One of the outstanding features of the Mueller report was its portrait of Donald Trump’s presidency, in which the orders and directives he gives are routinely ignored by his own White House staff and cabinet members. In some instances, his lack of follow-up or his later acceptance of a contrary suggestion may indicate that his previous orders were more like a Nixonian outburst. In many of the cited cases, especially those involving White House counsel Don McGahn, administration officials drag their feet until the president changes his mind, or simply ignore his orders.
But reading the report I couldn’t help but wonder if we were already involved in a constitutional crisis of authority, a dormant one, that is waiting for one unfortunate incident in Syria to explode. The 1983 bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon caused Ronald Reagan to withdraw our troops from that country, partly because it was a conflict he could not explain to the satisfaction of the American people. In 1993, after a period of mission creep in Somalia, an exfiltration operation turned into the Battle of Mogadishu, leaving 18 Americans dead and over 70 others injured. It rocked the Clinton presidency.
What would happen if some enormity befell our troops in Syria? And remember that, unlike Reagan or Clinton, Trump has already announced that U.S. troops will be leaving Syria expeditiously — but advisers, military commanders, and others who prefer a plan that keeps the U.S. in Syria have prevailed in ignoring and reversing this presidential announcement.
A refresher, if you haven’t followed the blow-by-blow. Are we withdrawing all troops in Syria, as President Trump announced in December? Or are we keeping just 200 troops in Syria, as “the White House” announced in February? Or are we leaving as many as 1,000 troops or more, as the Wall Street Journal reported in March? The last attempt to answer these questions was made by General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. More or less, his response to the above three questions was to say “Yes. All of the above.”
“There has been no change to the plan announced in February and we continue to implement the president’s direction to draw down U.S. forces to a residual presence,” Dunford said. The plan was to create with regional allies a combined force of 1,500 troops overall, with the U.S. drawing down its number as others kick in.
Reports emphasize that there is a continued low-grade conflict between Trump and his advisers on this matter. “U.S. military commanders were aware that while Trump has allowed some troops to stay in Syria, he has not given up on the idea of eventually pulling them all out,” CNN reported. Trump has adverted to the conflict as well. In December, when visiting an airbase in Iraq, Trump said that military commanders had repeatedly asked for 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria.
Some will claim that it is Trump who is undermining the process. White House officials had been working on a new Syria policy, and Trump’s announcement of another contrary policy of withdrawal took them by surprise. But should it? If White House officials are routinely steering Trump’s administration in a way that contravenes his wishes, it is safe to imagine that their advice and counsel to him is aimed at denying him options that comport with his instincts and impulses, especially when those run counter to the judgments made by military commanders and other senior advisers. In fact this is a major theme of the reporting about foreign policy in Trump Era: The Deep State is in the White House, and Trump appointed them. But managing a boss this way is dangerous. And the confusion over Syria shows it.
If Trump senses that he is being manipulated, then he is apt to go rogue when he gets new information from an outside source, if only to reassert his authority over his presidency. This may explain why, when talking to President Erdogan, Trump suddenly asked if Turkey (a NATO ally) could handle mopping up ISIS on its own. When Erdogan said yes, Trump immediately dictated to national-security adviser John Bolton over the line: “Start work for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.” In that exchange, it’s hard not to sense the president looking for options beyond those his advisers had given to him. In Erodogan’s commitment, Trump found a basis for making his own policy. His advisers rejected it.
What makes this a true constitutional crisis is that both sides of the argument are correct. Those who are inclined to defer to the president’s wishes are absolutely right when they say a foreign policy and military establishment that stubbornly resists and undermines the president’s ability to act as commander-in-chief is essentially thwarting democracy, undermining the people’s ability to influence foreign policy through their choice of presidents.
However, those who are partial to the permanent foreign-policy staff, which is acting under extreme duress, are also correct: Advisers and subordinates owe the president their best counsel, and the United States cannot run a foreign policy as inconstant and unpredictable as the untutored impulses of man who won’t even stand behind his own orders to conclude U.S. operations in a war that has no congressional or popular support. In the normal course of things, presidents ought to show constancy. And in the normal course of things, subordinates to the president ought to do their best to translate his preferences into workable policy. In this case, neither is happening, and the apportionment of blame for this dormant crisis cannot be determined by reference to the Constitution and American governing norms; it is merely a judgment of the risks of leaning one way or the other.
The potential political crisis is heightened precisely because Trump is the sort of person to disclaim responsibility and blame subordinates in a pinch. And also because Trump was elected while promising to resist and defy the conventional thinking in foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.
So again, what happens if there is a tragedy that gets Americans asking what our men in uniform are doing in Syria? If Trump decides, like Reagan, that the political costs of continued U.S. involvement are unacceptable, how can he credibly announce a withdrawal, when his previous announcement was ignored and undermined? And if neither the public nor the Pentagon can take the word of the commander-in-chief seriously, exactly who will be accountable for our foreign policy? And what kind of mischief are we inviting America’s enemies to make in the interim?