Donald Trump has vanquished the Islamic State group, and it is time for American troops to come home from Syria — or so the president claimed by tweet this week. The problem is, as with much of what the president tweets, there is no basis for his braggadocio. Currently, the U.S. has about 2,000 ground troops in Syria. Their mission is to support Kurdish fighters and whatever democratic Syrian opposition forces that remain in the fight against the Islamic State — frequently called ISIS — and to serve as a brake against Bashar Assad's murderous military assault on his own people. Neither mission is complete. ISIS, though pushed back by some 200 artillery strikes and airstrikes in a one-week period in December, remains a threat not just in Syria but in neighboring Iraq. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters are in the Iraq and Syria area and pose a threat not just to those in the region but to the West in general.
ISIS will see American withdrawal as victory. So will Iran and Russia, whose own presence in Syria will most likely increase. Our allies will see it as betrayal. The U.S. military knows this, which is why Trump's advisers have been unanimous in their opposition to early withdrawal.
Trump may reverse himself; he's been known to do so. But the damage has already been done. Who can ever trust the word of the American president again? Kurdish fighters will be slaughtered. Syrian refugees will continue to pour out of the region, and Iraq will look increasingly to Iran to protect it from ISIS, because U.S. troops could be pulled from Iraq next.
There may be no way to stop the worst from happening, but those in the administration who know better should insist the president listen. Defense Secretary James Mattis was right to announce his resignation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should signal his disapproval, as well, and so should national security adviser John Bolton. Faced with mutiny from his own team, Trump might, just might, rethink his arbitrary and dangerous path.
Faced with deepening danger from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, President Trump appears more unhinged than usual. His efforts to bully the Federal Reserve into not raising interest rates this week backfired. The stock market, whose rise after his election Trump attributed to his magical powers, is threatening to have the worst year since 2008. The economy, while healthy, faces pressure from a tightening labor market and the effects of trade wars Trump has launched. Democrats are about to take over the House of Representatives, which will stall whatever policy initiatives the president hoped to get through. And the president's answer is to force a government shutdown if he doesn't get his way on building an unnecessary and costly wall at our southern border — one not even Republicans want to fund.
Our democracy can survive bad policy decisions on the domestic front; we lived through eight years of President Barack Obama's sometimes poor choices on regulation and health care. But failures in foreign policy and defense are another matter. President Obama played a weak hand in Syria, to the detriment of the Syrian people and to U.S. prestige in the region, allowing Russia to develop the foothold in the Middle East it had long sought. But President Trump's call to withdraw our troops from Syria compounds the Obama errors. Practically the only praise Trump has received on his decision has come from Vladimir Putin, who said Thursday, "On this, Donald is right. I agree with him."
The other person who will be pleased with Trump's stance is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who may well use this decision to follow through on threats to attack Kurdish forces in northern Syria. It is curious that Trump announced his decision after talking with Erdogan, a talk that also produced an arms deal worth about $3.5 billion.
That is what matters most to Donald Trump — touting deals that may never materialize, winning praise from strongmen, whom he wishes he could emulate, delivering on campaign promises, no matter how foolhardy. What he does not care about is America's word or our allies. Unfortunately, the country will end up paying the price.
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.