The American people are tired of war. After 18 years of continuous conflict – so long that fathers and sons have fought in the same war – fatigue and frustration with the exercise of US military force abroad pervade our political culture. This is not new. Nominally anti-war candidates have won the past three presidential elections. Indeed, one of the many perverse features of the 2016 campaign was that the strongest denunciation of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq came not from the Democrat on the debate stage but from Donald Trump. So seemingly indifferent to the painful toll of endless war was Hillary Clinton’s campaign that it could very well have cost her the election.
Trump, of course, did not campaign as a principled anti-interventionist or anti-imperialist but as an amoral dealmaker, willing to pull the US out of entanglements deemed too costly or arrangements with allies deemed ungrateful. Yet he has governed, at least for the bulk of his term, much more like a conventional Republican than the flouter of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus he sometimes postured to be. Hawkish generals, neocons and hardcore Islamophobes have largely occupied the key policy-making positions in his administration. Instead of “ending endless wars”, as he has periodically pledged to do, Trump has mostly done the opposite: vetoing in April a resolution that would have ended US military involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen; expanding US military presence in Saudi Arabia; and repeatedly risking armed conflict with Iran.
It is a sad irony that Trump’s recent catastrophic decision to withdraw US troops from north-eastern Syria and approve Turkey’s invasion may be the closest his administration has come to substantially contravening the foreign policy establishment’s dictates and actually reducing US military presence abroad. The withdrawal from Syria is the exact opposite of principled anti-interventionism: incoherent, inconsistent and likely to imperil already vulnerable progressive and democratic forces. As Meredith Tax writes, it is a colossal betrayal of the Kurds, many of whom have fought and died alongside US troops trying to expel the Islamic State from their territory, and a terrible blow to the revolutionary experiment in Rojava, which has offered the international left a glimpse of a new political paradigm in practice.
An unstrategic, chaotic move that has already taken innocent people’s lives, Trump’s Syria withdrawal should be a warning to those too easily seduced by the president’s erratic opposition to US foreign involvement – an orientation grounded in the mercenary logic of the protection racket, not respect for international law or a commitment to human rights. It is crucial not to confuse the president’s cruel calculus with a genuine commitment to ending protracted wars, regardless of what he might tweet.
Trump’s Syria withdrawal should also serve as a reminder to liberals and leftists of the urgent need to articulate a strong alternative to the policies of imperial maintenance – a swollen defense budget, drone strikes and targeted assassinations – advocated by Democrats and Republicans alike as well as to the cruel, cynical foreign policy of Trump.
This is a moral imperative: not only in light of US imperial maintenance’s direct human cost, felt most acutely by those whose countries and societies have been torn apart by US invasion or intervention, but also in light of what could be accomplished domestically by taking the substantial resources currently used to end lives abroad and reallocating them to improve and save lives at home through reinvestments in the country’s fraying social safety net.
And, in the midst of a presidential election campaign, it is a political imperative. Trump’s re-election campaign may be mired in scandal and seemingly disorganized, but there is no doubt that Trump and his operatives understand the electoral benefits of an anti-interventionist posture; it worked for them before, and it could work for them again. The Syrian withdrawal should be understood with this in mind, as should Trump’s proposed drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan. After all, the places where it matters that loved ones have returned from active duty are places where the Democratic nominee will need to win if Trump is to be defeated.
They will fail to do so if the Democratic foreign policy position is characterized by kneejerk defensiveness about the Obama administration’s foreign policy legacy (eg Joe Biden) or the pabulum of “American leadership” (eg Pete Buttigieg) that, in practice, means sending more US soldiers, and civilians, in countries around the world, to their deaths.
Instead, the Democrats must put forward a vision of US foreign policy that pairs a principled opposition to endless wars with a commitment to begin a responsible, comprehensive pullback of US military presence abroad. Fears of a possible backlash to this are probably overstated. In ways not always intelligible as such, a war-weary people demands a respite.