Trump the Nationalist and the Role of the Modern USA

The decision of President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan led to the announced departure on December 20, 2018 of secretary of defense James Mattis, four-star general, often regarded as a force for stability in the administration.  Policy differences between Mattis and the president already existed over a number of issues: NATO, Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, proposal for a military Space Force, American attitudes to allies.

Irrespective of the controversy over Mattis's departure, more important is the issue of the desirable role of the United States in world affairs: should the U.S. continue or expand its overseas activities and be the leader of the global order, or should it reduce its commitments and withdraw from certain areas?

President George Washington in his Farewell Address on September 19, 1796 spoke of the need for the new U.S to "pursue a different course."  It is, he argued, true U.S. policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.  Instead, the U.S. may safely trust in temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.  The great rule of conduct for the U.S. in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.

Differences on the U.S.'s role varied throughout its history.  The country and President Woodrow Wilson were divided over U.S. policy toward World War I until the German submarine attacks on U.S. ships and the sinking of the British Lusitania in 1917.  Similarly, strong differences were expressed over both participation in the conflict and the conduct of that war (unconditional surrender or early armistice) and on postwar policy; the Versailles treaty; the League of Nations, which was rejected by isolationists in the Senate; and reconstruction of Europe after the war.  The crucial issue was the same in 1918 as it remains today: the nature of the role and global reach of the U.S.

It is not clear if President Donald Trump has considered the Farewell Address message of George Washington or has aligned himself in one particular camp, but can he be considered an isolationist?  He is not a multiculturalist, has no interest in a policy of humanitarian military intervention or regime change, and certainly opposes the subsidizing of the armies of other countries at U.S. expense. He has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate change agreement, and the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The resignation of Mattis immediately followed the statement by Trump on December 19, 2018 that he intended to pull all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, and 7,000, half of the total, stationed in Afghanistan.  Mattis was critical of the decision but spoke in a broader way of the need to maintain strong alliances and partnerships and of the need to treat allies with respect.  He wrote that while the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, the armed forces of the U.S. should not be the policeman of the world.  Instead, the U.S. should use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. 

This statement may or may not imply that Trump's withdrawal of troops is a policy of isolationism.  Yet, in spite of his powerful nationalist rhetoric, "Make America Great Again," Trump's policies do not resemble those of the isolationists of the 1930s, say the America First group, with attitude of neutrality toward Hitler.  Perhaps the best summation of Trump's not consistent remarks was that of French ambassador François Delattre, who thought Trump policy is a strange mixture of unilateralism and isolationism, one in which the U.S. does not seek to be the last resort or enforcer of international order. 

It is worth examining Trump's explanation for his decision to withdraw from Syria. 

He claimed that his only reason for being there during his presidency was to defeat ISIS in Syria, and this had been done.  For him, the U.S. mission was over.  Here the evidence is mixed.  In December 2018, ISIS had lost Hajin, its last urban stronghold in Syria.  ISIS has lost 95% of the territory it controlled in 2014 and no longer controls more than a small amount of territory along the Euphrates in Syria or in Iraq, but 2,500 of its forces are still there, and they are likely to return to insurgent tactics or use Syria for global operations.

Whatever the reality of the future activities of ISIS, and differences remain on whether U.S. troops in Syria are vital to national security interests, it is difficult to define Trump as an isolationist because of his concern about military entanglements and their high financial cost and casualties.  Nor does it mean that the U.S. will lose its credibility on the world stage or as a leader in the fight against terrorism.  It is not self-evident that Trump's decision to withdraw troops will embolden the insurgency. 

However, the result of Trump's action is unpredictability in relation to action by and toward Turkey and Iran.  It is crucial that Turkey be prevented from launching an offensive against the Kurds, the Syrian Democratic Forces (YPG), an ally of the U.S. that fought ISIS and lost 1,500 doing so, but which Turkey labels "terrorist organizations."  Turkey persists in regarding this group in northern Syria as an extension of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a separatist group in Turkey itself.

In any case, the ambivalent U.S.-Turkish relationship has to be resolved, irrespective of the Kurdish issue.  Turkey is friendly with Iran and imports gas and oil from it.  But it also in October 2018 released the U.S. pastor who had been detained on charges of terrorism.  Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan bought an S-400 air defense system from Russia and may buy F-35 fighter jets and Patriot missiles from the U.S.  The two countries are presently discussing a 20-mile buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border.

It is premature to argue that Trump's decision means a U.S. retreat from the Middle East or abandonment of allies.  Relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia have not deteriorated, nor has the policy of limiting the role or influence of Iran or Hezb'allah, in addition with concern about Russia.

For Washington, the crucial problem remains: to what degree should the U.S. engage in activities for reasons of national security?  Politics is full of difficult choices, and the discussion should focus on the main problem, not on partisan rhetoric or premature pessimism.