A Liberal View of Intervention

Trump has taken liberals’ no-endless-war rhetoric and gone somewhere ugly with it. How do we take it back?


Like many liberals, I was wrong-footed by President Trump’s abrupt decision to wash his hands of Syria. On the one hand, it sure looks like a dishonorable move that has led to an embarrassing defeat and opened the door to a humanitarian catastrophe.

On the other hand, I also want to see America stop policing the world. I was against invading Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place, and I don’t see any achievable goal in Afghanistan that is worth our continued involvement. In general, I want to see American troops come home from war zones far from our borders. So what was my plan exactly for Syria?

I feel like Trump has stolen my own rhetoric about “endless war” and abused it. But what is the right use of it? And if I’m against Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds, is the only alternative to side with interventionists like Mitch McConnell?

I can’t promise a complete answer here, but let’s try to sort this out as best we can.

Betrayal and surrender. Let’s start with the Kurds , who are among the most persistently short-changed people on Earth. Something like 30-40 million of them live in a more-or-less definable area, but somehow the self-determination wave that swept the world after World War I passed them by. Bulgarians and Czechs got their own states, and by now even Croatia and Azerbaijan are countries, but the Kurds are still divided up among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

And now we’ve screwed them over again. We enlisted them into our fight against the Islamic State, and something like 11,000 of them died in that war. They had managed to carve out an autonomous zone in northeastern Syria, one in which women played an unusually active role, but the connections between that zone and a sometimes-violent Kurdish independence movement in Turkey threatened the authoritarian Erdogan government, which has wanted for years to cross into Syria and crush the Kurdish forces.

What had been stopping them was the presence of a small number of US troops in the area, and the threat of American air power. The Kurds may not be a military match for the second-largest army in NATO, but they are real soldiers, and with control of the skies they could make Turkey pay an unacceptable price. After all, this wasn’t some kind of asymmetric guerilla war, it was an invasion — exactly the kind of thing the American military was built to stop.

And then Trump decided to stand aside. We don’t know for sure what happened on that Trump/Erdogan phone call, but I picture it the way Mitt Romney does: “Turkey may have called America’s bluff.” I imagine Erdogan saying: “We’re coming whether you like it or not” and Trump being cowed into submission.

Trump tried to spin his “ceasefire agreement” (Turkey refuses to call it that) into a victory:

I’m happy to report tremendous success with respect to Turkey. This is an amazing outcome. This is an outcome, regardless of how the press would like to damp it down, this was something they were trying to get for 10 years.

But Trump’s “tremendous success” looks a lot like surrender. The agreement calls for Turkish forces to remain in the territory they have captured, and for our Kurdish allies to turn over their heavy weapons, dismantle their fortifications, and remove their forces from the 20-mile buffer zone Turkey has claimed. The United States will remove its forces from Syria entirely and impose no sanctions on Turkey. So Turkey gets what it wants and pays no price. Turkey may have been trying to get to this point for ten years, but that’s not what the Kurds wanted — or us for that matter.

I also doubt that any of the American troops waiting to be evacuated from Syrian feel victorious. Russians have already occupied one of the bases they left behind, and we destroyed another one with an air strike. Those are the kinds of things that happen when you flee in desperation, not when you win.

McConnell’s internationalist critique.  Friday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took the unusual step of publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post to denounce Trump’s Syria policy. Before looking at the content of his article, it’s worth considering what its mere existence tells us: McConnell doesn’t think Trump is listening to him. An influential player like McConnell doesn’t make a public argument if the President is taking his calls and paying attention. For McConnell, going public like this is a last resort, and points to feelings of both frustration and helplessness.

He’s also taking out insurance. If bad things happen because of Trump’s surrender, he doesn’t want to share the blame. So his article is a public marker that says, “I warned everybody.”

Also worth noting: He’s doing his best not to attack the President personally. In fact, the name “Trump” doesn’t appear (though “Obama” does). He focuses on the decision, not the man who made it.

Now to the content. First he makes an abstract defense of America’s military role abroad: Recalling 9/11, he predicts that the threat of ISIS or similar terrorist groups will not stay in the Middle East, and lays out a strategy where America provides strategic leadership, but has allies and so does not have to do all the fighting itself.

Then he assesses the current situation:

The combination of a U.S. pullback and the escalating Turkish-Kurdish hostilities is creating a strategic nightmare for our country. Even if the five-day cease-fire announced Thursday holds, events of the past week have set back the United States’ campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorists. Unless halted, our retreat will invite the brutal Assad regime in Syria and its Iranian backers to expand their influence. And we are ignoring Russia’s efforts to leverage its increasingly dominant position in Syria to amass power and influence throughout the Middle East and beyond.

