Don’t Weep for Mattis but for the Global War on Terror, 2001–2018, R.I.P.
Senior officials never seem to resign over a president starting a war. And Trump, the guy who was supposed to start new wars, instead ended one and is on his way to wrapping up another.
A full pull-out of U.S. forces from Syria and a draw-down in Afghanistan are much more important as markers of the end of an era than either a bureaucratic tussle (Mattis is stepping down as defense secretary after Trump overruled him and other top national security advisers) or a disastrous geopolitical decision.
The New York Times, its journalists in mourning over the loss of a war, ask “Who will protect America now?” Mattis the warrior-monk is juxtaposed with the flippant Commander-in-Cheeto. The Times also sees strategic disaster in an “abrupt and dangerous decision, detached from any broader strategic context or any public rationale, sowed new uncertainty about America’s commitment to the Middle East, [and] its willingness to be a global leader.” “A major blunder,” tweeted Marco Rubio. “If it isn’t reversed it will haunt… America for years to come.” Lindsey Graham called for congressional hearings.
What is history if not irony. Rubio talks of haunting foreign policy decisions in Syria seemingly without knowledge of its predecessor decisions in Iraq. Graham wants to hold hearings on quitting a war Congress never held hearings on authorizing.
That’s all wrong. Mattis’ resignation, and Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, are significant as marking the beginning of the end of the GWOT, the Global War on Terror, the singular, tragic, bloody driver of American foreign policy for almost two decades.
Here’s a short recap. Even as what should have been a quick 2001 strike into Afghanistan bogged down into the quagmire of nation building, George W. Bush in 2003 invaded Iraq. The pretenses were all false. Terrorism was the excuse, American control over the region the goal. “Winning” in Iraq was built on an illusion the U.S. could somehow establish a puppet government there incorporating Sunni, Shia, and Kurd power blocs. There was no plan for this and it failed, metastasizing into civil war, eventually drawing in powerful outside forces, most predominantly the Iranians on the Shia side, and al Qaeda on the Sunni side, with the U.S. assuming a defacto role protecting the semi-autonomous Kurds.
As the second Bush term gasped to conclusion and America grew weary of the Iraq War, the U.S. quietly abandoned its plans for a tripartite Iraqi state. It allowed Iranian-supported Shias to “win” the 2010 elections at the expense of the Sunni population, and walled off the Kurds, formal status to be sorted out sometime whenever. Under a deal negotiated by Bush, American troops came home under Obama. That action didn’t “lose” Iraq; Iraq was “lost” at a thousand incremental steps between 2003–2010 when the U.S. failed to create a viable government and left everyone to fight it out. The continued presence of American troops post-2010 would not have prevented the violence which followed, anymore than the continued presence of U.S. troops pre-2010 did not prevent the violence and in fact inflamed it.
The Shia government in Iraq, advised, financed, and controlled by newly-empowered Iran (America’s wars had removed Iran’s two biggest enemies, the Taliban on its eastern border and Saddam on the west, freeing up the bulk of Iran’s military and foreign policy resources) wildly overplayed its hand, setting off on a clumsy genocide of the Sunnis. Out of desperation, the remnants of al Qaeda coupled with ultra-violent Sunni nationalists/protectors/patriots/terrorists (pick one word, but they all describe ISIS) morphed into Islamic State. From a Syrian border American interventionism had turned into a failed state, Islamic State organized itself and began holding ground, quickly rolling over the Kurds in northern Iraq and through sympathetic Sunni lands. When the American-trained (cost: $25 billion) Iraqi national army dropped its weapons and ran in 2014, remaining Shia forces collapsed back toward Baghdad, and it looked like Iraq was about to snap apart.
The U.S., under Obama, reinserted itself into Iraq, in a devil’s bargain with the most powerful player on the ground other than ISIS, the Iranians. The U.S. paired with Iranian special forces, the U.S. paired with Iranian-led Iraqi troops, and the U.S. paired with Iranian-backed Shia militias/nationalists/protectors/patriots/terrorists. This time there was no grand plan to do any nation building. The plan was to literally kill every Islamic State fighter, and if that meant destroying Sunni cities to save them, so be it. Death was rained in literal Biblical doses. The American strategy against Islamic State worked. It should have; this was a war the American military knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were set-piece battles. City after Sunni city were ground into little Dresdens before being turned over to the militias for ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunnis.
