When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced last week that American troops would remain in Syria indefinitely, he sounded much like the legendary nation-grabber Theodore Roosevelt.
“We have hoisted our flag, and it is not fashioned of the stuff which can be quickly hauled down,” Roosevelt declared during debate over the Philippine War more than a century ago. “There must be control! There must be mastery!”
No one imagines that the 2,000 American soldiers now in Syria — or even a much larger force — can bring either mastery or control. Yet Tillerson’s announcement made clear that Syria is becoming a new front in the “long war” that the United States seems determined to fight in the Middle East. This commits our blood and treasure to a project that serves no vital American interest. On the contrary, our extended involvement in the Syrian civil war will promote instability, feed radicalism, divide NATO, and expose American troops to deadly attack. Since Congress has not approved our entry into this war, it may also be illegal.
American forces went to Syria with the declared objective of pushing the ISIS terror gang out of territory it had seized there. This has been accomplished. It is an ideal moment for the U.S. to declare victory and depart. That, however, would be hauling down our flag. By Roosevelt’s logic — and evidently Tillerson’s — American soldiers should not be withdrawn from any country where they have ever been deployed.
This approach to the world is deeply rooted in the American psyche. The decision to wage open-ended war in Syria, however, also reflects a geopolitical pathology. Our inability to lift ourselves out of the Middle East quicksand has become a hallmark of our foreign policy. It reflects our failure to adapt foreign policy to changing circumstances.
When President Carter proclaimed in 1980 that the U.S. considered the Persian Gulf a vital security interest of the United States, he had two good reasons: to keep the Soviets out and to guarantee oil supply routes. Today, there is no Soviet Union, and we no longer rely on oil from the Gulf. We should be looking for ways to withdraw from that region and focus on truly urgent global challenges, especially those emerging in East Asia. But like an addict, we cannot shake what psychologists call “repetition compulsion” — the impulse to re-enact traumatic experiences.
Tillerson’s assertion that waging war in Syria is “crucial to our national defense” borders on the bizarre. He suggested that American soldiers are needed to protect Israel, but there have been no attacks across the Syria-Israel border in 40 years, and Israel has more than enough power to control any new threat that might emerge there.
His second argument was that U.S. presence will prevent a re-emergence of ISIS or like-minded groups. Keeping Syria poor, divided, and in conflict will, however, create precisely the desperation that leads young men to embrace militant violence.
The third and most important goal of our new policy, as Tillerson made clear, is “expelling malicious Iranian influence” and preventing Iran from achieving its goal of “dominance in the Middle East.” This vast inflation of Iran’s ambition and power is a central fact of U.S. foreign policy. It reflects the fact that President Trump’s three top advisors are not only generals, but generals with years of experience in the Middle East. Their distorted perspective makes them unable to shake two fundamentally misguided convictions: that the U.S. has vital interests in the region, and that it must crush Iran in order to defend them. In fact, the degree of regional influence that Iran winds up with 10 or 20 years from now is of no great consequence to us.
Our determination to shape a pro-American Middle East has already set off violent reaction. Turkish forces have entered Syria to fight Kurds, who are supported by the U.S. This new conflict threatens to turn into a proxy war between two NATO allies, which would lead to further weakening of the alliance. It will also expose American troops to attack by pro-Turkish and pro-Iran militias. This is the inevitable result of plunging into another country’s civil war.
When trouble began in Syria several years ago, the United Nations and the Arab League named former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to lead an effort to prevent war. He invited all parties to the negotiating table, but the U.S. refused to participate. Our position, delivered to Annan by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was that we would only negotiate with those who agreed that President Bashar al-Assad must be deposed.
Annan saw that his mission was hopeless, and quit. That produced the immense tragedy that has enveloped Syria. Today we remain caught in the delusion that, as Tillerson put it, we must fight in Syria until “post-Assad leadership” is in place. This ignores the fact that the Assad family has been in power for nearly half a century and there is no ready alternative.
Our Middle East policy should be aimed at promoting stability. Instead, we are taking the opposite course: promoting instability in Syria and Iran with the vague hope that we can topple regimes we don’t like and replace them with others that will do our bidding. Instead of looking for ways to extricate ourselves from these conflicts, we reach for reasons to plunge in more deeply.
President Trump was right when he asserted just 15 months ago that the U.S. “should not be focusing on Syria” because “you’re not fighting Syria any more, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran.” His administration has now abandoned that common-sense position. It is another reflection of how fully his foreign policy iconoclasm has succumbed to the conventional wisdom that traps us in endless war.
Stephen Kinzer spent more than 20 years working for the New York Times, most of it as a foreign correspondent. He is now a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.His most recent book, “The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire,” has just been published in paperback.