Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Retreat Rhymes With Defeat

This article is part of the Opinion Today newsletter. You can sign up here to receive the newsletter each weekday.

First, the new episode of “The Argument” podcast is out, and it’s a debate about marijuana legalization. Fair warning: I’m more negative about legalization than many of you probably are.

U.S. out. Barack Obama’s Syria policy was the biggest foreign-policy failure of his presidency. The results were tragic, and the process was notably flawed for a White House that mostly ran well.

Obama announced in 2012 that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be “a red line” — but then did little to punish President Bashar al-Assad of Syria when he gassed his own people. Even some Obama administration officials were frustrated by the mixed signals and indecision.

But Obama and the aides who continue to defend his policy are right about one big thing: There were no easy answers in Syria. When Assad began killing his fellow Syrians to put down a rebellion, the United States had no clear way of stopping him, absent another potentially catastrophic Middle Eastern war. Obama’s approach to Syria failed, yet any alternate approach may have failed as well.

Yesterday, President Trump put his own stamp on Syria policy, and it was not encouraging. Against the advice of his advisers — and, in some cases, to their surprise — Trump will pull out the remaining 2,000 American troops within 30 days.

As part of the announcement, Trump claimed victory, saying that the extremist Islamic State had been defeated. And he can fairly take credit for overseeing military victories against it. But many experts believe that an American withdrawal may now allow the Islamic State to regain some of the central Syrian regions it once controlled.

Only nine days ago, Brett McGurk, who helps lead Syria policy under Trump, suggested a pullout would be “reckless.” In September, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis similarly suggested that “blindly” deciding to leave would be a mistake. And yesterday a couple of high-profile Republicans in Congress blasted the move.

For all of their differences, both Trump and Obama have shown a welcome reluctance to risk American lives for an uncertain — or nonexistent — benefit. But that reluctance still needs to be paired with a strategic vision. In Syria, and most everywhere else, Trump seems to lack that vision.

Related. The conservative writer David French likened Trump’s decision to Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, a move many conservatives criticized as motivated more by domestic politics. Leaving Syria gives Vladimir Putin “the greatest gift” that Trump has so far given to Russia, French wrote on Twitter.

“There’s been remarkable progress against the Islamic State in those three years, but perhaps the hardest part is yet to come: addressing the remnants of the group’s core in Iraq and Syria,” Joshua Geltzer and Christopher Costa, two former counterterrorism officials, write in The Times. “We’ve yet to figure out fully how to turn the corner from degrading groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to actually defeating them.”

The move undercuts American allies like the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Kurds, explains Kori Schake, a former national security official under George W. Bush. Her piece in The Atlantic is headlined “Trump Just Screwed Up the One Thing He Did Better Than Obama.”

And The Times terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi notes that this isn’t the first time American officials have prematurely proclaimed ISIS’s defeat. “In 2010, the last time the group was considered vanquished they had almost no land and 700 fighters. Today, they have an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 fighters just in Iraq and Syria,” she writes.

You can join me on Twitter (@DLeonhardt) and Facebook. I am also writing a daily email newsletter and invite you to subscribe.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTOpinion).

David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

Source: Read Full Article