The news of the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a raid by U.S. special operations forces on Oct. 27 capped a dizzying three weeks in the Trump administration’s Syria policy. The turmoil began on Oct. 6, with President Donald Trump’s peremptory decision to pull back about 100 U.S. soldiers from their positions embedded with Kurdish forces in northern Syria. A few days later, he ordered the withdrawal from the north of the country of the entire U.S. presence of 1,000 troops, and then in late October he partially reversed that decision, redeploying several hundred U.S. troops back into northeast Syria to “take the oil.”
No doubt more news is yet to emerge, and perhaps more policy shifts, too. In the midst of all the breaking developments and about-faces, an important debate has emerged about U.S. policy and force deployments. Trump’s original decision to withdraw was met with scathing criticism across the political spectrum: from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Rep. Liz Cheney, from Sen. Chuck Schumer to Sen. Ted Cruz, from the Center for American Progress to the American Enterprise Institute, and on editorial pages from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal. Many of Trump’s senior officials seemed to disagree with the decision as well, according to their anonymous conversations with reporters, and the Defense Department had long tried to prevent it.
Qualified words of praise for Trump’s Syria policy came from one notable corner of the U.S. foreign-policy discourse, however: academics who embrace an approach to U.S. foreign policy variously called restraint, offshore balancing, neorealism, or defensive realism.
These specialists enjoy an enviable position in the academy, controlling the editorial boards of several of the most important academic journals in the field, holding endowed chairs at universities such as Harvard, Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Notre Dame, Brandeis, and Tufts, and drawing on tens of millions of dollars invested by the Koch Foundation in various graduate and faculty initiatives. They also feature prominently at Washington think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the new Quincy Institute. Despite their influential perches in the academic marketplace of ideas, they often bemoan a supposed lack of influence over actual policy, writing numerous books and articles claiming that a “blob” of establishment experts have ignored them when making foreign-policy decisions.
But in Trump’s Syria withdrawal, we see a major foreign-policy choice that clearly overlaps with their worldview—and some have acknowledged as much. William Ruger, a research fellow at the Cato Institute and a vice president at the Charles Koch Foundation, offered enthusiastic praise for the move. Trump “is right to pull back our troops from the Syrian-Turkish border,” he wrote. Michael Desch, the director of the Notre Dame International Security Center, said he appreciated Trump’s recognition that geopolitics is “cold-blooded business” and dismissed critics of the withdrawal as “naive.” Christopher Preble and Doug Bandow, both of the Cato Institute, describe Trump’s decision as “fundamentally correct.” Joshua Rovner, an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University, presented a more nuanced view, but nevertheless one that that on balance finds the case for leaving stronger than the case for remaining. Even Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and columnist for Foreign Policy who is one of the most prominent voices in this group and who has publicly called for Trump’s impeachment, has managed to embrace the essence of Trump’s Syria withdrawal (in its original form and in the latest variant), although he has criticized the way the policy was executed.
The embrace of Trump’s Syria policy is not unequivocal among realists. Most would follow Walt’s lead in bemoaning the haphazard manner in which Trump announced and implemented the decision. Yet, for the purpose of understanding the underlying debate between restraint and the more traditional forms of U.S. global leadership, the crucial fact is that they cheer the choice to withdraw. [Continue reading…]