President Trump’s surprise December 19 announcement of an immediate withdrawal of American forces from Syria hit some Israelis like a sucker punch. “With this withdrawal, the United States abandons Syria and leaves Israel alone,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national-security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While conceding that “the effect of the U.S. decision is primarily psychological and diplomatic,” Amidror continued: “In those arenas, this is a very significant decision.” Subsequent reports to the effect that the drawdown of forces will be slower than originally announced and coordinated with America’s allies have softened the blow, but the shock still remains.
In retrospect, the announcement shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, Trump has never hidden his conviction that extended military operations in the Middle East are futile. He campaigned on the theme in 2016 and then returned to it last April. The United States, he declared then, had “spent $7 trillion in the Middle East in the last seven years. We get nothing out of it, nothing.” To this general observation, he added a specific promise: “We’ll be coming out of Syria . . . very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.”
In the intervening months, however, the president’s top advisers seemed to suggest that the withdrawal would never happen. “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” said National Security Adviser John Bolton last September. Given Bolton’s proximity to the president, the promise sounded authoritative.
The shock in Israel, then, was understandable, and it quickly gave way to related fears. Trump’s Syria decision is clearly part of a larger effort that includes patching up American relations with Turkey, a goal that leaves Israelis decidedly cold. For over a decade, Jerusalem’s relations with Turkey have been abysmal, with no prospect of improvement on the horizon. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, who aligns with the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world, would appear to have made hostility to Israel an enduring part of his political persona. To make matters worse, the American withdrawal will likely entail a downgrading of U.S. relations with the Syrian Kurdish forces that have aided the United States in the fight against Islamic State.
For reasons both romantic (Kurds as a stateless people struggling to establish a homeland) and strategic (Kurdish aspirations seen as blocking the regional ambitions of Ankara) Israel is sympathetic to Kurdish nationalism. Thus, shortly after Trump’s announcement, Netanyahu made a point of publicly labeling Erdogan as an “anti-Semitic dictator” who “has an obsession with Israel because he knows what a moral army is and what a real democracy is, in contrast with a military that massacres the Kurds.”
But the greatest source of Israel’s fears is not Turkey; that distinction is held by Iran. The American presence in Syria had formed the primary obstacle in the way of Iran’s completing a land bridge and an unbroken corridor of political influence from inland Tehran to Beirut on the Mediterranean shore. With only 2,000 soldiers, the United States was controlling, indirectly, about a third of the entire country, yet this small force was still large enough to overwhelm any potential combination of adversaries, as it proved last February when it annihilated some 200 Russian mercenaries in a matter of hours, with no losses on the American side.
No question, the American withdrawal will indeed create a vacuum in the region that Iran—and behind Iran, Russia—will inevitably seek to fill, thereby escalating clashes on the ground with Israel. Indeed, within days of Trump’s decision, Israel launched a premonitory airstrike deep into Syrian territory on Iranian targets, causing serious ripple effects in relations between Jerusalem and Moscow.
As Israel squares off against this Russian–Iranian axis, what kind of support will it receive from the White House? Not much, if American congressmen and senators, and major pundits in the media, know what they’re talking about. The prevailing view among them is not just that Israel feels sucker-punched; it is that Israel has indeed been sucker-punched.
The truth is less alarming, however.
No sooner had Trump announced the withdrawal than two interlocking themes immediately moved to the fore of the national discussion. The first stressed that Trump is a dangerously mercurial leader and utterly resistant to sound advice from wizened aides. The resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, an event apparently sparked by the Syria decision, helped to bolster the idea that the Syria withdrawal was a decision worthy of King George III, “the mad king who lost America.”
The second theme focused on the difficulties the decision will impose on allies like Israel—difficulties said to be almost entirely of Trump’s making but to which he seems completely indifferent. Mattis’s letter of resignation helped feed this motif in pointing out that the defense secretary’s own “views on treating allies with respect” were at odds with the president’s.
In some circles, these motifs led immediately to invidious comparisons between Trump and Barack Obama. Yes, the argument went, Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem; and yes, Nikki Haley, his first ambassador to the United Nations, was a vast improvement over her predecessor. But such gestures of support to Israel are symbolic only, and symbolism, however welcome, won’t keep the wolf from the door. When it comes to the hard security of Israel, the analysis continued, Trump is unreliable, far more so than his predecessor, who may have reached out in friendship to Iran, but did so in a systematic and fully thought-out fashion.
The Economist aptly summarized this prevailing view of the withdrawal decision in a few arresting lines. Trump’s decision-making, the magazine editorialized, reflected the defects of his instinct-driven character. In contrast to Obama, who had conducted his Middle East policy with sobriety and deliberateness, Trump had impulsively “lobbed missiles at Syria and menaced Iran.” But, the editors speculated, “as he swings between threatening to crush foes and getting out entirely, the latter instinct will dominate.” Therefore, when all is said and done, he “will mostly prove even more detached than Obama,” but in a way bound to provoke “unpredictability, ineffectiveness, and prolonged chaos.”
