Jacksonian Trump

Meanwhile, Walter Russell Mead, in his most recent Wall Street Journal column, explains Trump’s actions:

Under investigation for impeachment he may be, but President Trump can still shake the world with his tweets. Explaining his decision to pull U.S. troops away from the Turkish-Syrian border at the cost of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and open the way for Turkish forces to create what Ankara calls a “safety zone,” President Trump tweeted early Monday that “it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”

Hitting the caps-lock button, Mr. Trump went on to restate one of his bedrock beliefs, and a cornerstone of Jacksonian foreign-policy thinking: “WE WILL ONLY FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN.” As for concerns that a U.S. withdrawal would allow Islamic State to re-form, Mr. Trump was dismissive. “We are 7000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!”

Criticism of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal decision has been intense, with prominent supporters like Sen. Lindsey Graham and former officials like Nikki Haley joining longtime opponents of the White House. Much of that criticism is justified, and the erratic nature of Trump-era policy making, as well as the often-unpredictable policy mix that results, are undercutting American prestige and influence in much of the world. But not all of the problems dogging the Trump administration Middle East policy are caused by Mr. Trump’s sometimes idiosyncratic views or policy-making style. As two other news stories from the Middle East last week make clear, the American position in the region is an odd mix of dominance and impotence that makes good policy making hard—and that makes the task of building domestic support for smart policy even harder.

The first development is a success story that underlines how dominant the U.S. has become: Fearing U.S. sanctions, China National Petroleum Corp. has abandoned plans for a multibillion-dollar investment in Iran’s South Pars gas field. This is part of a broader Chinese retreat from Iran in the face of American pressure; the Middle Kingdom isn’t yet ready to challenge the U.S. in the Middle East.

The second development—the violent protests shaking Iraq—tells us something equally important. The U.S. may be the paramount power in the region, but nobody has a solution to the developmental and political crisis that continues to destabilize too many countries across the Middle East.

In Iraq there is no political party or social movement with the vision, discipline and competence to create the kind of country the protesters say they want. Iraq’s politicians can’t deliver the goods. Nor can its civil society, military or religious leadership. More, the U.S., the European Union and the international financial institutions engaged in Iraq don’t know how to bridge the gap between the aspirations of the Iraqi people and the shambles of the nation’s political life. The “reforms” a desperate Iraqi government is proposing in hope of quieting the unrest will mostly make things worse. Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi has promised, for example, to place every Iraqi with a master’s degree or above on the Education Ministry’s payroll. Such measures would degrade the country’s finances, tighten the grip on power of corrupt political parties and block the kinds of change that might someday put Iraq on the road to success.

Iraq isn’t the only country in the region that is trapped in a cycle of dysfunctional governance and blocked development. The forces that produced the Arab Spring—and those that frustrated it—remain at work in the region. Until and unless a path opens for serious economic development, the Middle East will continue to produce despotism, revolution, large streams of migrants, and fanatical religious armies and cults.

Mr. Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to try to hold America back from a Middle East conflict. President Obama made a similar, and similarly hasty, decision in 2013 when he chose not to respond to Syria’s violation of his chemical weapons “red line” with a military strike. Many of the same people criticizing Mr. Trump today criticized Mr. Obama then, and the subsequent course of the Syrian war underlined both the humanitarian and the strategic case against Mr. Obama’s decision. Mr. Trump’s Syria decision may also prove to be a mistake, but it should give the establishment pause that two presidents as different as Messrs. Obama and Trump reached similar conclusions about the political risks in the Middle East.

The U.S. may be the most powerful actor in the region, but it can’t resolve the economic and social conflicts that destabilize the Middle East. As long as this is the case, those who want presidents to commit to long-term military engagements, however limited and however advantageous, must expect a skeptical hearing in the Oval Office.

Dr. Mead is no Jacksonian but he does understand the viewpoint. If the Wilsonians who have been running our foreign policy for the last half century want to continue their proselytization of the world, they need to convince the Hamiltonians to fund those ambitions sufficiently and they might consider taking up arms themselves rather than merely sending Jacksonians to do the heavy lifting for them.

13 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Leaving Syria is probably the right decision. It should have been done better. Sooner or later this impulsiveness and not working with our allies, or not even working with his own staff and our own military leaders means that even if you make the right decision you can still end up with a bad outcome.

