US National Security Advisor John Bolton (left) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (right) listen as President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office February 7, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Win McNamee | AFP
Every time the Middle East experiences a spell of deceptive calm as part of the natural ebb and flow of conflict, the comfortable bubble of nonwar triggers off furious debates in Washington over what constitutes an ideal national-security policy. The present time, by all accounts, is one such period.
On the one hand, US President Donald Trump's Syria military withdrawal order has suffered a withering backlash from his Republican allies, security hawks and foreign leaders who reject his argument that the Islamic State group (ISIS) has been defeated. On the other hand, a passel of policy wonks, leftwing "progressives" and informal political lobbyists have found a kindred spirit in a president who thinks the United States should not be fighting "forever wars" in distant lands.
In a society as open as the United States, people have a constitutional right to not only disagree with the official foreign policy, but also to advocate its replacement with their own worldview. To this end, essays and opinion pieces in respected publications, TV interviews, social-media posts and meetings with influential legislators are regarded as legitimate tools of persuasion and lobbying. However, as discerning observers of America's political discourse know all too well, there is more to the ongoing security-policy debates than meets the eye.
Many of the people who have supported Trump's shock troop-withdrawal decisions would want the world to believe they are inspired by unalloyed pacifism, bleeding-heart liberalism or concern for Middle East stability. But that is hard to credit.
Rightly or wrongly, Trump's obsession with military withdrawals is of a piece with his nativist beliefs and firm conviction that Americans are being shortchanged by their allies and partners. But for the others, who range from "progressive" Democrats and critics of Israeli hard power to supporters of Islamist dispensations spanning the Shia-Sunni divide, the value of Trump's isolationist streak may very well lie in its potential for undermining America's credibility and leadership.
The theory that the US should simply allow the animosities of the Middle East to play out is nothing if not a strategy for the defeat of America's allies and partners and the triumph of its adversaries. A variant of such a declinist foreign policy was put into practice most recently during Barack Obama's presidency. The results can be counted, among other things, in mass graves, chemical attacks, sprawling camps for refugees and internally displaced people, slain Western journalists and aid workers, and emboldened "malign actors and strategic competitors.”
The tough-talking diplomatic and national-security professionals that Trump has empowered are certainly not above reproach. For instance, they have made no attempt to be fair, or be seen to be fair, when it comes to the concerns of Palestinians. Nevertheless, in matters involving Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey and the Arab Gulf region, the State Department and the National Security Council cannot be accused under the circumstances of being either unduly hawkish or dangerously dovish.
As it turns out, their concerns over a US disengagement from the Middle East (and Afghanistan) are shared by a sizable majority of Republican legislators and the wider foreign-policy establishment. Consequently, it seems that Syria and Iraq are not going to be left in the near future entirely at the mercy of terrorist groups, regional strongmen and a Hobbesian fate. As the international coalition's Kurdish and Arab ground forces mop up the last pockets of ISIS, the prospect of Turkey, Iran, Syria or Russia deploying their forces to sow chaos and bloodshed in northeastern Syria is slowly receding.
No doubt, defeating ISIS remnants and rooting out the group's "sleeper cells" continue to be a principal objective of the US military in the Middle East. But as Trump honestly, albeit tactlessly, acknowledged in a recent TV interview, there can be no US military exit as long as Iran's "deep state" refuses to face the facts and end its many foreign entanglements. Although the US military presence is regrettably not significant enough to deter regular attacks on Washington's Kurdish and Arab Gulf partners, its absence could well prove the starting shot for a devastating Middle East conflict pitting Israel against Iran and its proxy forces.
Against this backdrop of a tense calm, the departures of Pentagon chief James Mattis and anti-ISIS point-man Brett McGurk over the Syria pullout order have left the US administration badly shaken, while their competence, wisdom and warnings about the future have made a strong impression on Washington's national-security and foreign-policy establishments.
To be sure, in the busy US marketplace of ideas, those who are at best apathetic and at worst hostile towards Washington's traditional allies in the Middle East are unlikely to abandon their self-interested campaign against interventionism and fall silent. But for now, their specious arguments and defeatist logic have clearly failed to find many takers at the all-important decision-making level.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.