Thinking of Obama as US turns into an unreliable ally

What made the Syria deployment easily justifiable was the fact that the cost in terms of American lives was practically zero.

By Arnab Neil Sengupta (Taking Stock)

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Published: Tue 15 Jan 2019, 7:54 PM

Last updated: Tue 15 Jan 2019, 9:57 PM

For all we know, US President Donald Trump's Syria withdrawal has a beginning but no clear end. As he has said in one of his many perplexing remarks on the issue, the US military pullout will happen "over a period of time". Also, for all their threats and battle cries, the Syrian Kurds' tormentors may not jostle to fill the void being left by the departing American soldiers lest they trigger off a vicious, multi-sided conflict.
Even so, Trump's readiness to defy the consensus view of his national security team, Republican legislators and European, Israeli and Arab officials by going ahead with the Syria withdrawal illustrates a seemingly incurable American presidential habit of making serious strategic errors, prematurely declaring victory, and abandoning vulnerable wartime allies to their fate.
What the Kurds of Syria have realised now, their brethren in Iraq have known since 1975. That same year Viet Cong forces were left stranded in Vietnam, while secular monarchists loyal to the Shah were cut loose in Iran in 1979. The truth is, American politics has a dynamic that is conducive to the betrayal and eventual defeat of its most loyal friends. From Richard Nixon to Jimmy Carter and from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, it has mattered little whether the occupant of the White House during a setback is a Republican or a Democrat.
The fact that Trump overruled the advice of his most clear-sighted political allies - John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton - and ignored the resignations of three high-level officials, including the Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, suggests he has learnt nothing from the foreign-policy blunders of a long line of US leaders, even as he regularly disparages the record of his predecessor.
No matter how many countries Pompeo visits to reassure nervous US allies, or what the underlying purpose of his Cairo speech attacking Obama's foreign policy, or why he intends to hold an Iran-focused global conference next month, at the end of the day it is America's actions that count, not words. Viewed from this angle, it is hard to believe the Trump White House is displaying anything but the same old defeatism of previous administrations, albeit with a lot more sound and fury.
Obama, despite his ill-advised military disengagement from Iraq, his rush to endorse the Arab Spring uprisings, and his starry-eyed embrace of Iran's Machiavellian leadership, did try belatedly to rectify the mistakes that enabled the rapid rise of the Daesh in Iraq and Syria. By sending a small US special forces team to the region in 2014 to confront the Sunni militants he had initially dismissed as a "jv team" (junior varsity basketball team), Obama inadvertently set in motion the creation of a Kurdish-led statelet that has since become a sanctuary for Syrian Arab rebels and refugees.
While Obama's stated objective was to "degrade and destroy" Daesh, the success of the joint Kurdish-Arab force, SDF, in ousting the fighters from a large expanse of northern Syria, wresting autonomy from Damascus, and thwarting the expansionist ambitions of Turkey and Iran greatly exceeded Washington's expectations.
What made the Syria deployment easily justifiable was the fact that the cost in terms of American lives was practically zero. All that the 2,000-strong US contingent had to do was to maintain a symbolic presence over one quarter of Syrian territory, provide intelligence and air support to SDF soldiers engaged in mopping up Daesh pockets, and protect humanitarian agencies operating in the area.
Small wonder, then, many officials in the previous Democratic administration have opposed Trump's military pullout even at the risk of being branded "neo-conservatives" by a mix of Western foreign-policy "realists" and critics of the Syrian revolution, who have found the Republican president to be an odd bedfellow - for now.
What seems impossible for Trump to grasp is the compelling logic of a national-security policy that is neither overly militaristic nor naively dovish but simply grounded in fact, which is the destabilisation of a large swathe of the Middle East by competing authoritarian governments and paramilitary groups. Some of these actors have, in fact, grown so powerful and sophisticated, they are able to project influence all the way from war-torn Syrian provinces to newsrooms in Washington.
Looking to the future, it would be suicidal for local actors and militias in conflict zones to link their political fortunes too closely to US foreign policy. No matter how formidable the opponent or uphill the battle, combatants would be wise to treat the US only as an ally or friend of last resort. Even though a bipartisan community of interventionists remains influential within America's foreign-policy establishment, it can never be relied on to rein in the isolationist instincts of a president.
For politicians and governments that are not natural allies of authoritarian states or illiberal democracies, the raw truth that the US is unwilling to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship ... to assure the survival and the success of liberty" has understandably been hard to accept. But with the launch of the US military withdrawal from Syria, those who still cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it at their peril.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East


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