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Politics

Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and build a border wall instead marks a key moment for his ‘America first’ view

FILE -- In this April 4, 2018 file photo, a U.S. soldier sits in an armored vehicle on a road leadin
A U.S. soldier sits in an armored vehicle on a road leading to the front line in northern Syria on April 4.
(Hussein Malla / Associated Press)

President Trump, in a pair of tweets Wednesday summarizing his worldview, justified his decision to order American troops withdrawn from Syria while promising that the military would instead put resources into building the wall he’s long espoused along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump tweeted, shortly before his press secretary announced that “we have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”

That declaration from Trump came shortly after another Twitter missive in which he declared that “because of the tremendous dangers at the Border, including large scale criminal and drug inflow, the United States Military will build the Wall!”

The joint tweets offered perhaps the clearest distillation to date of Trump’s “America first” policy: a simple and abrupt vow to disengage from one of the world’s most nettlesome conflicts, with a potentially premature declaration of victory over the militants of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, coupled with an unlikely promise that the world’s most sophisticated fighting force would be deployed to build a literal fortification around the homeland.

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The order to withdraw the roughly 2,000 troops currently in Syria provided the latest example of how Trump’s instinct to turn inward, whatever the risk and costs to the United States’ influence and reputation abroad, may clash with the views of the generals and foreign policy experts who serve inside and outside his administration.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, for example, a retired four-star general who once commanded American forces in the Middle East, was pushed aside by President Obama for advocating more forceful engagement in the region. Pentagon officials over the last two years have repeatedly clashed with Trump’s desires to limit the kind of muscular U.S. role in the Mideast that Mattis has advocated in the past.

Trump’s announcement raised fears among national security professionals that he might follow the Syria decision with a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, something he has long wanted to do.

Either exit involves a strategic gamble by Trump and could also cost the president politically if Islamic State violence resurges or the region destabilizes during the 2020 election campaign.

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“It is a major blunder,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “If it isn’t reversed, it will haunt this administration and America for years to come.”

As is often the case, many officials worked Wednesday to mitigate the immediate impacts of Trump’s declaration, by slowing the withdrawal timeline and following his instructions only approximately. Others who have grown accustomed to Trump’s splashy promises and the fluidity of his decision-making cautioned that Wednesday’s announcement may not come immediately to fruition or could be tempered by the time the military implements it.

Trump’s about-face came only weeks after some of his own advisors said U.S. troops would remain in Syria until Iran, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, agreed to remove its own troops from the country. That expanded mission appeared to reflect the wishes of anti-Iran hard-liners, including national security advisor John Bolton, rather than Trump’s views.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity put the matter bluntly. Asked about the cascade of recent statements by Bolton and others vowing to stay in Syria as long as Iran remained engaged, the official said that Trump is doing what Trump wants to do.

“The issue here is that the president has made a decision,” the official said. “He gets to do that. It’s his prerogative.”

The official conceded that the Islamic State threat has not been eliminated from the region beyond Syria’s borders, even if the militants have been significantly hobbled inside.

Some of Trump’s closest allies in the Republican Party oppose his plan.

Calling it an “Obama-like mistake,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asserted that Trump’s withdrawal plan amounted to waving a white flag in the war on terrorism. It would allow militant groups to flourish amid the chaos, while leaving a strategic vacuum for Russia, Iran and other geopolitical rivals to fill, Graham warned.

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A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said that Trump decided Tuesday to order the withdrawal from Syria and that Pentagon officials were working on a timetable for complying.

“We will do a professional and deliberate withdrawal that will be focused on the safety of our forces,” the official said.

Despite apparent reservations inside the administration and swift criticism from the outside, the orders match well with Trump’s political brand. On the campaign trail and in a major speech outlining his foreign policy one year ago, Trump drew consistent applause when he bashed leaders who “engaged in nation-building abroad, while they failed to build up and replenish our nation at home.”

In August, the administration cut $230 million from a line item in the budget intended to stabilize Syria, insisting the U.S. would not stick around to rebuild the ravaged country and calling on other Arab states to make up the slack. The figure is tiny in the context of the Pentagon’s annual budget of more than $700 billion. The Syria funds are also a small fraction of the amount it would take to build a full border wall, for which estimates range from $25 billion to $100 billion.

Trump nonetheless built on the theme that the U.S. spends too much overseas, saying in one of his Wednesday tweets that “so much money has been poured down the drain, for so many years, but when it comes to Border Security and the Military, the Democrats fight to the death.”

The promise that the military would work on border fortification could help Trump publicly justify or distract from a likely decision to retreat from a losing fight with Congress over money for a wall. But American soldiers are unlikely to do much if any construction along the border, given the legal and bureaucratic resistance to using the military for a mission that falls far outside its scope.

While Trump campaigned on a promise to repudiate Obama’s foreign policy, he shares his predecessor’s instincts to pull troops from Middle Eastern conflicts that seem endless, and endlessly frustrating. Obama endured similar criticism — much of it from Trump and his political allies — over his decision to pull most forces from Iraq in an attempt to fulfill his own campaign promise.

The real contrast for Trump is with the foreign policy of the last Republican to serve in the White House, George W. Bush, who believed an active American presence in the region was essential to winning the global “war on terrorism” and that spreading democracy was paramount to national security.

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Neoconservatives aligned with Bush’s policy argued that Trump’s decision would not only allow Islamic State to retool, but also create room for Iran and Russia, who have been steadily carving up the region, to have a freer hand to expand their influence far beyond Syria’s messy borders.

“Pulling U.S. troops out of Syria would be a gift to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and to the mullahs in Tehran,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right-leaning think tank. “And it would be a disastrous gift for the region.”

Such a move would be “Obama 2.0,” he argued, that would squander U.S. leverage when dealing with other Middle Eastern crises and allow Iran an open path to expand its influence to the Mediterranean Sea.

James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral who served as supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, called it a “big mistake,” comparing it on Twitter to walking “away from a forest that is still smoldering underfoot.”

Neoconservatives were not the only ones to hold that view. Many — including commanders inside the Pentagon — fear a withdrawal could help Islamic State reconstitute itself. The military has so far been successful in conquering the territory that Islamic State held in Iraq and Syria, destroying its self-proclaimed caliphate, but officials have repeatedly cautioned that pockets of resistance remain scattered throughout the war-torn region, and that militant fighters have switched from trying to hold territory to planning terrorist attacks.

“Obviously, it would be reckless if we were just to say, ‘Well, the physical caliphate is defeated, so we can just leave now,’” Brett McGurk, Trump’s presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said last week. “Anyone who’s looked at a conflict like this would agree with that.”

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.


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