And his prescription:

We need to use both sticks and carrots to bring Turkey back in line while respecting its own legitimate security concerns. In addition to limiting Turkey’s incursion and encouraging an enduring cease-fire, we should create conditions for the reintroduction of U.S. troops and move Turkey away from Russia and back into the NATO fold.

Finally, he worries that Trump’s desire to pull the US out of “endless wars” will strike next in Afghanistan.

We saw humanitarian disaster and a terrorist free-for-all after we abandoned Afghanistan in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for 9/11. We saw the Islamic State flourish in Iraq after President Barack Obama’s retreat. We will see these things anew in Syria and Afghanistan if we abandon our partners and retreat from these conflicts before they are won.

He closes with “America’s wars will be ‘endless’ only if America refuses to win them.”

In essence, McConnell is restating what has been the conventional wisdom in American foreign policy since World War II. (It lapsed a bit after Vietnam but came back after 9/11.): The world will never leave us alone, so we can’t leave it alone. Threats can arise anywhere, and we need to be ready to oppose them while they’re small and tractable, rather than wait for them to get large enough to strike at our homeland.

My anti-war record. I’d like to stay in an objective-journalist role and quote other people making the case for bringing our troops home from overseas — maybe Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, as Atlantic’s Peter Beinart does — but that would be disingenuous: I’ve been making that case myself for years, and I can’t disown it now.

Back in 2005, when I was blogging on Daily Kos under the pseudonym Pericles, I wrote a piece called “Cut and Run” about pulling out of Iraq. At the time, even people who realized that invading Iraq had been a mistake were falling for Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Doctrine”: We broke Iraq, so now we had a responsibility to fix it before we left. They admitted that we needed to get out, but in six months or maybe a year or two, after we had stabilized the situation.

The case I made in “Cut and Run” was that we weren’t fixing anything by staying.

What are we fixing? What do we expect to get better if we stay for another year or five years or ten years? I do not intend that question to be rhetorical. If “we are making progress, “as President Bush claimed this week, we ought to be able to measure that progress somehow.

Elsewhere (the link has since died; I need to repost somewhere) I argued that the stay-a-little-longer caucus would never be satisfied: Whenever we left, disaster would ensue, and they would claim vindication. And that is what happened. We stayed another six years, but McConnell (and others) blame Obama’s withdrawal for the rise of ISIS. (If only we’d stayed seven or eight more years rather than six.)

That’s why I’m not satisfied by McConnell’s assurance that he doesn’t want to stay in Afghanistan forever, just until we “win”. I have the same fundamental objection I had many years ago: What does “winning” even mean? If someone would offer a compelling vision of a post-victory Afghanistan, and then describe a path for getting there, reasonable people could argue about whether the outcome is worth the cost.

Instead, we always get the same dystopian vision: If we leave now, something terrible will happen. So when can we leave? Sometime, maybe, but not now. So how many “not nows” make a “forever”?

Is it possible to thread this needle? On the one hand, I am disgusted by what I’m seeing in Syria. On the other, I still don’t want to join McConnell and most of the rest of the foreign-policy establishment in the post-World-War-II intervention consensus.

Looking back, I also find that I’m not against all interventions. I like what President Clinton did in Bosnia: We ended a genocide. And while we (but mostly our European allies) ended up with troops in the area for many years afterward, it was a peace-keeping mission rather than a war-fighting mission. Casualties were minimal.

I regret that we didn’t find some similar way to end the genocide in Rwanda. And I don’t know what to think about Libya. Things haven’t turned out well there, but I can’t feel bad about stopping Qaddafi from killing civilians by the tens of thousands.

So what kind of policy do I want exactly?

I warned you I wouldn’t have a complete answer. I don’t have a doctrine that spells out precisely when the US should or shouldn’t get involved in some distant conflict. (Senator Warren: If you have a plan for that, this would be a good time to reveal it.) All I can offer are some intuitions that I still trust, in spite of it all. Mostly they revolve around coming to a proper understanding of the scope of American power: Being the most powerful nation on Earth gives us some responsibilities. But at the same time we need to be realistic: There are things our military — or military power in general — can’t accomplish. If we try we’ll only make bad situations worse.

So here’s what I think:

We can’t end tyranny in the world, but we should try to prevent genocide. The world is full of bad governments, and sometimes overthrowing them just gets you a worse government, or a failed state that can’t fulfill the responsibilities of a government at all. You can’t create a good government at gunpoint.

What you can do at gunpoint, though, is stop one group of people from slaughtering another. Sometimes the mass murder is a mania that will pass if you can just interrupt it. Some groups will see that — as much as they still hate some other group — the world is not going to stand for a genocide, so they need to come up with some other plan. Other situations may require a longer occupation. But stopping genocide doesn’t require you to rule over people or teach them to govern themselves, just to put limits on them.

