Like so much else in the last two years, the three-week political Sturm und Drang over American troops’ withdrawal from Syria says less about a fissuring present and more about a fractured past. Donald Trump’s now-modified withdrawal order (four months, not 30 days, unless he changes his mind again) was another sloppy policy move, but one that’s widely misunderstood. Media chatter aside, Trump’s pullout represents not a new direction in foreign affairs but a coarse coda to a decade of institutional error that we need to understand before we can repair.
The central fact behind the withdrawal has been often stated but never explained. There were between 2,000 and 4,000 non-combat-assigned troops in the region, so why yank them out now? And that’s exactly the point. No matter the proximate cause behind Trump’s decision—the conversation with Erdogan, an isolationist sop to his base, an impulse move—keeping or leaving the troops made absolutely no difference in the bigger scheme.
It made no difference for a simple reason. The chips had already fallen between 2009 and 2015, when the Obama administration executed its post-Bush pivot toward Iran and its regional proxy, Syria, and away from America’s allies in the region for 30 years: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. This is the situation Trump inherited, and Trump is not a fixer, he’s a canary in the coal mine. As with “build the wall” and “drain the swamp,” his slogan about Syria—“It’s yours, I’m leaving”—isn’t a pivot, it’s an epitaph. He doesn’t know how to fix our crises, and he doesn’t care. His only purpose is reactionary: to call the crises what they are and point a finger at the people who made them this way.
Which brings us to James Mattis and Brett McGurk, key creators of our Syria predicament, whose resignations over Trump’s decision made them the latest symptoms of a trend wherein makers of problems that created Trump become lauded defenders of the system that opposes him.