The Morning Jolt

White House

Trump Blew His Chances of Building the Wall

President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., December 18, 2018. (Jim Young/REUTERS)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Suddenly President Trump is lamenting that there’s “so much talk about the wall” and that the “border is tight”; the president announces, with little warning, that he wants to repeat Barack Obama’s worst mistake in the Middle East; and a trio of odd stories worth discussion in the Corner.

It’s December 20. If you haven’t bought that Christmas gift yet, you had better order it now.

Wait, Now the President Thinks People Are Too Focused on ‘The Wall’?

This morning brings an extremely odd presidential statement that people seem too focused on the wall as a component of border security: “With so much talk about the Wall, people are losing sight of the great job being done on our Southern Border by Border Patrol, ICE and our great Military. Remember the Caravans? Well, they didn’t get through and none are forming or on their way. Border is tight. Fake News silent!”

Eight days ago, this president sat in the Oval Office arguing with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and explicitly and loudly drew a red line over the issue of the border wall. He was not vague, and he did not leave himself wiggle room.

THE PRESIDENT: You know what I’ll say: Yes, if we don’t get what we want, one way or the other — whether it’s through you, through a military, through anything you want to call — I will shut down the government. Absolutely.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER SCHUMER: Okay. Fair enough. We disagree.  

THE PRESIDENT: And I am proud — and I’ll tell you what — 

SENATE MINORITY LEADER SCHUMER: We disagree.  

THE PRESIDENT: I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down.

HOUSE SPEAKER-DESIGNATE PELOSI: That is (inaudible).

 THE PRESIDENT: And I’m going to shut it down for border security.

And the president was explicit and clear in that televised meeting: without the wall, the border is not really secure.

BLOCK Q (Inaudible), Mr. President. You say border security and the wall. Can you have border security without the wall? There’s a commonality on border security.

THE PRESIDENT: No, you need the wall. The wall is a part of border security.

Now he’s insisting that the “border is tight”?

Everything he said in that meeting was a bluff. Pelosi and Schumer called his bluff. And now Trump has to slink away from the table with a loss and lamely insist that the border wall that was the centerpiece of his campaign wasn’t really needed all along.

Whatever happened to “He’s a fighter”? I thought everybody who disagreed with him was a squish and a cuck and a wimp and simply wasn’t as strong and tough as the president.

This was the guy who declared in his convention speech, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” We’re two years into his presidency, and he had a GOP Senate and GOP House . . . and he didn’t get significant wall funding. (About 40 miles worth of old, damaged, or porous fencing have been replaced or are being replaced by bollard fencing in six spots.) He’s going to have a much harder time with a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats. This negotiation was his last chance — and he folded.

Apparently, We Are Doomed to Repeat the Same Mistakes in Counterterrorism Forever

Yesterday’s Three Martini Lunch podcast, discussing President Trump’s announcement that we’re withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria, offered the darkest of dark humor: “Come on, Greg! When’s the last time we withdrew all of our troops from a Middle Eastern country and then watched a whole bunch of Islamists come in and take over? That hasn’t happened for five or six years now.”

As Detective Rust Cohle declares in the first season of True Detective, “Time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.”

It would be nice if American policymakers, military leaders, and the people could confront a difficult possibility and have an open, honest discussion about it: “Keeping dangerous, terrorism-supporting Islamists from coming to power in certain places in the Middle East (and probably Afghanistan as well) will require a permanent, or near-permanent, military presence comparable to the presence of our forces in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.”

That’s a really unappealing course of action. But the return of ISIS or the rise of some other Islamist, terror-supporting enclave or statelet is almost certainly worse.

Think about how differently modern history unfolds if the United States and Iraq work out that Status of Forces agreement back in 2011, after the 2008 one expired. With U.S. troops still in the neighborhood, ISIS probably doesn’t capture Fallujah and Mosul in 2014 and Ramadi in 2015. Iraqi forces probably don’t run and abandon their weapons knowing that American airstrikes have their back. The near-genocide of the Yazidis probably never happens. The Syrian civil war would probably still happen, but it wouldn’t be nearly as bloody and horrific on such a vast scale. Fewer refugees head towards Europe, and the resulting social tensions never roil European politics. And maybe attacks like San Bernardino and Orlando don’t happen, or the 2015 Paris attacks, the Brussels airport attack, Istanbul’s international-airport bombing, the 2016 truck attack in Nice, France, or any one of the dozens of deadly attacks attributed to ISIS around the world. ISIS never becomes the best-known, most-feared, most-inspiring-angry-losers Islamist terror group in the world and just blends into the crowd of al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Ansar-al-Islam, the Taliban, Abu Sayyaf . . .

Back in March 2015, Graeme Wood wrote in The Atlantic what was at that time probably the best, most detailed, and most illuminating portrait of ISIS, and part of his article examined Western options for dealing with the threat it posed. But the overall tone was grim and pessimistic, and the essay concluded:

That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

But by November 2017, ISIS controlled no significant territory. A combination of U.S. and coalition airstrikes, the Iraqi army, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the Kurds hammered away at them, and month by month liberated cities and eventually scattered the ISIS forces. It’s gone as a state, but not as a terrorist group.

But perhaps one of the reasons we hear so much less about ISIS this year, compared to the days of San Bernardino and Orlando, is because part of the ISIS mystique was controlling territory, running a state, and claiming to be the new caliphate. As Wood wrote:

One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding. Former pledges could of course continue to attack the West and behead their enemies, as freelancers. But the propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the supposed religious duty to immigrate and serve it. If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

Why would we take the risk?

Even as Trump defends his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, he’s contradicting himself. The president tweeted yesterday, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”

This morning he tweets, “Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight . . . Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us. I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!”

If ISIS is defeated, why is it someone else’s responsibility to fight ISIS?

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday: No, America is not one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists; one of Rudy Giuliani’s biggest critics of today was one of his biggest fans eleven years ago; and there is, so far, no good reason for any Texas Republican to oppose Shahid Shafi in any position and the recent effort to oust him looks like straight-up religious bigotry.

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