It’s tempting to wonder how the debate over President Trump’s announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan would have played out if it were a decision by Barack Obama or another Democratic president. The loudest criticism has come from Republican lawmakers and commentators of a neoconservative bent like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and Marc Thiessen, and Bill Kristol.
But some liberal voices, who would normally be skeptical of open-ended military commitments of dubious legality and strategic value, have also been rallying around Secretary of Defense James Mattis—who wants commitments of exactly that sort to continue indefinitely—and questioning Trump’s motives.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Trump’s announcement a “Christmas gift to Vladimir Putin.” Sen. Tim Kaine, a leading critic of the executive branch’s abuse of its wars powers, wrote in a statement, “This irresponsible move by the President poses a serious threat to servicemembers as they conduct a hasty withdrawal in an uncertain security environment.” Rachel Maddow devoted a segment of her show on Wednesday to the argument that Trump might be doing this to distract from the latest Mueller investigation news. The New York Times editorial board, which has raised alarms repeatedly about the “forever wars,” wrote on Wednesday that Trump should listen to his more hawkish advisors—that withdrawal from Syria would be a gift to Putin and an abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies.
Some left-wing Democrats, Rep. Ro Khanna for instance, have come out in full support of Trump’s move. But other Democrats, particularly the leading 2020 candidates, seem to be mostly holding back, letting Republicans fight about this among themselves.
Are Democrats simply, as some contend, just hypocrites, opposing a withdrawal they would otherwise support simply because it’s Trump who ordered it? Some naked partisanship is clearly coming into play, particularly in the cable news reactions. And it’s also undoubtedly true that Democrats are more comfortable decrying forever wars in the abstract, without contending with what ending them would actually entail: strategic victories for U.S. adversaries, the abandonment of local allies and civilians to a grim fate.
But it’s also more complicated than that. For one thing, many “liberals” have been consistent on this. Barack Obama also argued from the start of his presidency that the U.S. should prioritize the war in Afghanistan. The military operation against ISIS in Syria was an initiative begun by the Obama administration. Many of his advisers wanted him to do more to confront Bashar al-Assad. It should hardly be surprising that National Security Action, a new foreign policy pressure group started by former Obama administration officials, decried Trump’s move. There are plenty of liberal analysts—the Center for American Progress’ Brian Katulis to take just one example—who called for the deployment of U.S. military advisers to fight ISIS and now oppose their removal. And even if you support withdrawing troops, it’s still fair to object to Trump’s incorrect statement that ISIS has been defeated and raise questions about his seeming eagerness to please the leaders of Turkey and Russia.
It’s also a legitimate, non-hypocritical position to support ending these wars and oppose the way Trump is going about it: spending two years ramping up both wars and removing safeguards meant to prevent civilian casualties, then abruptly pulling out, leaving ongoing diplomatic efforts twisting in the wind and abandoning U.S. allies to their fate without so much as a warning. Sen. Chris Murphy, a leading critic of Trump on war-powers issues, particularly on Yemen, attempted this sort of nuanced argument in his statement on Syria:
The Trump administration’s policy of prolonging the violence in Syria while locking people inside and refusing to allow refugees to come to the United States is morally repugnant and has without a doubt made us less safe. I support withdrawing troops, but we must also rejoin a diplomatic process that the Trump administration has left to other powers, and we need a surge in humanitarian relief. That’s the only way we can protect the Syrian people against a Turkish incursion or regime reprisals.
That all seems basically correct, though understandably you won’t hear many people making such a nuanced argument on cable news shows or the campaign trail.
This is one question where partisan categories aren’t all that useful. There are left-wing Democrats and Freedom Caucus Republicans who have been skeptical of the U.S. military operations in Syria and Afghanistan under both Obama and Trump. There are hawkish Democrats and Republicans who wanted stronger U.S. commitments under both presidents.
As I wrote recently, many leading Democrats seem to be trying to thread the needle by adopting a framework of a global struggle against authoritarianism that’s vaguely reminiscent of neoconservatism while eschewing the embrace of military force that defined that movement. Trump’s current position somewhat confounds that stance by being both anti-militarist and accommodating to his authoritarian friends. In many ways, it was easier for Democratic critics when Trump was both embracing dictators and glumly going along with Mattis’ expanded troop deployments.
You can say one thing for the president’s foreign policy: He’s forcing his opponents to break out of easy ideological categories and figure out what their real priorities are.
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