National Security & Defense

Trump Is Poised to Make a Series of Terrible Mistakes in Syria

(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The moves the president is contemplating would be strategically disastrous and constitutionally unsound.

While the news here at home is undoubtedly significant (the FBI doesn’t raid the offices of the president’s personal lawyer every day), it’s critical that Americans grasp what’s happening in Syria. Let’s be blunt: Donald Trump is on the verge making a series of mistakes that may be more strategically consequential (and militarily dangerous) than even Barack Obama’s worst Middle East moments.

Based on Trump’s public statements to the press, his belligerent tweets, and a number of well-sourced reports, it’s clear that he’s pondering two dramatic courses of action. On one hand, he’s blustering about an imminent strike on Syria — and daring Russia to try to shoot down our missiles:

On the other, he’s also pushing to withdraw American troops from Syria, where they are engaged in vital mop-up operations against remaining ISIS fighters, protecting American allies from the Assad regime, and providing a check against Russian and Iranian strategic ambitions. In other words, one part of him longs to willingly cede the critical strategic advantage the troops provide over the reported objections of his senior commanders.

Let’s take these issues in turn. A strike against Assad would be constitutionally unsound, strategically unwise, and tactically dangerous. American presidents should not be launching strikes against sovereign countries without congressional authorization. While Trump undoubtedly has the authority to direct military responses when American forces are under attack or face an imminent threat, a missile attack in retaliation for a chemical strike against civilians is a different thing entirely.

America’s constitutional structure exists for a reason. When we launch military campaigns — especially campaigns that could lead our nation into direct conflict with a great power — it’s in our national interests that the commander in chief rally the people through their elected representatives. Military action should be an expression of national will.

And if we have an opportunity to debate Trump’s planned strike, his administration will have to answer truly tough strategic questions. The president was widely (and mistakenly) praised for his first unconstitutional strike against Syria, but it obviously didn’t deter future chemical use nor did it slow Assad’s advance against Syrian rebels. Dictators are used to taking losses. They don’t care about their people, and they can replace lost equipment. Besides, Assad’s true military power lies in his alliances with Russia and Iran.

If we have an opportunity to debate Trump’s planned strike, his administration will have to answer truly tough strategic questions.

If Trump takes a truly serious swing at Syria, then he not only imperils Russia’s vital national interests, he risks killing uniformed Russian personnel in a direct and open American attack. The consequences of such an attack are unpredictable and potentially serious. Are the American people ready to wake up one morning to news of a Russian missile attack that “mistakenly” destroys an American base in Syria? What then? The president is tweeting a promise to take immense risks while also violating the Constitution. This is unacceptable.

Also unacceptable is Trump’s rush to leave the parts of Syria that America and its allies took at great cost from ISIS. Trump is poised to make his own version of Obama’s catastrophic mistake in Iraq. Just as Obama’s withdrawal of troops from that country foolishly created a power vacuum that was filled by Iran and ISIS — touching off a human catastrophe that ultimately required renewed American military intervention — Trump is poised to throw away much of our diplomatic leverage in any talks for a permanent settlement to the Syrian Civil War. In the process, he would create opportunities for a host of enemies, including Iran and ISIS (again) along with Russia and Syria.

And for what? The strength our enemies would gain from such a withdrawal can only hurt the American people and American allies (including Kurds) who fought and bled with our forces to rout the ISIS caliphate. Those allies will be vulnerable to each of our enemies and to our ostensible “ally” Turkey, whose forces are even now engaged in direct combat with Syrian Kurds in the north.

What is Trump’s motivation for potentially squandering our hard-won gains? What is Trump’s motivation for granting the Putin and Assad regimes a massive strategic opportunity and giving jihadists a potential reprieve? He’s definitely got money on his mind. He has said that the United States got “nothing out of the $7 trillion [spent] in the Middle East over the last 17 years.”

This statement is wrong in every way. It exaggerates the expense of our military engagements, and it dismisses our considerable achievements. In the last 17 years, American forces have deposed the Taliban, destroyed al-Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan, deposed Saddam Hussein, defeated a follow-up insurgency in Iraq, obliterated the physical caliphate, and pushed ISIS to the brink of defeat.

Oh, and they’ve helped prevent another 9/11-scale terrorist strike on American soil.

America faces determined, fanatical enemies motivated by fervent beliefs. We can’t stamp out those beliefs, but we can defend ourselves from their adherents — and we have an obligation to maintain that defense as long as necessary. If our enemies seek to hurt us for 100 years, then we must defend ourselves for 100 years. We can’t stop this war by withdrawing from it, especially when the enemy would gain a clear and unmistakable advantage in the process.

It’s past time for this president to come to the American people with a plan. It’s past time for him to present a coherent strategic vision, level with us about all its risks and benefits, and seek proper authorizations from Congress. American forces are engaging enemies in an evolving strategic environment based on Congressional votes that are now almost two decades old. Trump needs to tell Congress that he won’t abandon our allies, throw away our nation’s victories, or risk great-power conflict for no clear military or strategic gain.

While we can’t predict the future, there are moments when we can see a tragic, preventable disaster unfold before our eyes. Trump is set to pursue the wrong policy the wrong way. Prudence and the Constitution should compel a different choice.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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