’s supporters have applauded his move, Syrian withdrawal has provoked widespread and unusually bipartisan condemnation. Critics say that the sudden vacuum in eastern Syria will leave the country in the hands of Russia and Iran and remove any leverage the United States has gained. Withdrawal also pulls the rug out from under its Kurdish allies in the war against IS, who will now face an assault from both Syrian and Turkish forces.
Pulling out of Syria, however, was inevitable. It is the right thing to do, politically and strategically. Russian and Iranian influence over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is far too great to be effectively countered by a small U.S. presence in eastern Syria. U.S. withdrawal won’t turn Syria over to Russia because the Russians already own it. The United States has virtually no leverage in Syria anyway, and so cannot lose any by pulling out.
To be sure, the abandonment of the Kurds is tragic – this is one objection in which Mr. Trump’s critics are probably right. Yet this day was bound to come. A permanent U.S. presence in Syria became impossible with Russian intervention in 2015, unless Americans want to engage Russian forces in Syria. The last time something like that happened, when the United States fought Chinese troops in Korea between 1950 and 1953, the result was one of the 20th century’s bloodiest wars. Nobody wants that in Syria.
Yet, even more fundamentally, Mr. Trump’s critics charge that the United States is abdicating its authority in the Middle East. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke for many in the foreign-policy establishment when he tweeted: “welcome to the post-American Middle East.”
Such criticism, based on a belief in the efficacy of American power, betrays a profoundly ahistorical view of the United States in the Middle East. While the U.S. legacy has been positive in Europe, and generally good in Asia, its presence in the Middle East has been almost wholly negative.
The United States has been deeply involved in the region since the Second World War, but until the 1980s, it was an outsider. The twin shocks of 1979 – the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – provoked much greater American engagement. Since 1990, when it deployed troops to Saudi Arabia to resist Iraq, the United States has been almost constantly at war.
What’s the result of this American hegemony? Certainly not peace, nor even stability – the region is more violent and chaotic than ever. Instead, the record is instead one of chronic failure, most notably the 2003 war in Iraq – which produced Islamic State in the first place – and the 2011 war in Libya. Even U.S. victories have had unintended consequences. The U.S.-sponsored defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan laid the groundwork for al-Qaeda. The 1991 Gulf War helped create a decade of tensions that culminated in 9/11 and the 2003 Iraq war. The 2001 defeat of the Taliban plunged Afghanistan even deeper into turmoil. For the most part, the U.S.-supported Arab Spring revolutions ended in renewed tyranny instead of democracy.
Washington has wielded its power in the Middle East recklessly, with terrible consequences for people everywhere (including Americans themselves). Believing that the United States is good at this kind of thing is to ignore history.
Yet even when Donald Trump does the right thing, he still manages to get it wrong. Instead of a carefully co-ordinated withdrawal, he took his own military by surprise and made them look like fools. For the same reason, he has once again undermined allied confidence in American reliability, even among allies who probably support withdrawal. His decision-making process is alarmingly impulsive, especially on something that requires forward planning and strategic recalculation. The risk is that an unmanaged and botched withdrawal could end up pulling the United States right back in – and redeeming those who launched the failed crusades of the past that got Americans into this mess.