Without much discussion, “fighting ISIS” into Syrian territory slipped into another, albeit less enthusiastic, round of regime change, this time aimed at Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s family controlled the country since the 1960s, and was a sort-of American partner here and there, certainly helpful during the early years of the GWOT in torturing folks on America’s behalf. Bashar himself was a goofy looking guy with a sophisticated wife, an optometrist by education, and when he took office after his classic dictator Dr. Evil father’s death, was briefly seen as a “new voice” in the Middle East, a less fashionable version of last year’s Saudi Mohammed bin Salman. Assad was fighting Islamic State, too: they were seeking to seize territory from him, and so the U.S. and Assad were sort of on the same side.
Nonetheless, Obama’s warhawks — Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton in the lead — drove policy toward regime change. Assad became an evil dictator who killed his own people. Justification for the U.S. going to war again in the Middle East was thus because a tiny percentage of the deaths were maybe caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones, a “red line.” The world of 2015 however was very different than the one of 2003. The U.S. had been bled out by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and fights picked in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and across Africa. Iran was empowered. Russia, always a friend of Assad’s, was invited in to help rid Syria of chemical weapons by Secretary of State John Kerry and took the opportunity to dramatically grow its military role there.
Saudi money fed the fight, often flowing into ISIS’ coffers because ISIS was fighting Iranian-backed troops whom the Saudi’s opposed. Turkey saw an opportunity in chaos to push back against the Kurds nipping at its southern and eastern borders and basically a small-scale version of WWI unraveled as the United States bombed a bit, stepped back, sent in some special forces, then claimed it had no boots on the ground, and so forth. America’s goals — destroy ISIS, fight Iranian influence, oust Assad — were often at odds with one another and lead to U.S. weapons and money flooding the battlefield. More than one firefight featured American-supplied guns on both sides. More than one American special forces unit found itself playing traffic cop stopping an American “ally” from attacking another American “ally.”
It’s 2018. Why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?
Defeat ISIS? ISIS’ ability to hold ground and project power outside its immediate backyard was destroyed somewhere back in 2016 by an unholy coalition of American, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, Turkish, and Israeli forces in Iraq and Syria. Sure, there are terrorists who continue to set off bombs in marketplaces in ISIS’ name, but those people are not controlled or directed out of Syria. They are most likely legal residents of the Western countries they attack, radicalized online or in local mosques. They are motivated by a philosophy, and that way of thinking cannot be destroyed on the ground in Syria. The fundamental failure of the GWOT is that you can’t blow up an idea.
Regime change? It was never a practical idea (as in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, there was never a plan on what to do next, how to keep Syria from descending into complete chaos the day Assad was removed) and though progressives embraced the idea of getting rid of another “evil dictator” when it came through the mouthpiece of Obama’s own freedom fighter Samantha Power, the same idea today has little drive behind it.
Russia! Overwrought fear of Russia was once a sign of unhealthy paranoia satirized on The Twilight Zone. Today it is seen as a prerequisite to patriotism, though it still makes no more sense. The Russians have always had a practical relationship with Syria and maintained a naval base there at Tartus since 1971, and will continue to do so. There was never a plan for the U.S. to push the Russians out — Obama in fact saw the Russian presence are part of the solution in Syria. American withdrawal from Syria is far more a return to status quo than anything like a win for Putin (Matt Purple pokes holes in Putin Paranoia elsewhere on TAC.)
The Kurds? The U.S.-Kurd story is a one of expediency over morality. At each sad turn there was no force otherwise available in bulk and the Kurds were used and abandoned many times by America: in 1991 when it refused to assist them in breaking away from Saddam Hussein following Gulf War I, when it insisted they remain part of a “united Iraq” following Gulf War II, and most definitively in 2017 forward following Gulf War III when the U.S. did not support the Kurdish independence referendum, relegating the Kurds to forever being the half-loved stepchild to Baghdad. After all that, U.S. intentions toward the Kurds in Syria are barely a sideshow-scale event. The Kurds want to cleave off territory from Turkey and Syria, something neither nation will permit and something the U.S. quietly understands would destabilize the region. Mattis, by the way, supported NATO ally Turkey in its fight against the Kurds, calling them an “active insurgency inside its borders.”
