While it would have been wiser to leave the 2,000 American troops in Syria longer, both to ensure ISIS’s demise and to protect the Kurds, and while the administration benefited greatly from Secretary James Mattis’s restoration of deterrence, which merited him a much longer tenure, the hysteria over the withdrawal of troops and the unfortunate resignation of Mattis as something end-of-the-world devastating and historically unprecedented is as weird as it is incoherent.
First, we should remember that earlier General Mattis did not resign from the Obama administration; he was summarily and without much cause fired — reportedly without a phone call, causing outrage in January 2013 from many who now see his resignation as unprecedented.
Two, defense secretaries, given the nature of the job, have historically sometimes had short tenures. Harry Truman and Barack Obama each had four different secretaries, many of whom were controversial and at odds with their bosses. At some point, policy differences outnumber agreements, and secretaries resign or are forced to resign. The list of defense secretaries who departed either in less than harmonious scenarios, or for a variety of reasons after only a few months, includes a pantheon of American luminaries, from George Marshall to Donald Rumsfeld, Leon Panetta, and Elliot Richardson.
Three, earlier this year Mattis was the subject of a lot of curious stories quoting appraisals of him as “bulletproof,” given that despite his numerous disagreements with Trump (reportedly on getting out of the Paris climate accord, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, quitting the Iran deal, transgender soldiers, etc. ), he still was seen as invaluable to the president, who had given him, according to Washington conventional wisdom, unusual latitude and exemption to focus on rebuilding the military and reestablishing deterrent policies.
Four, earlier this year Trump had promised to put troops into Syria to finish up destroying ISIS for “six months.” So his deadline was not really much of a surprise, although most had thought, given the success of the mission, that a continued presence would be in the country’s and the administration’s interests. And now we will see what happens, and pray that the Kurds and free Syrians can survive, while Russians, the Assad regime, the Turks, ISIS remnants, and the Iranians and their terrorist surrogates all fight over the carcass of Syria.
Fifth, on matters of entering or leaving the Middle East, U.S. strategists in the cases of Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq must develop a more coherent rationale to justify long-term occupations — to convince Americans that these increasingly numerous and optional interventions (whether six months or 18 years) enhance U.S. strategic advantages, and in cost/benefit analyses are worth the human and material costs of maintaining them. So far, we rarely receive any real information on what the actual ends are, and whether the means to obtain them are sufficient or justifiable, at a time of $21 trillion in national debt and a seeming absence of gratitude from those we seek to help.