On the Syria Debate, Reductio ad Trumpium Gets us Nowhere
Let’s stipulate that Donald Trump is bad at foreign policy. Ok, let’s take it further than that. Donald Trump is so ignorant of the world, so inattentive to the details of policy and its implementation, and so obsessed with his own personal standing that any foreign policy he turns his peripatetic attention to is likely to turn out badly for the United States, regardless of its original wisdom. These are harsh words, but most foreign policy professionals, Republican and Democrat, can likely get behind them. Indeed, judging by the parade of experienced foreign policy hands marching up to Capitol Hill to condemn the president’s Ukraine gambit as unwise, dangerous, and possibly impeachable, it is quickly becoming an article of faith for anyone who considers themselves part of the foreign policy cognoscenti.
Peter Feaver and Will Inboden, long-standing foreign policy practitioners and professors at distinguished universities, are certainly part of that august group. And reading their article in Foreign Policy on Trump’s withdrawal from Syria, it seems they are part of the consensus. They find that Trump’s “peremptory decision” to pull back from Syria failed to “wrestle adequately with the costs of departure.” Yes, well, quite. Trump doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time wrestling with ideas of any sort, so that seems likely.
But more surprisingly, Feaver and Inboden use the occasion of Trump’s latest foreign policy cock-up not primarily to criticize his administration nor to suggest an alternative Syria policy, but instead to condemn an alternate school of thought in the next ivory tower over from theirs: the realists. The realists are a set of university professors with great influence in the academy and little beyond it. Like every other school of foreign policy thought, they almost universally believe that Trump has no idea what he is doing in foreign policy. But many of them also happen to share his long-voiced view that withdrawing from Syria would be a good idea. Feaver and Imboden’s fundamental point is that the realists must be wrong because they have the same policy idea on Syria as that noted incompetent Trump.
This type of reasoning is a species of what Leo Strauss referred to as the reductio ad Hitlerum. That logical fallacy holds that if a policy is the same as one advocated by Hitler, then this proves that the original policy is wrong. As Strauss famously noted, “a view is not refuted by the fact that happens to have been shared by Hitler.” Trump has an impressive ability to take any foreign policy idea, pervert it for his own benefit, and then turn it into a disaster for America and the world. But it is still a logical fallacy — a reductio ad Trumpium — to assume that anyone who shares the original idea was wrong-headed. As Feaver and Inboden acknowledge, most realists bemoan “the haphazard manner in which Trump announced and implemented the decision.” Some of the realists, they note, still approve of Trump’s decision because they feel that American intervention in Syria has been so disastrous that it is worth ending even in such an incompetent manner. But these thinkers advocated against an intervention in the first place and so are not stuck having to accept necessarily sub-optimal outcomes.
Worse, even that second-best policy has to be implemented by Trump. His rampant inconsistency and incompetence mean that foreign policy thinkers of all schools are often caught between a policy that in theory they support and a practice that is so corrupt and incapable that it undermines any potential benefit. This implies that neither the realists nor anyone else have to take responsibility for Trump’s foreign policy, even if they happen to share some of his ideas. This should be relief also to interventionist thinkers whose policies on, say, missile strikes in Syria or expanding the war in Afghanistan are similarly not invalidated simply because Trump shares them and implemented them incompetently.
And anyway, who cares what Trump’s Syria policy tells us about some perennial, inconsequential debate among international relations scholars? While these intellectual warriors fight it out over what buzzwords like “restraint” mean, the Syrian tragedy continues and America’s position in the world continues to erode. This petty debate obscures the main driver of America’s policy troubles in Syria: the original decision, after so much American failure in other parts of the region, to intervene in yet another Middle Eastern country even as the United States so clearly lacked the capacity and the political will to see it through. America’s policy toward Syria, both before and after Trump took office, deserves a long hard look, free from academic score settling and reductio ad Trumpiums.
We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us
Once you clear aside all of that brush, it becomes clear that, regardless of whether Trump agrees, the U.S. position in Syria made little sense. It took a lot of mistakes from two administrations to arrive at such an untenable place. Recovering from those mistakes will not be pretty, particularly if American policy is guided by an incompetent president. But doubling down on them and remaining in Syria would be worse.
The essence of the problem is that the United States had, from the beginning, few interests at stake, little commitment to the mission in Syria, and deep domestic divides about whether it was a good idea at all, as both Obama and Trump’s persistent skepticism implied. For good reasons, both Trump and Obama resisted the pressure to topple Bashar al-Assad and refused to commit to an open-ended military campaign. Both administrations instead tried to win on the cheap.
As a result, the U.S. mission in Syria has always sought to stay below the radar and relied on a light military footprint. The effort focused on the one issue most Americans can agree on: denying safe haven to the Islamic State. U.S. forces appeared in Syria mostly in secret with hardly any domestic debate. The American public has never officially known how many military personnel are there and what precisely their mission is. As Feaver and Inboden put it, America’s presence in Syria “did not divert scarce troop resources from other vital missions, sow major political divisions on the home front, or impose unsustainable strain on the U.S. military budget.” Indeed, those features were also a measure of the American commitment to the issue.
