Opinion

The Danger in Trump's Syria Policy

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Posted: Oct 20, 2019 12:01 AM
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The Danger in Trump's Syria Policy

Source: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

I think it was last Thanksgiving that a bright young family member told me about his fear that President Donald Trump would start World War III.

He had watched Trump, the infamous counterpuncher, retaliate during political debates and tiffs with celebrities who had the cheek to challenge him, and he saw a man who always gave harder than he got. So this young man was afraid Trump would rain nukes on some scrappy little country that didn't salute when Trump took the stage.

I told him he was wrong to see Trump as a warmonger.

Trump campaigned on getting U.S. troops out of "endless wars." He was an early critic of President George W. Bush's push to plant U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq. Having evaded military service in Vietnam, Trump does not want to preside over a modern Vietnam.

Yes, Trump loves military men -- or at least he did last year, before Defense Secretary Jim Mattis quit rather than command the removal of U.S. troops from Syria and John Kelly, an upright onetime Marine general, tried to assert some discipline in the anything-goes Trump White House.

But Trump does not love war. Sure, he enjoyed bombing Syria because Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people -- as he did once in 2017 and once in 2018, with no boots on the ground. Trump saw bonus points when he got to tell Chinese President Xi Jinping about the attack over chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago.

But sending young Americans to die in a foreign land fighting in a war with no clear path to victory ... to Trump, that is the definition of folly. That was part of his appeal.

In the past few weeks, as Trump talked about the burden of notifying military families that they have lost a beloved child, it was clear that Trump gets no joy from such moments. But that doesn't mean Trump can do no harm.

What you should fear, I told my esteemed relative, is that Trump could do lasting damage to U.S. national security by doing too little, as the world is seeing with Turkey's incursion in Syria.

Trump is too smitten with strongmen such as North Korea's Kim Jong-un and Russia's Vladimir Putin. They know how to play the insecure Trump, a president who oddly craves their approval. Every time the tough-guy president coos over the letters Kim has sent him, national security solons shudder.

That's what happened earlier this month when Trump effectively gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a green light to invade northeast Syria. Trump maintained that Erdogan was going to send Turkish forces across the border whether or not Trump moved fewer than 50 U.S. troops out of harm's way. Trump sees his decision as saving U.S. lives.

But it's hard to believe Erdogan would have allowed his military to engage with -- never mind fight and kill -- a NATO ally that happens to be the most formidable superpower on Earth.

For now, that is.

I hear the Trump base jumping to defend his Turkey telephone talk, because it does show that Trump takes seriously the campaign promises that put him in the Oval Office. He sticks to his guns. Even when they're empty.

This episode, alas, exposes a hubris shared with his predecessor, Barack Obama. Both presidents had scorn for Bush for sending U.S. troops into a war that could have no satisfactory ending, and thus they chose to act as if they could turn back time with the flourish of a pen. Yes, both men were going to show their critics how it could be done, how they alone could change history.

When Obama ordered U.S. troops out of Iraq, he made the Middle East a more dangerous place as he dishonored the sacrifices made before he took office. Trump mimicked the same bad play on Oct. 6, despite countless warnings of the consequences.

Russia is now patrolling Syria, and Trump is fine with it. "Syria may have some help with Russia, and that's fine," Trump told reporters Wednesday. "It's a lot of sand."

Trump feels no remorse about strengthening Putin's hand in the Middle East. He dismissed the sacrifice made by the Kurds as well as the bond felt by the U.S. troops who battled ISIS with them.

Fox News national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin tweeted: "I just spoke to a distraught US Special Forces soldier who is among the 1000 or so US troops in Syria tonight who is serving alongside the SDF Kurdish forces. It was one of the hardest phone calls I have ever taken. 'I am ashamed for the first time in my career.'"

With this story, Trump risks alienating young troops and older veterans who thought he understood their pain. But if he did, he never would have opened the gates for Turkish forces.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.