Wednesday, December 19, 2018

US and Syria: WTF?

So, Trump is now pulling US troops out of Syria.  Yeah, the US had something like 2k troops there.  To do what?  Ah, there's the rub.  I will explain below as I respond to those who responded to my hottake:

Before responding to those who responded to this, why this take?  For several reasons, but most importantly, for the US to stay in some spot, there should be, like, an argument for that.  That is, the default should not be "stay" but go.  There should be a positive reason--that the troops are doing something that is important.  Even if they are not making progress, it might be ok to stay--holding the line, keeping an important commitment, etc can be reasonable reasons to stay.  I am not thrilled with the Afghanistan forever war, but it is easier to make claims about the virtues of sticking around.  The government there is one that the US and its friends have built and supported, that the government's policies may not be perfect but are better than what they would be without an American presence, that it gives the US some influence over the terms of the eventual negotiated settlement (that the presence of US troops makes far more likely).

In this US, we get the blob, the DC consensus, arguing folks need to stay (and do more, whatever more is) because they have intellectual investments in US intervention or they want to avoid being blamed when shit goes badly after we left (see Obama).  In Canada, I am convinced that it still has troops in Iraq mostly to defend the Liberals from the opposition accusing the Liberals of cutting and running (which is rich, given the Conservatives pulled Canada out of Kandahar three years before everyone else pulled out).  Again, the forever war machine is all about fear--of being blamed.

Ok, onto the questions/criticisms:

Sara is a pal and is super-smart, so I wade into twitter argument with her warily.  But, um, haven't the Russians already won?  That is, if their goal was to keep Assad in place, they have won.  If the joint goal is to reduce ISIS to an insurgency rather than a quasi-state, haven't we all won?

My response:
Iran matters, Saudi Arabia matters, but what does withdrawal from Syria do to all of this?  My basic answer is not much.

Onto another smart scholar, one who I have never met but has become a regular twitter correspondent over the course of 2018:

Regarding the first question, sure, why not?  If it is an independent action--that it does not teach the doer to repeat doing similar things for the wrong reasons.  If the action does good or if it does not do much harm.  I am tempted to summon the evil god of Equifinality--that there are multiple causal pathways to an action--and what matters most is the outcome.

Which gets to the second question--what matters more--actions or messages?  Well, since I tend to drink from the waters of confirmation bias, I would argue that messages will always be read by the reader in ways that confirm their previous views, so the precedent set by the US leaving a place because the President is an ignoramus will be minimal.  Actions?  They matter although they get read in ways that confirm people's biases as well, but they have budgetary impacts (troops based in US are cheaper than in Syria) and impacts on people's lives (the soldiers will not be in harm's way at home).  What impact do the troops have in Syria?  Let me know what that is before suggesting that they stick around.

Again, what is the right end state?  A democratic Syria?  Two thousand troops are not going to get us there.  Assad gone?  Again, nope.  Save the Kurds from the Turks?  Hmmm, maybe, but not really an endstate.  Deny Russia an ally in the region?  See Assad sticking around.

Some other dynamics here that haven't been brought up:
  • This is something Trump has wanted to do for some time, but he got slow-rolled by the Pentagon which now has to develop quickly policies to figure this out.  Folks have cheered this on, but, well, that sucks for civilian control of the military.  Many have been rooting for lots of shirking lately, and that ain't great.  So, back to Dr. J: which matters more--stopping a US departure or respecting the chain of command?
  • Holy holes in government, Batman!!!  Apparently, there was a State Department press release about the long term US commitment to Syria.  Ooops.
Anyhow, these are tough questions and Syria is the land of bad policy options.  But sticking around to avoid making hard decisions is just a way to waste money and risk the lives of American troops unless there is a good reason to stick around.

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