This low-cost, low-risk approach has gotten the United States the worst of both worlds. It is involved enough to inspire its adversaries and rivals to escalate their efforts but not so involved as to be able to do anything about it. So, the United States had enough forces in Syria to convince Russia that it intended to pursue regime change against Assad and defeat the Islamic State at the same time, but not enough to deter Russian escalation. The American alliance with Syrian Kurdish forces was enough to defeat the Islamic State, but at the cost of the alliance with Turkey. As the relationship crumbled and Ankara increasingly and publicly committed to an invasion, Washington chose to ignore that a handful of soldiers on the border would not have deterred Turkey, particularly given the public reluctance of the U.S. president to continue the mission. The end result was the worst possible outcome: The United States had too few troops to stop a Turkish invasion, lacked presidential support to signal that it would escalate if attacked, lied to the Kurds to keep them focused on the fight against the Islamic State and then stood aside when Turkey and its proxies invaded.
This is a familiar story in U.S. interventions: Lacking sufficient domestic will or even interest for a proper intervention, innovative thinkers within the U.S. government devise a plan that can achieve American goals on the cheap. Their plan gets the United States involved in the problem but usually lacks sufficient resources or resolve to achieve any sort of decisive result, which would then enable an honorable exit. When, predictably, the plan encounters difficulties, the United States is faced with a Hobson’s choice of doubling down on the mistake or accepting a humiliating retreat.
America is now at that point in Syria. Feaver and Inboden imply that continuing with a small, relatively isolated U.S. presence in Syria, surrounded by hostile forces in a country where Washington has few interests is somehow a geopolitically advantageous position to be in. It is exactly the opposite. A small American presence allowed Ankara to hold those troops at risk, forcing U.S. policymakers to admit to their Turkish counterparts that they would leave if Ankara chose to attack and revealing the weakness of an American position that had neither popular nor presidential support. It would have been better of course to negotiate that exit in a more orderly manner that traded the remaining American leverage for some preservation of Kurdish gains. By failing to do that, Trump’s incompetence added to the problem, but in fact the only way to salvage the U.S. position would be through a massive escalation that no one seems to want, or to pretend that things are going well in Syria, which is the current U.S. approach to the war.
The root cause of the problem is not that the United States is unable to topple the Syrian regime and establish effective governance in Syria. It is that Washington — from the beginning of the civil war — simply didn’t care enough to resource such an operation properly. A U.S. intervention on the cheap has only served to extend and make more tragic the civil war. After Obama left office, this situation got even worse. Trump seemed even more publicly determined to withdraw troops from the Middle East, but even less capable of implementing his policy preference. His subordinates continued the policy, while essentially hoping he would be more focused on Fox News than on the daily briefing on Syria.
But others involved in the conflict had long noticed the lack of American will, and Trump’s frequent pronouncements that he intended to withdraw only added to that perception. If enemies and partners in the region all recognize this lack of will and care enough about the problem, they can choose to escalate in ways that they know the United States will not respond to. For example, one need only look at how Iran has been able to fire ballistic missiles at an American partner’s capital city and, for good measure, follow it with a cruise missile and drone attack on the world’s largest oil processing facility without prompting an overt American military response. Iran can gamble that the United States does not want to fight a war for Saudi Arabia and can therefore impose costs on the United States in ways that remain below the threshold of armed retaliation.
The United States, despite its many remaining advantages, is not so powerful that it can win such wars without even really trying. And it remains unable to properly try. It is simply too politically costly to deploy an adequate number of troops to do everything the U.S. government wants to do in Syria, ranging from holding territory taken from Islamic State to countering Iran, all while defending against encroachment from Russia and the Syrian state.
It would have been better to avoid ever getting into that situation in the first place. Unwinding it has already entailed costs to U.S. allies and America’s reputation, and there will be more. Electing Trump to carry out that effort undoubtedly added to those costs. But it still makes more sense than persisting in the fiction that the United States has sufficient will or interests to achieve its rather lofty mission goals in Syria. It does not.
You go to war, alas, with the country and the president that you have. A large majority of Americans do not care about and thus do not want to fight in Syria and its president is not interested in knowing how. A sober reflection on the American presence in Syria would grapple with the costs of intervention. It would acknowledge that, in the absence of robust political support for the costs of war and a willingness to escalate if it is required, America’s interventions are likely to fail. Donald Trump’s manic direction of foreign policy only makes the problem worse. Even under a more thoughtful leader such an effort would be foolhardy. The U.S. mission in Syria is not clearly defined, its resources are inadequate to the task, and the probability of success is very low. So, continuing it is probably a bad idea.
Jeremy Shapiro is director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he worked at the Brookings Institution and at the Department of State.
Aaron Stein is the director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.