Iran? Does the U.S. have troops in Syria to brush back Iranian influence? As with “all of the above,” the genie got out of the bottle years ago. Iranian power in the greater Middle East has grown dramatically since 2003, and has been driven at every step by the blunders of the United States. If the most powerful army in the world couldn’t stop the Iranians from essentially being the winners of Gulf Wars II and III, how can 2,000 troops in Syria hope to accomplish much? The United States of course wasn’t even shooting at the Iranians in Syria; in most cases it was working either with them, or tacitly alongside them towards the same goal of killing off ISIS anyway. Tehran’s role as Assad’s protector was set as America rumbled about regime change. Iran has since pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria and will not be giving that up, certainly not because of the presence of absence of a few thousand Americans.
Left is that once-neocon, now progressive catch-all, we need to stay in Syria to preserve American credibility. While pundits can still get away with this line, the rest of the globe knows the empire has no clothes. Since 2001 the United States has spent some $6 trillion on its wars, and killed multiples of the 9/11 victims worth of American troops and foreign civilians. The U.S. has tortured, still maintains the gulag of Guantanamo as a crown jewel, and worst of all credibility-wise, lost on every front. Afghanistan after 17 years of war festers. Nothing was accomplished with Iraq. Libya is a failed state. Syria is the source of a refugee crisis whose long-term effects on Europe are still being played out. We are largely left as an “indispensable nation” only in our own minds. A lot of people around the world probably wish America would just stop messing with their countries.
So why does the U.S. have troops in Syria? Anyone? Bueller? Mattis?
The U.S. presence in Syria, like Jim Mattis himself, is an artifact of another era, the failed GWOT. As a Marine, Mattis served in ground combat leadership roles in Gulf Wars I and II, and also in Afghanistan. He ran United States Central Command from 2010 to 2013, the final years of The Surge in Iraq and American withdrawal afterwards. There is no doubt why he supported the American military presence in Syria, and why he resigned to protest Trump’s decision to end it — Mattis knew nothing else. His entire career was built around the strategy of the GWOT, the core of which was never question GWOT strategy. Mattis didn’t need a reason to stay in Syria; being in Syria was the reason.
So why didn’t Trump listen to his generals? Maybe because the bulk of their advice has been dead wrong for 17 years? Instead, Trump plans a dramatic drawdown of troops in Afghanistan (American soldiers will be there in some small number forever to act as a rear-guard against the political fallout that chased Obama in 2011 when he withdrew troops.) The U.S. presence in Iraq has dwindled from combat to advise and assist, and Congress seems poised to end U.S. involvement in Yemen against Mattis’ advice.
There is no pleasure in watching Jim Mattis end his decades of service with a bureaucratic dirty stick shoved at him as a parting gift. But to see this all as another Trump versus the world blunder is very wrong. The war on terror failed, and needed to be dismantled long ago. Barack Obama could have done it, but instead was a victim of hubris and bureaucratic capture and allowed himself to expand it. His supporters give him credit for not escalating the war in Syria, but leave out the part about how he also left the pot to simmer on the stove instead of removing it altogether.
The raw drive to insta-hate everything Trump does can mislead otherwise thoughtful people. So let’s try a new lens: During the campaign Trump outspokenly denounced the waste of America’s wars. Pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas was driven by people who agreed with his critique, by people who’d served in these wars, whose sons/daughters had served, or given the length of all this, both. Since taking office, the president has pulled U.S. troops back from pointless conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Congress may yet rise to do the same for American involvement in Yemen. No new wars have started. Though the results are far from certain, for the first time in nearly twenty years negotiations are open again with North Korea. Mattis’ ending was clumsy, but it was a long time coming. It is time for some old ideas to move on.