Trump should follow his instincts, de-escalate in the Middle East and pivot to great powers

By Maj. Danny Sjursen, USA

Prior to last week’s U.S.-led strikes, President Trump directed the Pentagon to prepare for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. In this instance, President Trump’s instincts are dead on.

While on the campaign trail, Trump exhibited realist, anti-interventionist impulses. He regularly called the Iraq War “dumb” and recently labeled it “the single worst decision ever made.” Hyperbole aside, he wasn’t far off. Now, just this past week, Trump dropped a bomb on the overly interventionist Washington establishment—and his own military planners—by announcing the U.S. will be “coming out of Syria like very soon.”

Liberal critics—for whom all things Trump are anathema—and Pentagon fears aside, this is the right call. Yet too many mainstream hawks, inside and outside the administration, seem determined to thwart Trump’s de-escalation instincts in detrimental attempts to “normalize” his foreign policy.

Exactly how well did the “normal” foreign policies of Trump’s most immediate predecessors work out? I count a few defeats and several painful draws. Neither George W. Bush’s regime change campaigns nor Obama’s low-intensity, air-powered versions of the same strategy (remember his self-admitted "shit show" regime change in Libya?) achieved anything but a costly Mid-East stalemate.

It’s long past time for something new, some forward-thinking, even if it comes from an often coarse, sometimes inconsistent, Commander-in-Chief.

The president’s instincts have been right before—and he should have followed them.

In August 2017, Trump acquiesced to the status quo playbook, repackaged by outgoing National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, which called for one more (the fifth so far) “mini-surge,” or escalation, in Afghanistan. Still, Trump publicly admitted his “original instinct was to pull out.” Eight months later, with that war mired in what the impartial Special Inspector General recently called a “stalemate,” it’s obvious that Trump’s original intuition was correct.

Though “his” generals, and other so-called adults in the room, have so far convinced Trump to double down on failed strategies and pursue a standard interventionist foreign policy, Trump’s off-script remarks on Syria demonstrate he remains sympathetic to de-escalation. Just 15 months into his first term, as he’s coming into his own, it’s not too late for him to change course.

For starters, he could follow through on his promise—and recent instructions to his military leaders—to get U.S. ground troops out of Syria. Post-ISIS Syria is all risk (and cost) and no reward. Military occupation of Eastern Syria is a veritable dead end. The longer the U.S. stays put, the more it will own the outcomes—the good, bad, and ugly—on the ground. That’s nation-building, and it will cost loads of American blood and treasure.

As matters stand, U.S. soldiers are one mishap—like, say, killing more Russian mercenaries or downing a Turkish plane—away from a major regional war with Russia, Iran, Turkey, or Assad’s regime. Critics have already crowed that leaving Syria is a “win” for Putin, but pay them no mind: ISIS’ caliphate is already smashed, and Russia will find more quagmire than glory piecing Syria back together. Let them have the postwar rubble—it’s of no strategic consequence for the United States.

Trump could also reverse McMaster’s planned escalation in Afghanistan, which comes with a $45 billion annual price tag. Yes, $45 billion which could otherwise pay for improved readiness, modernization, or to pay down our $21 trillion national debt (a greater threat to our national security). With corruption in Kabul rampant, record numbers of districts contested by the Taliban, and the enemy profiting from a record opium crop, it’s safe to label that war a sinkhole for U.S. lives and resources. Furthermore, a recent string of high-profile attacks demonstrate that after 17 years, the Afghan military can’t adequately defend its capital. Ending ineffective nation building and focusing narrowly instead on counterterrorism is the sensible path.

Trump could pair good politics with good policy by joining a congressional coalition, so broad that it includes Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY), to halt U.S. military support for the Saudi terror bombing of Yemen. That war only tarnishes America’s image on the “Arab street,” amplifies famine and cholera epidemics, and empowers the only real Yemeni threat to U.S. interests, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Trump should also take a chance on (cautious) bilateral negotiations with North Korea. There are no good policy options on the peninsula, so the U.S. must focus on deterrence, which it can do indefinitely. But taking a longer view, the U.S. could hardly do worse than Trump’s predecessors. Let’s give the president a chance to demonstrate his oft-touted deal-making skills with Kim Jong-un. After all, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama “mainstream” strategies led us to today’s predicament.

Finally, Trump could stick to his guns on Iraq and eschew future regime change efforts. The 2003 invasion was dumb; so was Obama’s 2011 creeping overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya. Remember Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule: “if you break it, you buy it.”

Upon invading a country, the U.S. gains responsibility for the hopes, dreams, welfare, and problems of millions of locals. That’s proved a losing game for two decades, so, Mr. President, please ignore the forthcoming advice of the foreign policy “elite,” and don’t repeat the Iraq folly with a counterproductive invasion of Iran.

Trump has previously stated he’s “the only one that matters” on foreign policy. That’s a treacherous formula for executive overreach, but given the national security cabinet Trump has assembled, it could be America’s saving grace. As a Major in the U.S. Army, I trust this president more than I trust the failed strategies championed by Bolton and Pompeo. America would be better served if Trump followed his foreign policy instincts, at least the ones he touted on the campaign trail.

So, Mr. President, do Americans a favor: Go with your gut. Avoid costly wars that neither secure the homeland nor qualify as vital national security interests. In foreign affairs, there’s much wisdom in the slogan: America First.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Danny Sjursen is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He served combat tours with U.S. Army reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on April 24, 2018. Read more HERE.