MOSCOW -- When I asked Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday at his annual press conference what he thought of U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, he agreed with Trump's assessment while expressing skepticism about the follow-through.
"Is the presence of American troops required there? I do not think it is," Putin said. "However, let us not forget that their presence, the presence of [American] troops, is illegitimate, as it was not approved by a U.N. Security Council resolution. The military contingent can only be there under a resolution of the U.N. Security Council or at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian government."
Despite Putin concurring with Trump's decision to withdraw troops, Trump attempted to claim otherwise on Twitter.
"Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us," Trump tweeted.
Obviously, Trump is feeling immense pressure to disagree with Putin and to keep the war racket going at any cost.
War hawks upset about Trump's waning interest in continuing to have America serve as the world's policeman have suddenly found themselves in bed with a chorus of supposed anti-war Democrats who would normally be against foreign wars if Trump wasn't in favor of ending them.
"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?" Trump tweeted. "Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight."
The question is: Who are these "others"? Is there going to be a clean and total withdrawal of American troops? Or will they be leaving through the front door, only to re-enter more discreetly through the back door -- perhaps under the jurisdiction of the CIA rather than the Pentagon?
When I asked Putin if he thinks that U.S. troops could remain in Syria in some other form despite the declared drawdown, perhaps as private military contractors, Putin cited Afghanistan as a place where the declared withdrawal of American troops has not resulted in the disappearance of the U.S. military.
"As concerns the withdrawal of American troops, I do not know what that is," Putin said. "The United States have been present in, say, Afghanistan, for how long? Seventeen years, and every year they talk about withdrawing the troops. But they are still there."
Hours after Putin's remarks about the ongoing U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported that Trump had ordered a significant drawdown of troops from there, too. The Pentagon has reportedly been tasked with devising a plan to withdraw nearly half of the more than 14,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The 17-year Afghan war is now so old that if it were a person, it could actually enlist to fight itself. It's almost old enough to buy Defense Secretary James Mattis a beer on his way out the door.
Mattis submitted a letter of resignation to Trump on Thursday and plans to leave at the end of February. Mattis wrote that Trump has a "right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned" with Trump's. The letter makes it clear that Mattis favors America playing the role of world policeman.
In November, Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefed senators about the role of the U.S. in Yemen and about the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Even the CIA has accused the Saudi crown prince of ordering the murder of Khashoggi, but Pompeo reportedly told senators there was "no direct reporting" to prove it. Mattis encouraged the senators to continue backing the Saudis' proxy war against Iran in Yemen, but the Senate has since approved a resolution to withdraw U.S. support.
If Mattis represents the mindset that prevails in U.S. defense institutions, then Trump is right to question it. Just because foreign wars serve to spite Russia, or Iran, or some other perceived foe, that isn't a good enough reason to keep them going.
About the worst thing that could happen to the military-industrial complex and its supporters in the Washington establishment is that all U.S. and foreign military interests withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan -- overt, covert, private, proxies or otherwise -- and peace breaks out. What if the factions in these countries are finally forced to sort things out among themselves without anyone else mucking around in their internal affairs? It seems that everything has been tried except for that.