The Right (and Wrong) Way to Push Back Against Self-Styled Opponents of ‘Forever War’
Donald Trump, Rand Paul, and Tulsi Gabbard are three very different politicians when it comes to domestic politics, but when it comes to foreign affairs they all share a desire to end “forever wars.” Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria as well as Gabbard’s war of words with Hillary Clinton have thrust the nation into a debate about which foreign policy vision the nation should pursue, but this is a debate that is hard to define for it cannot be simplified as conservatives versus liberals or Republicans versus Democrats or even realists versus liberal internationalists or neo-conservatives.
Due to this factor, we have both sides setting up caricatures of other side. This got personal on Friday after Clinton called Gabbard a “Russian asset” who the Russians are “grooming” for a third party run. Gabbard then went after Clinton, saying that she and her, “proxies and powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine, afraid of the threat I pose.”
However, most people do not agree with Gabbard or Trump’s Syria decision (including your’s truly) and it is true that Gabbard does repeat Kremlin talking points, benefits from Russian mischief (even if that does not translate to actual votes), and while she may try to deny it, she has defended Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against accusations that he used chemical weapons on its own people, despite convincing evidence that he has. So, how should those of us who think that Gabbardism is dangerous for American national security and who think Trump made a grave error in Syria respond to them?
A good start would not to do what Clinton did and what various media pundits have done since Trump took office. Gabbard is an Iraq War vet who has served her country, something that most of her critics (again, including your’s truly) have not done. Whatever else she says about foreign policy, to say she is a traitor is not only wrong, but she has every right to torch Hillary Clinton when she says that she is.
The same counterproductive analysis comes for Trump, but it is not illegal for the President of the United States to want better relations with Russia. He may be naive in that goal, misunderstanding who Vladimir Putin really is, but to reduce Trump’s foreign policy to “He like dictators” or “It’s because he has hotels in Russia” is to miss the fact that Trump, Gabbard, and Rand Paul speak for a decent size of the population who have real concerns about the track record of American foreign policy in recent years, especially in the Middle East.
This isn’t to say that Gabbard is right. Her foreign policy assumptions rely on the belief that every foreign policy crisis we find ourselves in is because the United States did a bad thing once upon a time and our adversaries are justly responding to our transgressions. The fact that we are reacting to them and the bad things they do, does not fit well with Gabbard’s view of the world. Her’s is a foreign policy based on strawmen, non-sequiturs, and personal attacks. Anybody who does not agree with her, either wants war or is going to bumble the country into one. If you oppose withdrawal from Syria, you support the “regime change war” against Assad, because you probably also supported the Iraq War and if you don’t support ending the war in Afghanistan right now, then you probably do not care about dead soldiers.
The way to respond to these fallacies is not respond with fallacies of your own. As much as it pains me to say something nice about Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend Mayor, himself a vet of the War in Afghanistan, showed how this could be done at the October 15 debate:
Look, I didn’t think we should have gone to Iraq in the first place. I think we need to get out of Afghanistan. But it’s also the case that a small number of specialized, special operations forces and intelligence capabilities were the only thing that stood between that part of Syria and what we’re seeing now, which is the beginning of a genocide and the resurgence of ISIS.
Put more simply, you can’t have a one size fits all approach to foreign affairs, because that’s not how the real world works. But, the idea that different situations require different solutions is an idea that is lost on the other side as well.
Commenting on Trump’s Syria decision, former President George W. Bush declared, “ An isolationist United States is destabilizing around the world. We are becoming isolationist and that’s dangerous for the sake of peace.” This is true in the actual sense of the word, but not using the word in that context. All isolationists would have supported Trump’s decision, but not all people who have supported Trump’s decision are isolationists. Say what you will about Trump’s Iran or North Korea policies, but they are by no true sense of the word “isolationist.” Many people have pointed out that Trump’s decrying of “forever war” is hypocritical, because while he is claiming to end the “forever war” in Syria he is sending thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia. Whether that makes Trump a hypocrite is not relevant here, but a true isolationist would not be doing that.
“Isolationist” is to people like Bush what “neocon” is to someone like Gabbard or Rand Paul, a catch-all word that has lost any actual meaning and is now simply used to mean “bad.”
To avoid broad generalizations and to counter accusations of supporting “forever war” we need to examine what exactly the United States is, or was, doing in Syria.
First, it was that Assad was a bad guy who has done bad things, so the Obama Administration initially argued that he had to go. However, the public did not support this, nor did Obama actually have the fortitude to go forward with such a policy. Regardless, the window for regime change shut a long time ago and it is extremely questionable whether it would have been in the national interest to topple him anyway, but that’s a debate for another article.
People who looked at the Syrian Civil War and saw one big mess with no discernible good guys said it was not in the national interest to involve ourselves in such a quagmire. For their troubles, they were called isolationists and to show just how casually the i-word was thrown around, even Ted Cruz could not escape the label.