This leads us to an important substantive point that has been largely overlooked in the high dudgeon directed at the president’s modus operandi. The essential choice, the Economist would have us believe, is between the orderly, reasonable withdrawal from the Middle East offered by Barack Obama and the chaotic, blustery one currently being orchestrated by Trump. The end result, however, is the same: withdrawal from the Middle East and the end of American “hegemony” there.
Give the Economist its due. Trump’s Syria decision does place significant risks before America’s allies. The decision, furthermore, forces us to contemplate competing approaches to withdrawing the United States from the Middle East. To this we might add that choosing between them would be the most consequential decision that Americans would make regarding the Middle East in the coming decade. So the stakes could not be higher.
But the Economist also gets the big story completely wrong—as do most of the prestige media. The choice that actually faces us, the one muddled by all the handwringing over the president’s personal character and by the crocodile tears being shed, momentarily, for Israel, is of a different order entirely.
It is a choice between, on the one hand, a withdrawal of American power based on the conviction not just that the situation has become hopeless but that over the decades the U.S. choice of allies, including Israel, has made it worse—the Obama position—and, on the other hand, a withdrawal of direct American military engagement while ensuring that the United States will continue reliably to support those same historic allies and others drawn to its and their side, thereby enhancing the possibility of a stabilized Middle East in the next decade.
II. The Palin Doctrine
To dig out the truth about Trump’s Syria decision requires us to spool back five years and refresh our memories of what might be called “the Palin doctrine.” In a political speech in 2013, Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and former Republican vice-presidential candidate, offered her own preferred solution to problems like the then-raging Syrian civil war: “let Allah sort it out.” This idea has exercised far greater influence on American policy than most observers have realized.
Around the time that Palin announced her solution, Barack Obama began making his own case for non-intervention in the Syrian civil war. If Palin’s justification carried about it more than a whiff of anti-Muslim sentiment, Obama exuded empathy for the dying Syrians and agonized elaborately over the trade-offs he was nevertheless compelled to make between the need to honor our “highest ideals and sense of common humanity” and the need to “advance our security.” As president, Obama reminded us, he was “more mindful” than most people of “our limitations.” And so, though it pained him greatly, he, too, would favor leaving Syria’s fate to Providence.
Indeed, he’d already done so. Recall that in August 2012, Obama had drawn his famous “red line,” threatening severe retaliation if the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad were to use chemical weapons. A year later, following a particularly heinous chemical attack, the president came under political pressure to make good on his threat. But even as he readied a military response, he was working in secret to erase his red line. In this he was helped by, in effect, the Palin doctrine, now embodied in the persons of the Tea Party Republicans on Capitol Hill. Obama knew that, if these isolationist types were asked to authorize an attack on Syria, they would refuse. And so, making as if the Constitution gave him no choice but to seek congressional approval for a strike, and fully expecting to be turned down, he did ask them.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s national security adviser for strategic communications, later revealed how Obama explained this move to his aides. “The thing is,” Rhodes quotes the president as saying, “if we lose this vote [in Congress], it will drive a stake through the heart of [interventionist] neoconservatism—everyone will see they have no votes.” Thus did Obama shrewdly turn Palin’s doctrine into something close to a bipartisan consensus.
Sure enough, in the 2016 elections, the two candidates on the left and the right who whipped up the most enthusiastic support were Donald Trump and the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. Both campaigned on a non-interventionist platform. Like Obama before him, Trump had concluded that his personal certainty about the futility of military deployments in the Middle East was backed by a powerful electoral imperative. Today, there is no reason to imagine that other major presidential candidates in 2020 will arrive at a different conclusion. Whether delivered in the abrasive style of Sarah Palin or the silky tones of Barack Obama, the Palin doctrine is now the baseline American position.
It is not, however, the baseline position of the pundit class.
III. A Coherent Vision
Two groups produce much of the most significant analysis about the Middle East in the American media: neoconservatives on the right, former Obama officials on the left. Both groups are hostile to Trump, convinced that he is a danger to the country and that his policies are woefully misguided. The second group is politically more influential than the first.
The neoconservatives, rejecting the notion that non-interventionism is now an inescapable reality, continue to push muscular answers as if they enjoyed mainstream support. Here, for example, is the columnist Bret Stephens inveighing against the president in the New York Times: “He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hizballah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.”
Unfortunately, these three short sentences, if translated into policy, would simultaneously put Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran into a straitjacket, nullifying the strategic fact that they are not at all the same—the first being a once and possibly future ally, the second a longstanding and current ally, and only the third an enemy. Whatever this amounts to, it is not foreign policy.
As for the second foreign-policy group, it functions both as a brain trust of the moderately progressive wing of the Democratic party and as a whisperer for the prestige liberal media. Its members, too, seek to tarnish Trump personally, but the alternative they favor for the Middle East is Obama’s policy of engaging America’s enemies, especially Iran. Thus, last spring, as Trump moved to withdraw from Obama’s nuclear deal, former Secretary of State John Kerry engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity designed to thwart the president’s initiative—activity that, the Boston Globe stipulated in its report, was, to say the least, highly “unusual” for a private citizen.