During the 2016 election, many voters were dismayed by both major-party candidates. Hillary Clinton was the personification of the Washington establishment foreign-policy hawk, with her dismal track record of urging ill-conceived military interventions. And Donald Trump, who railed against squandering American blood and treasure abroad, possessed neither the knowledge nor the experience nor the discipline nor the character to steer America’s approach to geopolitics in a better direction.
As if those choices weren’t dispiriting enough, I fretted that for all Donald Trump’s denunciations of the Iraq War and promises to spend money at home rather than abroad, a careful assessment of his words showed that his own instincts were interventionist—that he was no less likely than his opponent to blunder into a major war.
In Syria today, President Trump is risking just such a conflict.
“American forces and American allies are not only taking territory from ISIS, they’re holding that territory against regime forces,” David French writes at National Review. “There’s a word for what happens when a foreign power takes and holds territory without the consent of the sovereign state —‘invasion.’ In many ways, current American policy is a lighter-footprint, less ambitious version of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We’re using local allies, but our own boots are on the ground, and we’re directly defending our forces and our allies from threats from Syria’s own government.” In his estimation, “the key warring parties increasingly face a stark choice—agree to a de facto partition of the country or inch toward a great-power conflict.”
To wit, an American fighter shot down a Syrian warplane on Sunday, “the first time the American military has downed a Syrian aircraft since the start of the civil war in 2011.” Observers immediately called the incident a marked escalation in the conflict.
And their view was quickly vindicated: “Russia on Monday condemned the American military’s downing of a Syrian warplane, suspending the use of a military hotline that Washington and Moscow have used to avoid collisions in Syrian airspace and threatening to target aircraft flown by the United States and its allies over Syria.”
Those skeptical of U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war have long warned that it could escalate into a civilization-warping conflict between nuclear powers. But neither Vietnam nor Afghanistan nor Iraq nor Libya has persuaded today’s hawks to sufficiently weight the unintended consequences that plague all complex military interventions. And there are so many varieties of hawks that are urging action.
The complexity of the civil war in Syria is underscored by the fact that the ascendant pro-war faction inside the Trump administration is composed of Iran hawks. According to reporters Kate Brannen, Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary at Just Security, antagonism toward Iran is causing two officials in the Trump White House to push for broadening the conflict, against the advice of officials at the Pentagon:
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East advisor, want the United States to start going on the offensive in southern Syria … Their plans are making even traditional Iran hawks nervous, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has personally shot down their proposals more than once, the two sources said … Despite the more aggressive stance pushed by some White House officials, Mattis, military commanders and top U.S. diplomats all oppose opening up a broader front against Iran and its proxies in southeastern Syria, viewing it as a risky move that could draw the United States into a dangerous confrontation with Iran, defense officials said. Such a clash could trigger retaliation against U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Syria, where Tehran has armed thousands of Shiite militia fighters and deployed hundreds of Revolutionary Guard officers.
Put another way, Iran hawks in the Trump White House want to broaden the conflict there in a manner that pits the U.S. against another country that also seeks the defeat of ISIS, the ostensible reason the U.S. is involved in Syria in the first place.
Meanwhile, hawks in Iran are escalating that country’s role in Syria: “Iran announced Sunday the Iran Revolutionary Guards had launched ballistic missile strikes on Saturday against ISIS targets in Syria, dramatically escalating the country’s role in the Syrian conflict. The mid-range ground-to-ground missiles targeted militants in eastern Syria in retaliation for the deadly terrorist attacks in Tehran earlier this month.”
The American public does not want a major intervention in Syria.
“There has never been a congressional vote authorizing U.S. military operations in Syria against anyone, and there has been scant debate over any of the goals that the U.S. claims to be pursuing there,” Daniel Larison notes. “The U.S. launches attacks inside Syria with no legal authority from the U.N. or Congress, and it strains credulity that any of these operations have anything to do with individual or collective self-defense.”
And the push for escalation is a particular betrayal for Trump voters who supported the candidate based on rhetoric about quickly defeating ISIS and otherwise eschewing war. Here is what Trump had to say back when President Obama was contemplating a greater U.S. role in Syria: “What I am saying is stay out of Syria… AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA – IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!”
Today, escalation in Syria risks those “very bad things,” along with American lives and treasure, but Trump’s current rhetoric suggests he is more focused on his ongoing feud with the news media, Hillary Clinton, and whether he is under investigation. His approach carries all the risks of Washington establishment hawkery with none of the steadiness, experience or discipline that helps to mitigate them.
“We’re inching toward an outright invasion and extended occupation of northern Syria,” French writes at National Review. “All without congressional approval. All without meaningful public debate.” Will Trump’s base stand for this betrayal? So long as he is commander in chief, the U.S. will suffer from the worst qualities of the establishment and its antagonists. It is hard to imagine a president less fit to avoid catastrophe.