    Again, the guy just doesn’t have leadership skills. He doesn’t appear to have a deep level of knowledge on any international issues, but makes impulsive decisions based upon his feelings at the moment. I really have no idea if one of Trump’s bedrock beliefs is Jacksonian, and neither does Meade. If it was, then wouldn’t you expect him to work towards that end? Seems more likely this is something that got a positive response at a rally or something he suddenly decided based upon something someone (probably someone who doesn’t know the area very well) said.

    (Agree with your note in prior post that his tweets on this are just bizarre. Dont worry though, the Trumpkins will defend them.)


  • TastyBits Link

    Is it really this difficult to understand. I will go slow.

    President Trump, candidate Trump, and possibly private citizen Trump have been against the Syrian intervention and the continued involvement. His only condition for withdrawal has been the destruction of ISIS, and to the extent it will ever be possible, that was accomplished.

    The last time he tried to pull out his much vaunted staff and military advisers assured him that the world would end, and we had to stay until all the bad guys were destroyed. He waited, and the bad guys are no closer to be destroyed than last year.

    A certain ER doctor has assured me that killing terrorists only creates more terrorists, but I guess when it is President Trump ordering the killing fewer terrorists. Now, this same ER doctor has decided he was wrong because it is President Trump following his advice.

    The destruction of Turkey’s economy is because the same much vaunted staff and military advisors assure him that Turkey will invade Syria to destroy the Kurds. The tweet is a response to these critics. Even an ER doctor can grasp this simple fact.

    The experts have told us over and over that we are not supposed to telegraph our moves. President Obama’s timetable would be a gift to the terrorists. They would just wait him out. Well, President Trump has not telegraphed anything. Of course, President Trump is held to different standards.

    NEWSFLASH: President Trump wants to get out of Afghanistan.

  • NEWSFLASH: President Trump wants to get out of Afghanistan.

    and I would welcome that. Withdrawal from Syria gives me hope he might do just that.

    As I see it there are only two workable courses of action WRT Afghanistan. Either we withdraw completely or create an explicitly permanent base there with the mission of counter-terrorism. Not counter-insurgency. Counter-terrorism. Create a highly fortified and completely disarmed (other than us) perimeter around the base.

    The second course of action would take an enormous amount of selling so I expect it will need to be the first course of action.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    I think the politics is simple.

    If Congress wants to stay in Syria – they can (fund the war and defund a withdrawal) but Congress would take ownership of that action.

    We all know the answer to, is Congress going to put money where it’s mouth is?

  • TastyBits Link

    When/If President Trump withdraws from Afghanistan, it will be the right thing for the “wrong” reason, and he will be going against all the much vaunted experts.

  • Doesn’t that go without saying?

  • steve Link

    This is difficult for some people to understand. I will go slow. Leaving Syria is probably a good idea. How you accomplish that matters. Execution matters. A person with good leadership skills would tell his advisors that he had made the decision to leave, and ask them for plans on the least disruptive way to do that. In short, even when you make the correct strategic decision bad tactics can still lead to a bad outcome.

    “President Trump, candidate Trump, and possibly private citizen Trump have been against the Syrian intervention”

    President Trump increased our involvement. I suspect that you could, if you looked, find candidate Trump on both sides of the issue like he was on so many others.

    “The experts have told us over and over”

    No, that was largely Republicans criticizing Obama, not “experts”.

    ” President Trump is held to different standards.”

    He should be held to the same standards. When he exhibits leadership that is good. When he engages in impulsive behavior with no regard for consequences he should be criticized.

    NEWSFLASH: If Trump wants us out of Afghanistan he has the power to do it. He should PLAN for our leaving. (See the theme here?) My bet is that we get another impulsive decision with no forethought and you will defend it again.


  • TastyBits Link

    I would like to know where you got the information that President Trump just woke up yesterday and decided to withdraw from Syria. Please do not cite the usual cast of characters.

    So, you agree that Trump is, was, and always has been against intervening and remaining Syria. He has held the same position on Iraq, but he said the same thing about President’s Iraq withdrawal. He was as wrong about that as you are about this.

    (Just so I am as clear as possible. I have fully and unequivocally supported President Obama’s decision to honor the agreement negotiated by his predecessor. Furthermore, I am one of the few that have defended that decision without any equivocation.

