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The new sheriff in town

{Originally posted to the Gatestone Institute website}

Like some of his other quick-tweet decisions, President Donald Trump’s announcement, last month, on troop withdrawal from Syria, triggered a tsunami of instant-coffee comment, most of it adverse.


Ardent advocates of global retreat by the United States feigned anger because Trump was doing what their darling Barack Obama dared not contemplate. Dyed-in-the-wool isolationists hailed the tweet as the start of a return to the Monroe Doctrine, while pathological Trump-haters labeled it as another example of his supposed subservience to Vladimir Putin.

Had everyone waited a little bit longer, the storm-raising tweet may have looked different in the manner that a hologram seems different from different angles.

If a week is a long time in politics, a month must be four times longer. So, what does the quick-tweet “decision” look like now?

The first thing to note is that the term withdrawal has given its place to another term: drawdown. Next, a number of conditions have been added to what sounded like a straightforward unconditional decision to cut and run.

We are now told that a timetable must be established and a commitment must be obtained from Turkey not to attack Washington’s Kurdish allies in Syria. Furthermore, the US military presence won’t be ended without “total defeat” of what is left of the ISIS. We are also told that “drawdown” depends on success in sorting out the fate of over 800 ISIS fighters from 48 countries, including 10 European Union members, held by America’s Kurdish allies.

More importantly, perhaps, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is dispatched on a tour of regional allied capitals to add a few reassuring “ifs” and “buts” of his own.

But what about the initial quick-tweet decision itself? It could be understood, if not necessarily justified, in three different ways.

The first is that with just 2,000 troops, mostly technicians and training officers, America’s presence in Syria is more symbolic than determinant in military terms.

However, such a symbol of interest gives the US a say in shaping the future of Syria, which must now be regarded as a territory without a functioning government. The question is how much of a say?

Contrary to what some Trump-haters believe, Putin would love to keep the Americans in Syria as far as they play second or, in fact, fourth, fiddle. America’s symbolic involvement could enable Moscow to demand that the US foot part of the bill for rebuilding Syria the way Putin wants.

The Europeans, who are also directly affected by themes that Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers have created, would also like to keep the Americans involved if only in their capacity as “room service” providers.

Over the years, I have heard numerous European officials asserting that if, for example, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or the mullahs in Iran went too far, the Americans would deal with it. In Syria, over 20,000 jihadis from the European Union and Russia joined ISIS. But now clearing the region of that plague is a task for the Americans, while Russia’s task is to destroy the non-jihadi opponents of Bashar al-Assad.

In other words, the nastiest regimes could go far, sometimes very far in savagery, but not too far and if they did, the 800-pound American gorilla would be called, unleashed. If we were a cynic, we might even suggest that leaving Syria to Putin might not be such a bad idea. With his economy in poor shape and his military resources stretched, Putin might not enjoy being pinned down in a chaotic Syria for years, if not decades. Being bogged down in Syria may even temper his appetite elsewhere, notably, in Ukraine and the Baltic states.

Decades ago, the French novelist Romain Gary wrote a novel called “Adieu Gary Cooper,” in which he imagined a world without an America symbolized by the hero of “High Noon”. That was a world in which there was no Gary Cooper to fight for justice; to defend the weak even when no one else would come to help, and to keep bullies and killers in check.

No one knows how Trump’s quick-tweet decision may end up; it may morph into something quite different or, like many other of his tweets, simply be consigned to oblivion in an epoch of short attention-span.

The sad fact is that the current atmosphere of passionate hatred prevents a cool and clinical debate on America’s role in a world order it has largely created and policed for almost seven decades.

Those feigning outrage over the supposed “abandoning of America’s Kurdish allies” behave as if the US has never shifted gears before. At the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson won millions of hearts across the globe, especially in Europe and the Middle East, promoting “self-determination” for oppressed nations. Within a year, all that was forgotten and Wilson’s successor wouldn’t touch “other peoples’ business” with a barge pole. Some old empires were rejuvenated and new semi-colonial mandates were imposed on many nations.

Before the end of World War II, at Yalta, President Franklin Roosevelt transferred the fate of many nations in central and eastern Europe to Josef Stalin — his “Uncle Joe”. President John F. Kennedy stabbed America’s Vietnamese allies in the back by concocting a military coup against their regime. Later, President Gerald Ford simply walked away from Vietnam, abandoning tens of millions who became refugees or captives in their own land. In 1975, Henry Kissinger stopped US support for Iraqi Kurds, giving Saddam Hussein a free hand in suppressing their national aspirations.

More recently, President Obama posed as a defender of human rights but refused to lift a finger to help Iranians rising for democracy and Syrians fighting for dignity.

Thus Trump is being castigated for something that he might do but hasn’t done yet, while many of his predecessors actually did.

Americans need to debate the role they wish to play in an increasingly complex and unstable world. Gesticulation is no substitute for strategy. The US cannot ride through the world’s filthiest swamps without getting bark mulch on its boots.

Gary Cooper had a choice: Stand and fight or jump into the cabriolet where his new bride was waiting to start their honeymoon trip.

Unwittingly, perhaps, and in his unorthodox way, Trump may have invited Americans to also contemplate the choice they have.

(Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979)