Donald Trump has been complaining for years about the promiscuous use of American military personnel. Two weeks ago, he did something about it, announcing the withdrawal of 2,000 troops from Syria and 7,000 from Afghanistan.
Republicans joined Democrats in condemning Trump for acting impulsively, sowing “chaos” and precipitating a “national security crisis.” But it’s the president’s overwrought critics who are making choices without thinking, driven by the momentum of military mistakes to support open-ended commitments that make no sense.
The U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war was never authorized by Congress, and its aims were nebulous. A few months ago, Trump’s national security adviser was saying American forces would stay in Syria as long as Iran or its proxies are operating there — in other words, indefinitely.
U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan for 17 years, and the Taliban occupy more territory than at any time since the 2001 invasion, notwithstanding the 3,500 reinforcements that Trump reluctantly approved in 2017. The withdrawal Trump has in mind would reverse that surge and then some, leaving 7,000 troops in a country the U.S. should have left long ago.
Trump’s decision to stop American involvement in one endless war and curtail it in another provoked the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, which tells you something about the “adults in the room” — those who supposedly were protecting the country from an erratic, ignorant president’s worst instincts. Sometimes, as in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” adults are committed to upholding unexamined dogma, and it takes a child to point out the truth.
“The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world,” Trump said during his visit to Iraq last week. “We’re spread out all over the world. We’re in countries that most people have never even heard about, and frankly, it’s ridiculous.”
Trump is right. It’s ridiculous that the United States has 26,000 military personnel in South Korea 65 years after the Korean War, 54,000 in Japan 73 years after World War II and 64,000 in a dozen European countries 27 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
These countries are perfectly capable of defending themselves. South Korea’s economy is about 50 times as big as North Korea’s, while Japan and Germany have the world’s third- and fourth-highest gross domestic products, respectively.
Under the hysterical headline “Trump unleashed: Mattis exit paves way for global chaos,” CNN reporter Stephen Collinson wrote, “It’s no longer absurd to ask questions like whether the president will suddenly decide to pull American troops home from South Korea after decades of keeping the peace or even pulling out of NATO.” Collinson, of course, thinks it’s self-evidently absurd to suggest that either move would be a good idea.
Trump is right to question commitments that the national security establishment takes for granted, and in this case, his lack of sophistication is an asset. But even such ardent interventionists as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who complained that Trump’s Syria announcement “rattled the world,” have trouble keeping track of the country’s military operations.
“I didn’t know there was 1,000 troops in Niger,” Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, confessed after four American soldiers were killed there in October 2017. With U.S. troops deployed in more than 150 countries, perhaps Graham can be forgiven for overlooking a few.
Hawks such as Graham assume all those deployments — even the ones they don’t know about — are justified. Trump argues that at least some of them are not. Which seems likelier to be true?
New York Times reporter Mark Landler said the abruptness of Trump’s decisions regarding Syria and Afghanistan “unite(d) the left and right against a plan to extract the United States from two long, costly and increasingly futile conflicts.” Although there are strong arguments for withdrawing from both places, Landler wrote, “the president’s move short-circuited what many say is a much-needed national debate about the future of America’s wars.”
Nonsense. We are having that debate now, and it is long overdue.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.
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