People like President Bush believe things like “the United States has a special place to play in the world” which to him basically means the United States should be a missionary state, spreading the values of human rights and democracy abroad, but to look at the track record of human rights endeavors in the Middle East and see a record of failure does not necessarily make one an isolationist. It was perfectly reasonable, especially after Iraq and Libya, for people to say “Well, wait a minute, what exactly is going on in Syria? Who is fighting who?” The key for the United States in the Middle East is finding the appropriate middle ground between doing nothing and trying to turn it into Western Europe, while also keeping our eyes on what the Russians are doing in Europe and what the Chinese are doing in the Indo-Pacific. Such complicated geopolitical matters cannot be dumbed down to false dichotomies and sloganeering.
Meanwhile, the United States and others were faced with a new dynamic. ISIS was racing across Iraq and quickly developing a reputation as the most barbaric terror organization the world has ever seen and was executing prisoners, including many Westerns, in the most barbaric ways on video for the whole world to see. Here was a national interest that required military action and enjoyed almost unanimous support. If people criticized Obama for bombing ISIS, it was because he was not bombing them hard enough. The anti-ISIS campaign naturally took the U.S. into Syria, but because public opinion would not tolerate heavy amounts of ground troops, the U.S. had to find a local partner, that partner was logically the Kurds.
While that was going on, Russia and Iran had involved themselves in the war for their own purposes. As part of the anti-ISIS campaign the U.S. had come to control a portion of Syrian territory and as the defeat of the ISIS caliphate became imminent the question of what to do with these limited amounts of special forces personnel in Syria became a topic of debate. For some they were now needed to prevent an ISIS resurgence, or to fight Russian and Iranian influence, but for Trump, the decision was simple — bring them home.
Here, we see the second way opponents of the “forever war” strawman can fight back against such accusations and that is don’t support “forever war.” If the U.S. mission in Syria is to defeat ISIS for good, then perusing a policy that allows for a potential mass jail break of ISIS prisoners is not in the national interest, nor is it in the national interest to see our local partners be slaughtered by an invading Turkish Army. That is a goal that may take some time in achieving, but one can see an achievable goal at the end and one that does not require excessive amounts of ground troops.
However, if the goal is to deny Russian influence in Syria the “forever war” strawman looks less and less like a strawman. We may be able to combat Iranian influence in the country, but only by making some politically unpopular concessions to the Russo-Syrian axis.
Trump has been accused of losing Syria to the Russians, but this is silly, if not worse. It seems as if sometimes politicians and pundits try to impress other politicians pundits with their anti-Trump or anti-Putin credentials. You think Trump’s decision is bad because it will lead to an ISIS jail break, well, I think it’s the worst decision of all time and proves that “all roads lead to Putin.”
Americans are idealistic, perhaps more so than any other people in foreign affairs, but that is no excuse for acting as if history began yesterday. Syria has been a Russian client state, arguably since Syrian independence. Saying “Trump lost Syria to the Russians” is factually wrong. Trump may have thrown away any leverage he had, but from the Russian perspective, the best possible outcome of the Syrian Civil War is status quo ante. They did not gain anything. In fact, you could argue the war was deeply embarrassing for Russia. Their lone aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznestov, became a worldwide joke and was labeled by the Brits as a “ship of shame,” there was that battle with U.S. forces where they lost about 300 mercenaries, and the New York Times documented how they intentionally bombed hospitals in an attempt to bomb the country into submission.
Given that Syria is a Russian vassal state, the United States was never going to stay in Syria forever for the simple reason that it could not, but the way in which you withdraw is just as important as the initial decision. Trump’s problem was that he facilitated that withdrawal in such a haphazard way that it brought more death and destruction and the evidence of Turkish war crimes against the Kurds was entirely predictable.
The way to combat the influence of Gabbardism in foreign policy is simple. Engage in good faith arguments, do not call some an isolationist, which in this country carries the legacy of sympathizing with Nazis, unless the person is an actual isolationist. Make sure you know what you’re talking about by not make a fool of yourself to build up your anti-Trump street cred, like NBC’s Richard Engel, tweeting such stupid things as:
US officials tell me ALARM BELL RINGING among diplomats in DC that U.S. could one day be held responsible for Crimes Against Humanity for ethnic cleansing of Syrian Kurds by opening the door to it, watching it, encouraging it (Trump’s tweets and statements) and not stopping it.
Do use ad hominem attacks either, because not only is it morally wrong to call someone a traitor with no evidence, but it makes you look like a sore loser, all while making bad ideas more politically attractive. Finally, if you don’t want to be accused of supporting “forever war,” be care that when you advocate the use of military force, the goal is achievable and be wary of “mission creep.”