ArgumentsThe Realists Are Wrong About Syria

Published 6 November 2019

Trump’s 6 October peremptory decision to pull back about 100 U.S. soldiers from their positions embedded with Kurdish forces in northern Syria was met with scathing criticism across the political spectrum – with one notable exception: Qualified words of praise for Trump’s Syria policy came from one corner of the U.S. foreign-policy discourse: academics who embrace an approach to U.S. foreign policy variously called restraint, offshore balancing, neorealism, or defensive realism.

Trump’s 6 October peremptory decision to pull back about 100 U.S. soldiers from their positions embedded with Kurdish forces in northern Syria was met with scathing criticism across the political spectrum – with one notable exception: Qualified words of praise for Trump’s Syria policy came from one corner of the U.S. foreign-policy discourse: academics who embrace an approach to U.S. foreign policy variously called restraint, offshore balancing, neorealism, or defensive realism.

Peter Feaver and Will Inboden write in Foreign Policy that “The embrace of Trump’s Syria policy is not unequivocal among realists. Most would follow [Stephen M.] Walt’s lead in bemoaning the haphazard manner in which Trump announced and implemented the decision.”

Nevertheless, Feaver and Inboden write, “Trump’s reflex to retreat—to turn away from rather than confront military challenges—is something the realists support. It gets to the heart of the debate between advocates of traditional Cold War and post-Cold War internationalism and advocates of retrenchment.”

Feaver and Inboden write:

The benefits of the Syria mission were considerable and the costs not too onerous. But the costs of Trump’s abrupt withdrawal form a painful tally. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Islamic State adherents have escaped detainment. This could potentially lead to a resurgence of terrorist attacks in Europe and even the United States. The potential slaughter of Kurdish soldiers and civilians, untold numbers of whom have already been killed, is an ongoing risk. A new round of displacement has begun in a country that has already endured the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Some 176,000 people, 70,000 of them children, have been forced from their homes since Trump’s withdrawal, according to the United Nations.

They add:

In leaving Syria, Trump revealed yet again that he can be easily manipulated by foreign autocrats. No doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have taken note of how deftly Erdogan played Trump.

Feaver and Inboden condluce::

Advocates of restraint do not want the terrible things that sometimes happen when their preferred policy prevails, any more than we think advocates of military intervention want the unintended consequences that attend the use of force. Nor are we saying that restraint and retreat are always wrong whereas intervention and standing strong are always right.

Rather, it is important for restraint advocates to answer the very same questions they claim advocates of military intervention sometimes fail to address: What will you do after the enemy responds to your move—or after your allies respond to your move, for that matter? Once the enemy has taken advantage of your retreat, and once the allies have hedged against the lost trust in U.S. security commitments, how will you mitigate the second- and third-order consequences for U.S. national interests? Neither Trump nor those in the academy who have applauded his Syria withdrawal have wrestled with these questions adequately.

What we are calling for is the essence of strategy: balancing short- and long-term considerations and adjusting statecraft and strategy as necessary. It is very hard to do, but when done right, it can produce dramatic results even in very dire circumstances. Trump has done the opposite, and he, or his successor, will eventually have to pay the costs and confront the questions he is avoiding now.

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