Trump’s Syria exit decision receives unlikely political support

To unmake Trumpism in foreign policy may be a much tougher endeavour than the establishment imagines.
Sunday 10/03/2019
US President Donald Trump waves to the crowd at the 119th Us Army-Navy football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, last December. (Reuters)
Beyond the political base. US President Donald Trump waves to the crowd at the 119th Us Army-Navy football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, last December. (Reuters)

US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria has received support from an unlikely quarter: Democrats on the left of the political spectrum.

These Democrats have long been critical of US military action overseas and have embraced the withdrawal decision. Prominent among them is US Representative Barbara Lee of California, who told Fox News: “I’ve always believed we should bring our troops home and especially in areas where [Congress] has not authorised a war.”

Representative Ro Khanna, another California Democrat, said: “The withdrawal of troops from Syria is a good first step towards ending our policy of interventionism.” Democrat Mark Pocan of Wisconsin added: “We want to return troops home from lots of different places.”

These Democrats are aware that their support might give Trump a political boost and Lee said Trump should not be “celebrating walking away from an international crisis” and should beef up diplomatic support for an end to the Syrian crisis instead. Nevertheless, their support for Trump’s decision raised eyebrows among fellow Democrats who do not want to give Trump credit for anything.

The move has been criticised for the impetuous way it was announced and the fallout it caused, especially the resignations of US Defence Secretary James Mattis and envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition Brett McGurk.

A bipartisan group of members of the US Senate Armed Services Committee implored Trump to reverse the decision, stating: “Such action at this time is a premature and costly mistake.”

Among Republicans, Trump has received enthusiastic support for the troop pullout from US Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, an isolationist who long has been critical of American interventions abroad. Paul heralded Trump’s decision and said it should “not be the job of America to replace regimes around the world.”

Other Republicans have waffled or taken a middle ground. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has been all over the political map, sharply criticising Trump for the withdrawal decision one day, supporting him the next, claiming he played a role in slowing down the withdrawal and most recently saying it can succeed if it is done in a smart way. Trump’s subsequent decision to keep 200-400 troops in Syria was praised by Graham as “following sound military advice.”

The new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch of Idaho, said that, while he is a strong supporter of US alliances, he was wary of US military engagements overseas.

Even in Washington’s think-tank world, usually reflective of the political establishment, there has been support for the withdrawal decision. Tamara Wittes and Mara Karlin recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that pulling back would “be painful and ugly for the Middle East but, compared with staying the course, it will be less so for the United States.”

Some think-tank scholars argued that if the Islamic State (ISIS) re-emerges as a strong threat, the United States could return to the region militarily.

What does this mean politically?

Trump, during the 2016 presidential campaign, understood instinctively that the American public had grown weary of US military intervention in the Middle East and used that sentiment to weaken Republican rivals such as Jeb Bush, who remained interventionists.

Although Trump criticised US President Barack Obama for withdrawing US troops from Iraq, even claiming incredulously that Obama helped create ISIS, he maintained that US forces had to remain in the region temporarily to defeat the terror group because it was a threat to the US homeland.

Now that Trump has determined, contrary to military opinion, that ISIS has been defeated, he sees no reason to stay in Syria. For his political base, this all makes sense and that is paramount to Trump.

The fate of Syrian Kurds is not a concern for Trump and his political base nor is the danger that Syria could be made even more unstable by a US withdrawal — recent clashes between Israel and Iran in Syria may be indicative of more violence to come. When one adds political support for withdrawal from left-wing Democrats, whose influence in the party is growing, Trump’s withdrawal decision does not seem as crazy — from a domestic political standpoint — as the establishment makes it out to be.

Republican anti-Trumpers hope Trump will be a one-term president so they can reclaim the party and restore a more hawkish and interventionist policy but Trump’s decision on Syria is popular with a significant segment of the American electorate beyond his political base.

The left certainly does not want Trump to succeed but they have given anti-interventionism a boost. To unmake Trumpism in foreign policy may be a much tougher endeavour than the establishment imagines.