For Trump the Dealmaker, Troop Pullouts Without Much in Return

Peter Baker

WASHINGTON — The Taliban have wanted the United States to pull troops out of Afghanistan, Turkey has wanted the Americans out of northern Syria, and North Korea has wanted them to at least stop military exercises with South Korea.

President Donald Trump has now to some extent at least obliged all three — but without getting much of anything in return. The self-styled dealmaker has given up the leverage of the United States’ military presence in multiple places around the world without negotiating concessions from those cheering for U.S. forces to leave.

For a president who has repeatedly promised to end the “endless wars,” the decisions reflect a broader conviction that bringing troops home — or at least moving them out of hot spots — is more important than haggling for advantage. In his view, decades of overseas military adventurism has only cost the country enormous blood and treasure, and waiting for deals would prolong a national disaster.

But veteran diplomats, foreign policy experts and key lawmakers fear that Trump is squandering U.S. power and influence in the world with little to show for it. By pulling troops out unilaterally, they argue, Trump has emboldened America’s enemies and distressed its allies. Friends like Israel, they note, worry about U.S. staying power. Foes like North Korea and the Taliban learn that they can achieve their goals without having to pay a price.

American military personnel fly over Helmand province, Afghanistan, Sept. 26, 2019. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

“It’s hard for me to divine any real strategic logic to the president’s moves,” said John P. Hannah, a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. “The only real connective tissue I see is the almost preternatural isolationist impulse that he invariably seems to revert to when left to his own devices internationally — even to the point that it overrides his supposed deal-making instincts.”

Reuben E. Brigety II, a former Navy officer and ambassador to the African Union under President Barack Obama who now serves as dean of the Elliott School for International Affairs at George Washington University, said just as worrisome as the decisions themselves was the seemingly capricious way they were made.

Trump, he said, often seems more interested in pleasing autocrats like Kim Jong Un of North Korea and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey than in organizing any kind of coherent policymaking process to consider the pros and cons.

“When he canceled the South Korea military exercises, the only person he consulted was Kim Jong Un,” Brigety said. “The decision to abandon the Kurds came after a brief phone call with Erdogan. So they weren’t taken because he had personally reflected on the strategic disposition of American forces around the world. They were taken after he took the counsel of strongmen over that of his own advisers.”

All the complaints from the career national security establishment, however, carry little weight with Trump, who dismisses his critics as the same ones who got the country into a catastrophic war in Iraq. While that may not be true in all cases, Trump makes the case that 18 years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it is time to pull out even without extracting trade-offs in return.

“When I watch these pundits that always are trying to take a shot, I say — they say, ‘What are we getting out of it?’ ” Trump told reporters Monday as he hosted a Cabinet meeting. “You know what we’re getting out of it? We’re bringing our soldiers back home. That’s a big thing. And it’s going to probably work. But if it doesn’t work, you’re going to have people fighting like they’ve been fighting for 300 years. It’s very simple. It’s really very simple.”

The United States has about 200,000 troops stationed around the world, roughly half of them in relatively less dangerous posts in Europe or Asia where U.S. forces have maintained a presence since the end of World War II. Tens of thousands of others are deployed in the Middle East, although only a fraction of them are in the active war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

It took only a few dozen Special Forces operators near the border in northern Syria to deter Turkey from assaulting America’s Kurdish allies there, but soon after Trump talked with Erdogan on Oct. 6, the president announced on a Sunday night that they would be pulled back. Turkey then launched a ferocious attack on the Kurds, and by the time a convoy of U.S. troops moved away over the weekend, they were shown in a widely circulated video being pelted by angry Kurds throwing potatoes to express their sense of betrayal.

Trump did not ask Erdogan for anything in exchange. Instead, the diplomacy came only after the Turkish incursion began when he sent Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara to broker a cease-fire to give the Kurds time to evacuate a new safe zone to be controlled by Turkey along the Syrian border. Erdogan essentially got what he wanted.

In Afghanistan, Trump’s special envoy spent months negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban militia that would provide guarantees that the country would not be used as a base for terrorist attacks against the United States if it reduced its troop presence to around 8,600. The talks fell apart, but Trump is drawing down U.S. forces anyway, pulling out 2,000 troops in the past year, leaving 12,000 to 13,000. Plans are to keep shrinking the force to around 8,600 anyway.

In Asia, Trump voluntarily canceled traditional large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea at the behest of Kim even though the two have yet to reach any kind of concrete agreement in which North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons. The decision frustrated not only allies like South Korea and Japan but senior U.S. diplomats and military officers, who privately questioned why North Korea should be given one of its key demands without having to surrender anything itself.

“Trump is a win-lose negotiator,” said Wendy R. Sherman, a former undersecretary of state under Obama who helped broker the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran that Trump abandoned last year. “That’s what he did as a real estate developer. He doesn’t see the larger landscape, the interconnections, the larger costs, the loss of greater benefits.”

When he has sat down at the negotiating table, Trump’s record on the world stage has been mixed or incomplete. He has sealed an accord to update NAFTA with Mexico and Canada, revised a free-trade agreement with South Korea and reached a limited trade pact with Japan.

But in addition to the collapse of the Afghan talks, he has gotten nowhere in nuclear negotiations with North Korea, made no progress in a long, drawn-out Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, has yet to even reach the table with Iran despite his stated desire and remains locked in a high-stakes, big-dollar negotiation with China over tariffs.

For Trump, though, the desire to “end the endless wars,” as he puts it, may override his instinct for deal-making. He talks repeatedly about the misery of families whose loved ones have been killed in the Middle East or elsewhere, and he seems to put decisions about deployments in a different category than trade deals or other negotiations. Getting them out of harm’s way is an end to itself.

“We’re going to bring our soldiers back home,” Trump said Monday. “So far, there hasn’t been one drop of blood shed during this whole period by an American soldier. Nobody was killed. Nobody cut their finger. There’s been nothing. And they’re leaving rather, I think, not expeditiously — rather intelligently.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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