Trump and Obama May Be Complete Opposites — but Their Syria Policies Are Nearly Identical

The greatest concern should not be over the end of the relatively small-scale American presence in Syria, but over what Trump may still do on the international stage

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In this April 4, 2018 photo, a U.S. soldier waves as he sits on an armored vehicle, at a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij town, north Syria.
In this April 4, 2018 photo, a U.S. soldier waves as he sits on an armored vehicle, at a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij town, north Syria. Credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

It may be hard to get used to the idea at the moment, but not every U.S. government policy decision is only due to Donald Trump. It’s true of course that the abrupt timing of the American withdrawal from Syria is up to the capricious president, acting against the advice of his national security advisers, but it is totally in line with American policy over the past decade. It’s also in line with the American public’s mood at this time.

In the last three presidential elections, American voters could have elected candidates who favored global intervention. They had the option to vote for Cold War warrior John McCain in 2008. In 2012, there was Mitt Romney, who warned of the return of an aggressive Russia in one of the presidential debates (only to have Barack Obama respond facetiously that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back”). In 2016, there was Hillary Clinton, who proposed a no-fly zone over Syria.

In each of these elections, the candidate who was against military adventurism won. There are of course no two presidents more unalike than Obama and Trump, but when it comes to international military intervention, their policies are identical. Their motives may be different, but for both, the bottom line is that they’ve been against it.

Obama preferred diplomacy and disliked talk of “American exceptionalism.” Trump wants to make America great again, but his conclusion is the same as Obama’s — that there be as little direct involvement and as few boots on the ground far from America’s shores as possible.

>> Syria's Kurds feel trapped between threats from Assad and Turkey

There is no shortage of moral, geopolitical or historical reasons for the greatest superpower in history to commit itself to keeping world peace, but Trump, for all his manifold faults, does have his finger on the pulse of the deep aversion of the majority of Americans when it comes to continuing to send soldiers to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea and now to Syria. Another trait that Trump and Obama have in common is their disdain for the Washington foreign policy establishment — all those experts, diplomats, academics and generals, in the administration, at the Pentagon and at the think tanks, pushing the line in support of American global responsibility, whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican.

At the critical moment, when Barack Obama decided in 2013 not to respond militarily to the Ghouta chemical attack in which the regime of President Bashar Assad massacred hundreds of Syrian civilians, the U.S. president broke all of the foreign policy establishment’s rules. And Trump, who actually did bomb a Syrian airbase early in his term following another chemical attack, has been kicking away at the establishment since before his inauguration.

The world's policeman

Both presidents understood what the establishment finds difficult to acknowledge: that the American people simply no longer wants to be the world’s policeman. That doesn’t mean the administration is not intervening abroad any more. Under Obama and now under Trump, America’s use of drone attacks against terror suspects has increased. But even if these targeted killings may perhaps eliminate individual threats, they don’t influence the situation on the ground.

There has been some exaggeration in Israel in the reaction to the American announcement of a withdrawal from Syria. The effect of the pullback will be mainly local — on the balance of power among the Kurds, the Turks and the Assad regime. Its more long-term influence on Iran’s expansion in the region is much more difficult to predict for now.

>> Trump abandons Syria's Kurds: Will Turkey now crush their dream of a 'secular utopia?'

The talk of it being a great victory for Russia is also rather ridiculous. President Vladimir Putin has long been the big winner in Russia, and the American base in the northeast of Syria hasn’t changed that, even if Trump had decided to keep it there. From the moment the Russian president chose to take advantage of the vacuum left by Obama and the other Western leaders in Syria and to send Russian forces there in 2015 to prop up the failing regime, he established himself as master of the war-torn country’s fate.

There has been some criticism in political circles in Israel against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s overreliance on his great ally Trump. This is also greatly overblown. Netanyahu is the last leader who can be accused of not recognizing the weakening of American presence in the Middle East. He has been working hard, for years now, to build up both his personal relations with Putin and the strategic ties between the Israeli army and Russian forces in the region.

Naturally Israel had a clear interest in American forces remaining in Syria, to balance Russia’s influence and to help block the Iranian threat. But the 2,000 American special forces personnel have not been there to protect Israel, and they were stationed far from its border.They have been there to support the Kurds and to fight ISIS. At no point during his presidency has Trump hidden the fact that he would like to pull American soldiers out of Syria. The fact that they remained there for the last two years is testament to the now-dwindling influence of the Pentagon.

What Trump has in store

The greatest concern should not be over the end of the relatively small-scale American presence in Syria, but over what Trump may still do on the international stage. He has a deep, personal animosity towards America’s traditional allies in Europe, the members of NATO. Trump is convinced they are deviously taking advantage of the United States by not investing more in their own militaries, relying on America to protect Europe from Russia.

Earlier this year, Trump unilaterally ended joint military exercises with South Korea, immediately after his summit with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. Trump continues, despite clear evidence to the contrary, to lie about the North Koreans freezing their missile and nuclear programs. Now he has just as abruptly announced the withdrawal from Syria, with his equally false claim that ISIS has been “defeated.”

The possibility that Trump will try to seriously sabotage NATO, perhaps even pull the United States out of the alliance, can no longer be easily dismissed. That should be what keeps Western leaders up at night. And Israeli leaders, too.

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