Trump's critics are phonies. America’s commitment to what was originally called the Global War on Terror is no less robust than before
It does shock the so-called elite, and even voters, when they come across a politician who not only makes promises, but actually keeps them after being elected. But that is the secret to Donald Trump’s success as the first-ever American President to rise to occupy the White House who was not a politician or a former general first.
The President’s decision with regard to the handful of troops positioned in northern Syria has resulted in not only the regular commentariat attacking the Commander-in-Chief, but also well-known former military men, including Admiral William McRaven and the retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, who until very recently actually served in President Trump’s Cabinet as his Secretary of Defence.
Was the vituperation justified? No.
As the events of late October demonstrate, America’s commitment to what was originally called the Global War on Terror is no less robust than before. The most dangerous terrorist in the world, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the “Caliph” of the Islamic State, was brought to justice in a bold mission, Operation Kayla Mueller, that required the President to authorise a high-risk Delta Force deployment into Syria, over Russian-controlled airspace, and which necessitated the collaboration of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), 70 American operators, and at least one dog. These are not the actions or decisions of a “cut and run” politician who believes in isolationism or that he has arrived at a Bushian “Mission Accomplished” moment.
The public attacks on the President’s counterterrorism and national security policies have been sophomoric, simplistic, and at times churlish. Marxist ethno-nationalist Kurdish militias are not suddenly transmuted, by dint of fighting jihadists such as Islamic State, into treaty-level allies who must be protected in perpetuity. This is the kind of counterfactual elitist sophistry the American electorate rejected in 2016. We will work with local actors when national interest and viable strategies dictate. No more, no less.
Likewise, the astrategic idea that we should militarily engage or leave forces in theatre as Turkish tanks and armoured personnel carriers roll into northern Syria, thus risking a war with the largest Nato army in Europe, beggars belief. The real problem was not withdrawing our troops. It is what would have happened if the President had kept them there—especially if some had been killed in the ensuing clash between Turkish forces and the Kurds. The repositioning of a handful of our troops from one area of Syria to another is not a sign of our surrender to local jihadists, be they IS or even Al-Qaeda. America is still in the fight. Just read the Trump Administration’s new National Security Strategy (which, full disclosure, I helped shape). It is informed by “principled realism” and reorients America to the needs of an age of “great power competition” with the likes of China. But it is explicit in our commitments to hunt down and kill globally capable terrorists, and support local Sunni allies in doing the same against their local fundamentalist foe, since we see these groups as inimical to the American way of life.
America under Trump makes this commitment because we believe that such organisations are intrinsically evil, but most importantly because they represent a threat to our interests and the interests of our allies and our partners. Having advised candidate Trump and then President Trump, I can attest that he is a patriot and— thanks to his 50-plus years in business—a pragmatist.
“America First” is not the same as America Alone, but it does mean this White House looks at the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. As such, President Trump knows that Russia is a menace. That is why we sent Ukraine anti-tank missiles when we came into office, unlike the Obama White House, which shipped piles of blankets to Kiev. And the President is fully cognisant of the fact that Turkey is today the Nato nation that least acts like a proper member of the Alliance. But he also knows, because he lives in the real world, that Turkey is geostrategically far more important than the Kurds and Syria combined. If the West loses Turkey for good, that will make the Kurdish question look like a footnote in history. Strategy is best done through the lens of realpolitik, not on the basis of emotion or ideology. Just look at the failed strategies of Adolf Hitler, or Saddam Hussein.
Our allies—big and small—need not worry. At the beginning of the Trump Administration, when I had to formally represent the “America First” policy, I often resorted to the US Marine Corps saying: “No better friend, no worse enemy.” Whether you are a small Baltic state gravely concerned about Putin, or Taiwan facing a Communist threat like China, rest assured that reliable American leadership is back. Just ask Prime Minister Abe of Japan, or the Australian government. Or consider how Nato is finally, after decades, truly grappling with the “freeloader complex” and getting serious about the external threat of Russia. This is all thanks to the concrete policy changes of the last three years that roundly rejected the “strategic patience” and “leading from behind” of the Obama years.
Whether it comes from a retired flag officer, or an “expert” pundit, criticism of the 45th American president has far more to do with who he is than what he does. The brash real-estate mogul from Queens, the reality TV star, is utterly alien to a body politic that since the end of the Cold War has too often resembled an amorphous blob of mediocrity and group-think. The Beltway’s civilian and military uniparty—those who thought nation-building in South Asia was a good idea, or that Saddam Hussein must have weapons of mass destruction he wanted to give to Osama bin Laden—cannot abide the man chosen by 63 million people who most definitely do not populate the capital. Trump will never be loved, or even liked by the Swamp. That’s really the point.
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