Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) went after President Trump for suggesting that we’ll be pulling our troops (about 2,000) out of Syria “very soon.” Trump, apparently referring to Russia and Iran (but who knows?), declared at a campaign-style rally, “Let the other people take care of it now. . . . We’re going to be coming out of there real soon, going back to our country where we belong, where we want to be.” A better summation of Trump’s uniformed, erratic isolationism would be hard to find. Graham declared:
Well, Mr. President, when it comes to Russia, read the Ronald Reagan playbook. When it comes to Syria, do not read the Obama playbook.
This is the Obama playbook, one foot in, one foot out. This is a disaster in the making.
All of his military advisers have said, we need to leave troops in Syria to work with the Kurds, calm down the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish fighters who have helped, make sure that Raqqa does not fall back into the hands of ISIL [the Islamic State]. There are over 3,000 ISIS fighters still roaming around Syria. We’ve got troops there to protect us and to protect the region.
If we withdrew our troops anytime soon, ISIS would come back, the war between Turkey and the Kurds would get out of hand, and you’d be giving Damascus to the Iranians without an American presence, and Russia and Iran would dominate Syria.
It’d be the single worst decision the president could make. I’ve seen this movie before when Obama did the same thing in Iraq and quite frankly gave Assad a pass in Syria when he had them on the ropes.
We got ISIL on the ropes. If you want to let them off the ropes, remove American soldiers.
That is actually a correct summation of what American policy in Syria has been — at least until Trump spoke. But of course he could have meant nothing by it. “Soon” is relative, and he may have simply been going for cheap applause. It’s not clear he knows — or cares — that this would be a signal to allies and foes alike that we are ceding the Middle East to Iran and Russia and potentially encouraging the growing conflict between Israel and Iran on Israel’s northern border.
And this is the problem, you see. Whatever “policy” we might have is not necessarily understood or supported by Trump, whose attention span is short and whose inability to follow a consistent line of argument is profound. (If we want to curtail Iran’s aggression, we should not hand it a triumph in Syria.)
Former State Department spokeswoman Margaret Harf reiterated Graham’s point.”Who will fill that void if the United States is not there? Russia and Iran,” she said. “And we’ve already seen Russia and Iran both move in increasingly into Syria. They have, you know, airbases, they have troops there, both of them do.” She continued, “If the United States pulled back and leaves the reconstruction to someone else, we are handing that country over to the two countries we don’t want to have more power in the Middle East. So, we are hearing from commanders on the ground, we are hearing from diplomats that President Trump needs to take a step back and stay in this for the long haul, whatever that means, whether it’s months or years. This would be a mistake, and I think Republicans like Senator Graham will keep standing up and may be pushing the president in a different direction.”
The irony is that the sort of actions Republicans could not countenance under President Barack Obama (erasing the red line on Syria — which still uses chemical weapons — leaving Iraq prematurely, insufficient pushback against Russian President Vladimir Putin) are now Trump’s go-to moves. Trump’s isolationist rhetoric, subservience to Russia and unwillingness to confront Iranian aggression on the ground would be just what someone like, say, John Bolton, would have blasted as defeatist, weak and unprincipled. Whether Bolton or anyone else can make sense of Trump’s outbursts is anyone’s guess, but we are reminded once more that Trump’s uninformed impulsiveness is the greatest foreign policy handicap we now face. Put him in a room with Kim Jong Un? Urge he walk away from the Iran deal? These are frightful prospects, made worse by low morale and open (still) slots in the State Department. We may finally face one of those true foreign policy crises we have feared would occur while an unfit president occupies the post of commander in chief.