By Jules Witcover
Donald Trump’s sudden announcement that he will withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria — triggering the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis — augurs greater concern than ever about American foreign policy under an impulsive and inexperienced president driven above all else by political self-preservation.
Mattis, in his resignation letter to Trump, made clear the reason was his categorical opposition to the troop withdrawal. He diplomatically described it as the president’s right to have a Pentagon chief “whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other matters.”
But Mattis, after 44 years in the Marine Corps ending with four stars on his collar, never left any doubt that his first loyalty was always to his troops in the field and those of allies they were aiding. Trump, adding insult to injury, rejected Mattis’ intent to stay on for two months to oversee the transition to his deputy, a man with no military experience in the field.
In Syria, the departing Americans were aiding Kurdish soldiers who form the primary component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) striving to liberate Syrian territory from the grip of remnants of the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS). Trump had said earlier that ISIS was largely defeated, and now he tweeted: “Time to focus in our Country & bring our youth back home where they belong!”
But in a statement the SDF bitterly rejoined that the war with ISIS was just reaching a “decisive” stage, adding in no uncertain terms: “The war against terrorism has not ended and (ISIS) has not been defeated,” it said.
According to the Associated Press, Trump decided to withdraw the U.S. troops from Syria after a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, much to the dismay of Mattis, who feared that the Kurdish forces would then be easy marks for hostile Turkish troops sent to finish them off.
Afterward, Trump defended his decision, tweeting: “Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years.” He added at one point: “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?”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump supporter, said Mattis afterward told him he was now worried about the fate of the Kurds, fearing that “the day we leave it’s going to be open season on every Kurd who’s supported us.”
Graham himself said of the American troop withdrawal: “I’m not going to suggest motivations that are anything other than a frustrated president. But I can promise this: that if you follow through with this everything that happened in Iraq is going to happen in Syria.”
The Syria pullout is only the latest Trump decision that has unnerved Pentagon veterans. His earlier expressions of contempt for NATO and the European Union, which created collective security and a reliable Western alliance growing out the World War II and the Cold War, displayed a pathetic disregard of that history.
Trump’s naive courtship of Russian President Vladmir Putin at Helsinki, whom he failed to confront on the meddling in the 2016 American election confirmed by the U.S. intelligence community, was a vivid national humiliation.
On the Korean peninsula, the president’s buy-in to North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un’s assurances that he would de-escalate his nuclear-weapon arsenal compounded the concern of military minds throughout the West, Japan and South Korea that Trump again was blindly crippling the collective security.
Now for perhaps the first time in the Trump era, some strong-willed congressional defenders of the military like Graham are beginning to express reservations about the whims and failures of the man in the Oval Office to inform himself, through experts and papers he seems too lazy to read.
This presidency by tweets, derision and division has taken on the dimensions of a national disaster as frightening as any recent natural climate or weather crisis, with slumbering or uncomprehending members of the Grand Old Party collaborating or just helplessly looking away.
Wake up, America!
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at [email protected].