The near-universal scorn heaped on President Trump for his hasty and reckless decision to yank U.S. forces out of Syria, and the enduring confusion since then over the administration’s actual plans, have obscured a larger and more significant development: the strengthening of a bipartisan movement in Washington seeking a broad retreat from the Middle East.
No one, up to and including Trump’s top aides, thinks he was right to suddenly announce a 30-day withdrawal timetable for the 2,000 American troops in eastern Syria after a phone call with the president of Turkey. But since that bombshell dropped last month, the idea of a Syria pullout, and a retrenchment in the region more generally, has attracted quite a bit of support, including from some surprising quarters.
“Essentially correct,” was how former U.S. ambassador Robert S. Ford, who once excoriated the Obama administration for failing to do more in Syria, described Trump’s move in a Post op-ed. “On Syria and Afghanistan,” agreed former Obama administration officials Jon Finer and Robert Malley , Trump’s “initial instinct — to do more with less — was correct.”
Perhaps most striking is the essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs by former Pentagon official Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes, who during the Obama administration headed a State Department office created to promote democratic change across the Middle East. “That change cannot be driven by the United States without far more carrots and sticks than Washington is prepared to deploy,” they conclude. “Pulling back . . . will be painful and ugly for the Middle East, but compared with staying the course, it will be less so for the United States.”
Considered from the perspective of a decade ago, when the war against radical Islamic terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the promotion of democratic change in the region were generally accepted as top U.S. priorities, this is a stunning shift. “We are at a moment where the leaders of both parties urge retrenchment and withdrawal from the Middle East for the first time ever,” said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The case for retreat is not hard to understand. Since the promising Arab Spring of 2011 degenerated into coups and civil wars, the Middle East’s troubles have become so towering as to defy any U.S. intervention — even as the strategic importance of the region as an oil supplier steadily declines. While Egypt endures the most oppressive dictatorship in its modern history and Bashar al-Assad regains control of a shattered Syria, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman is emerging as a millennial Saddam Hussein.
Israelis and Palestinians are stuck with entrenched leaders who can be counted on to subvert any U.S. peace initiative. Meanwhile, the Islamic State and al- Qaeda, although not eliminated, look too weak to threaten the U.S. homeland.
“For the forseeable future,” Karlin and Wittes say, “policymakers must accept that the Middle East will likely remain mired in dysfunction and that U.S. partners there will bow less and less to Washington’s preferences.”
It all sounds pretty straightforward, until you consider that no one believes that anything more than a partial U.S. pullout from the region is possible. The huge American air and naval bases on the Persian Gulf aren’t going anywhere: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just signed a deal to expand the al-Udeid air base in Qatar.
Trump himself boasted during his recent visit to Iraq that the more than 5,000 U.S. troops there would remain and could be used for operations elsewhere if needed. The White House is considering a proposal to maintain a no-fly zone in eastern Syria even after the troops there leave. Neither the administration nor Congress supports cutting the $1.3 billion in aid flowing annually from U.S. taxpayers to the Egyptian military. And Trump can’t wait to sell Saudi Arabia the $110 billion in weapons he claims it has ordered.
The same people who favor a pullout from Syria say most or all of this is necessary to keep oil flowing through the Persian Gulf, stop terrorists from gaining enough strength to strike the homeland and contain Iran’s ambition to become the region’s new hegemon. And if any of those priorities look threatened, or the chaos in the region threatens to spill across its borders, U.S. troops will be back.
Karlin and Wittes describe the United States as stuck in a “Middle Eastern purgatory,” too weak to change the region for the better but still engaged enough to distract from more important priorities. They argue that the best way out is ramping back our ambitions. But it’s far more likely that steps such as the Syria pullout will only deepen the quandary they describe, and increase the chaos to a point where Trump — or a successor — will be compelled to step back in.