    Had President Obama decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, he would have had to work hard to give me a reason to criticise it. Frankly, I cannot fathom what a reason could be.)

    The Republicans want to withdraw once ‘conditions are met’, and Democrats want to withdraw at some future date. No matter how you phrase it, never is never, and all experts agree. I saw that the smartest woman in the whole wide world was aghast – Liz Cheney or Hillary Clinton, take your pick.

    (Here is a bit of free advice. When you agree with Cheney and Clinton, you should probably reconsider your position.)

    Again, I would be interested in what you call “impulsive behavior” and “no regard for consequences”.

    It is not President Trump’s duty to consult you, Liz Cheney, Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton, Gen. Jack Keane, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, MSNBC, CNN, Shepard Smith, Bill Kristol, or any other of your neocon buddies, and there is no amount of leadership skills that will allow any of you all to stop the hating President Trump for anything and everything.

    NEWSFLASH: There is no plan that will appease any of you all.

    If you want Trump supporters to believe you, you need to stop lying, admit you have been lying, and affirm the truth.

  • Andy Link

    Well, I’ve been skeptical of the Syrian intervention from the beginning, but I’m mostly with Steve here.

    There is certainly an argument to be made that we shouldn’t telegraph our moves in some contexts, but doing that isn’t smart when it comes to your own government and the people who have to operationalize a decision that came as a surprise. I’m ok with Trump keeping America’s adversaries off-balance, but keeping your own government just as off-balance just isn’t smart.

    Trump doesn’t understand or care that maybe there is value in letting the ship of state do a little bit of planning and preparation ahead of a major FP move. It would also, perhaps, preserve relationships we might need in the future. A week or two to transition is better than just giving the Kurds a big “surprise” eff you.

    Yes, I agree we can’t make Northern Syria into a Kurdish protectorate, and we should depart as soon as practicable. But it’s certainly much better to do so deliberately than suddenly.

  • steve Link

    “It is not President Trump’s duty to consult you, Liz Cheney, Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton, Gen. Jack Keane, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, MSNBC, CNN, Shepard Smith, Bill Kristol, or any other of your neocon buddies”

    Agreed. However he should consult and inform the JCOS, State Department, NSA (if he had a good one) and the countries we work with in the Middle East so that we can leave quickly but also in a way that leaves us in the best possible position fo the future. It is actually mostly irrelevant whether or not I actually agree or disagree with whatever plan is decided upon. What I want is input from knowledgeable people who know the area and peoples well so the decision will be carried out as best as possible.

    I think your need to defend Trump is so strong you are just blind here. I am supporting the decision to leave. I think it is being carried out poorly. This isn’t hard to understand I dont think. Maybe you have to have been in charge of an organization or been in the military to understand this. Let me try one last time. The decision to invade Germany on D-Day was probably a good one. If it had been an impulsive one without adequate planning it would likely have not succeeded or we would have lost a lot more people.


  • TastyBits Link

    I will do this slowly.

    President Trump did consult the people who needed to be consulted, and there is a plan. The problem is that the people who want to stop the plan were not consulted, and they are mad. It is pointless to inform the same people who have tried to sabotage anything they do not like.

    From what I understand of the plan, troops are not being pulled out. They are being pulled back.

    Trump hatred has blinded you to reality, and you are becoming more and more delusional.

  • Andy Link

    The Turkish invasion of Syria going to plan. Trump’s geopolitical genius is on display for all to see.

    I’m seeing visions of Srebrenica, but I, for one, hope it doesn’t come to that.

    BTW, no one actually on the ground seems to have been informed of your boy’s plans beforehand. I have some friends in Iraq right now who are supporting various Syrian operations and they’ve told me they didn’t know this was coming. Strange, eh? Do you have an explanation for that Tasty?

  • TastyBits Link


    Again, the President does not consult or brief anybody other than high ranking military personnel, or at least, neither President Bush nor Gen. Schwarzkopf consulted anybody in my unit. Maybe things have changed.

    The process was that you did not know shit until ‘the word’ came down, and then, you had no idea of why you were doing it. Again, maybe things are different. Maybe, they vote on what to do.

    If they do not know this was coming, I am not sure what is the problem, but maybe, things are different.

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