In normal times, the killing of four Americans and wounding of three others on foreign soil would prompt a quick response by the president of the United States. A normal president would publicly express his sincere condolences to the families of the killed and wounded and vow that the attack would not go unanswered. But we do not live in normal times, nor do we have a normal president in the White House. When an Islamic State suicide bomber detonated a device in Manbij, Syria, this week — killing and wounding Americans — President Donald Trump chose to rant about other subjects, most importantly the wall he wants to build on our southern border. The vice president did speak about Syria and the Islamic State (aka ISIS), just hours after the attack, in a speech to senior U.S. diplomats at the State Department. But the purpose of his remarks was to parrot the president's oft-repeated claim: "The caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated." He said not a word about the dead Americans.
Some Republicans, notably Sens. Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, have warned that the president's decision to abandon Syria, announced via tweet just a month ago, has emboldened the Islamic State. Estimates are that some 20,000 to 30,000 fighters still remain in the region. The irony, of course, is that the rise of the Islamic State occurred precisely because a former president made a similar mistake, precipitously pulling U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. Republicans — and even some Democrats — warned President Barack Obama that he was jeopardizing the gains in Iraq won with American blood and treasure by not leaving sufficient U.S. troops in Iraq to maintain the peace. President Obama eventually had to respond to the crisis that ensued in Iraq as the Islamic State took over major parts of the country, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit and even the outskirts of Baghdad, as well as territory in Syria. Obama ordered a bombing campaign to assist the struggling government of Iraq and began sending U.S. military advisers back into the country. We now have about 5,000 U.S. military personnel there, and Trump says they will stay — for now.
The suicide bombing in Manbij is especially striking because it was in an area where U.S. forces and its Kurdish partners drove out the Islamic State in 2016. The town is also close to the Turkish border and thus strategically important. Syrian President Bashar Assad has made clear that he wants to reclaim control over those areas of Syria that the U.S. and Kurdish forces have won back from the Islamic State. What's more, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to keep Kurds from establishing their own autonomous areas in the region and has amassed troops on the border between the two countries, posing a threat to the Kurds who fought alongside the U.S. And Russia and Iran also have an interest in staking claims in Syria — the Russians seeking to become the most important international player in the region and the Iranians wanting to establish Shiite dominance.
The Middle East continues to be a major powder keg — no longer simply because of the intractable conflict between Palestinians and Israel — and the president's desire to pull back on U.S. commitments is likely to ignite, not calm, the region. The ideology that drives Islamists — from Iran's mullahs to the Islamic State's fighters — is a threat to America. But the president would rather devote his energy and waste what little capital he has left to fighting imaginary foes along the Rio Grande. He'll send troops to Texas to keep mothers and children from seeking asylum in the U.S., but he will ignore those who give their lives protecting us from real monsters who would like to repeat 9/11 on an even larger scale.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.