The United States has never had any good options in confronting the grim realities of the Syrian civil war. Trump’s decision to get out may or may not be a good one. It may not have been made for the right reasons and it surely doesn’t reflect a thoughtful consideration of all its implications. But it is not nearly as consequential as some of the alarmists—including the editorial board of the New York Times–would have us believe. (The fact that the alarmists include the likes of Sens. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton tells me that Trump’s decision cannot be all bad.) We are talking about 2,000 troops functioning as trainers. Not a big commitment in the grand scheme of things. The idea that their withdrawal threatens the collapse of the war against ISIS is just not plausible. Trump’s claim that that war is already won is grossly overoptimistic, but in any case, it will go on: as Trump himself observed, Russia also sees ISIS as its enemy, as does the Assad regime.
Of course, Trump’s assertion that Russia is “not happy” about his decision is a typical Trumpian falsehood. This is indeed a victory for Russia and Assad and also for Iran. I don’t particularly like being nice to bad guys. But even the United States of America has limited resources, and our ability to make a real difference in Syria is limited. We need to ask ourselves whether our involvement there serves the interests of the American people. For kneejerk interventionists like Graham et. al., the answer is obvious. For the rest of us, it shouldn’t be.
It will be interesting to see how Democrats react to Trump’s decision. The temptation will be to stake out a position to the hawkish right of the president, as many have done on Russia and Korea. That would be unfortunate, because ultimately this is really about much more than Syria. It is about a foreign policy that assumes American power can and must be actively engaged practically everywhere in the world. In his ignorance and amorality, Trump has challenged that assumption. So far none of the potential Democratic presidential possibilities has had anything to say about Trump’s decision. I predict that some will criticize the president for irresponsible retreatism. Hopefully, others will come up with a more thoughtful and nuanced response. We shall see.