UPDATE: A shortened and improved version of this thought piece was published in early January 2019 as a featured op-ed in The Tennessean; I leave this older version here to preserve the original links to supporting documents in popular media.
The fallout from President Trump’s orders to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and to draw down troop levels in Afghanistan has been fast and furious. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned his post, as did Brett McGurk, special envoy to the coalition combating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) and other senators issued public statements taking the president’s judgment to task, and introduced a resolution “expressing the sense of the Senate” that “limited military activities” should be maintained in Syria. National security experts on television and the internet are wringing their hands and expressing concern about the drawdown’s effects on the U.S.’s reputation for resolve and its ability to protect against future terrorist attacks. But no one who has paid attention to Mr. Trump’s statements and Tweets can claim to be surprised by the president’s intention to withdraw troops. When it comes to the decision to draw down, the relevant question is not “why?”, but “why now?”
Let’s begin with the simple but problematic claim of “mission accomplished.” In a Tweet, the president claimed victory in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Such a declaration may be premature, but the Islamic State has been pushed out of much of the territory it once controlled. One could argue that the roughly 2,000 US troops ordered to withdraw from Syria are not needed to complete the job. The same cannot be said for Afghanistan, where the removal of 7,000 US troops would cut the US military presence in half — at the expense of those troops who advise and assist official Afghan armed forces. Experts worry that leaving Afghan forces to fend for themselves will open the door to gains by the Taliban – the same Islamic fundamentalist group that US forces ousted from power in 2001, and that has proved remarkably resilient in the ensuing 17 years. One may define “victory” in a variety of ways, but in no way can victory over the Taliban be claimed. And, in line with critics in Congress, even the president’s own cabinet officials have indicated that victory in Syria is not yet within grasp.
So if victory is not yet assured, why withdraw troops now? Some analysts have argued that the president has caved to pressure from foreign leaders, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and President Vladimir Putin of Russia. There may be a kernel of truth to this interpretation. Media reports have linked the decision to a Trump-Erdogan phone call on December 14, and the announcement of the decision met with a public statement of approval from Putin. But it seems unlikely that the president would be swayed by a bit of cajoling from Erdoğan, who reportedly reminded Trump “that [Trump] had repeatedly said the only reason for U.S. troops to be in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State and that the group had been 99 percent defeated,” and insisted that “the Turks could deal with the remaining IS militants.”
Mr. Trump’s receptivity to Erdogan’s arguments flew in the face of the advice the US president had received from his national security team and, consequently, shocked observers. But the president’s departure from establishment advice on December 14 might be partially explained by the events of the previous day. On December 13, the U.S. Senate acted under the authority it assigned to itself in 1973 with the War Powers Resolution by demanding an end to U.S. military involvement in Yemen. Media reports framed the bipartisan 56-41 vote to end support for Saudi Arabia’s military intervention as a “rebuke” of President Trump.
Trump’s willingness to buck establishment wisdom on Syria might well have been prompted by the Senate’s unprecedented vote to clip his wings with regard to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Armchair psychologists will be tempted to blame a bruised presidential ego and an impetuous response to being publicly rebuked. But to reduce this story to individual motives misses the forest for a single tree. Congress and the presidency have long been understood to be in a struggle for power over foreign and military affairs. In crude institutional terms, the Senate shoved the president hard on December 13, and on December 14, the president shoved back.
Moreover, the president might have reasoned that an emboldened Congress would seek to insinuate itself in deployment decisions, especially after Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in January 2019. Seen in this light, we can read President Trump’s decision not only as retaliation against the legislative branch and a sort of “declaration of independence” from the establishment, but also as a preemptive move intended to steal the thunder of congressional Democrats who might be inclined to use the War Powers Resolution to further encroach on executive authority.
A resurgent Russia and a tough-talking Turkey might get the credit (or blame) for persuading President Trump to overrule his advisors by ordering troop removals. But a resurgent Congress and tough times in Beltway politics might deserve a share of the credit as well. Distinguished political scientist Edward S. Corwin wrote that the Constitution was “an invitation to struggle” between the president and Congress “for the privilege of directing American foreign policy.” Coming just hours after the Senate voted to end U.S. military involvement in Yemen – and just weeks before an increasingly restive Congress sees a Democratic majority assume power in the lower house – Mr. Trump’s otherwise-puzzling decision may be understood as part of that historic, institutional struggle.
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