Donald Trump's Syria Withdrawal: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Paul R. Pillar

President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the border region in northeast Syria is exceptionally rare in drawing fire from Republicans at least as much as from Democrats who oppose him on a multitude of other issues. Because of this rarity, the political contours of the debate threatens to overshadow the substance. Democrats, outraged by many other things Trump has done, may be tempted to throw this issue into the bin of reasons Trump must go and be leery of expressing support for the president lest this support detracts, amid an impeachment inquiry, from all those other reasons. Republicans may welcome an opportunity to demonstrate that they are not slavish apologists for Trump.

The reported procedure through which Trump reached the decision is hard to defend. It appeared to be an impulsive act, reached after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that was not vetted through the relevant policy bureaucracy and caught much of that bureaucracy by surprise. Such a broken method of presidential decision-making has produced bad policy in the past (not just in the current administration) and will continue to produce bad policy in the future as long as Trump uses it. But the procedure is not the same as the substance. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

The flurry of criticism of the president’s decision has had an absolutist quality that has tended to ignore qualifications to arguments against the decision and to leave unstated many valid arguments in the opposite direction, even if they do not come through in Trump’s blurts and tweets. The criticism disregards how the war in Syria has always been a difficult policy problem in which there are no good options and the task has been to identify the least bad option. Most of all, critics fail to spell out the long-term implications of keeping U.S. troops there.

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