There’s hope for a peacekeeping mission, but nation-building hardly ever works. An amazing number of the world’s problem areas, particularly in the Middle East, are “nations” that were created by colonial powers drawing arbitrary lines on a map.

The people in those regions often feel no sense of national loyalty to each other, and the only way they have ever held together as “nations” is under the dominance of some strongman. You can’t turn such places into constitutional democracies just by writing a constitution and having elections.

Don’t misinterpret that: It’s not that some kinds of people aren’t ready for democracy as individuals. When they emigrate to the US or Western Europe, they often make fine citizens. The problem is that democracy requires a sense of mutual loyalty that the residents of places like Iraq and Afghanistan have never developed. And that’s something else you can’t instill at gunpoint.

What you can do at gunpoint, though, is stop them from killing each other.

We can’t kid ourselves about our good intentions. One mistake American interventionists often make is to whitewash our motives. We didn’t go into Iraq and Afghanistan because we wanted to bestow democracy on these oppressed peoples. We invaded Iraq for the oil and Afghanistan because we wanted to get Bin Laden. Building democracy was a story we told ourselves to salve our consciences.

Nothing is as doomed to failure as a mission you didn’t really believe in from the start.

If we examine our real motives before we start an intervention, usually we’ll either realize that we shouldn’t do this at all, or see that the scope of our mission should be much smaller than taking over the whole country.

So what about the Kurds? Our troops in Syria got there because they were fighting ISIS. Once the territory of ISIS had all been retaken, there were two reasons to keep them there: to keep ISIS from reforming, and to prevent either the Turks or the Syrians from attacking the Kurds.

Both of those were peace-keeping missions. We weren’t trying to teach the Kurds how to be a people; they knew that already. They were building their own nation.

One way you can tell the mission was peace-keeping is that war broke out as soon as Trump ordered our troops to stand down.

The Kurds believe that the Turks intend an ethnic cleansing of the area or even a genocide. Trump thinks not, but I guess we’ll see.

Planning. One final note: Even if you believe that our mission in Syria wasn’t worth the cost any more, there’s no excuse for the way Trump handled it.

When we do decide to pull out of a country, we need a withdrawal plan rather than just a tweet announcing our departure. First, we need a plan to get our own people out of the country safely. And second, we need to do right by the people who have helped us, and who will likely be targeted for death after we leave. If nothing else, that means doing something Trump hates to do: welcoming refugees to the United States.

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Comments

  • Dale Moses  On October 21, 2019 at 10:19 am

    One analogy that might also help is comparing our troops in Syria to our troops in Germany or even Turkey. Just because troops are in a nation does not mean that we have a forever war stance. In can mean instead that we are willing to defend an ally and have placed enough troops there to signal that to the rest of the world.

    We had won(to an extent) in Syria and that is why we had removed a large portion of the troops there. But we needed to keep some troops there so that we could maintain our victory. That isnt forever war, its what winning looks like.

    As an aside. Trump is not interested in forever war. So if people ask you can top off the prior points with the explanation that the Troops in Syria arent coming home, theyre going to Iraq. And Trump isn’t drawing down forces in the region he is sending more to Saudi Arabia to support their war in Yemen. Trump is transactional, like a mob boss, and the Kurds could not pay him

  • Marc McKenzie  On October 21, 2019 at 10:30 am

    This is a very good essay, and thank you for writing it. Yes, Trump’s actions in Syria with the Kurds were just…well, wrong. As was his spiel about ending “endless wars” which might have satisfied some on the far-Left who were claiming that Trump was more of a dove than Hillary Clinton was back in 2016.

    Trump is not a dove, and he is a cruel, sick man. He doesn’t care about ending wars so long as he profits from it or looks good doing something. I also do not believe in intervening at every turn, but sometimes–as in the case of Bosnia, and in Libya and with the Kurds–we have to do _something_, otherwise a genocide will happen (and we cannot afford that–not if we truly believe in “Never again”).

    Besides, Trump–unlike Obama or Bill Clinton (or Hillary, for that matter)–is not a thinker and pretty much doesn’t care about International Law. One can tell that Obama and Clinton spent a lot of time and thought on their decisions and did not take them lightly. Trump just does whatever comes to mind.

    Again, thank you for this piece. And I intend to follow your site.

  • pauljbradford  On October 21, 2019 at 10:36 am

    I don’t see the reasoning behind “We invaded Iraq for the oil”. Did we get more oil by invading and occupying Iraq? Iraq pre-invasion would sell all the oil that it could produce, and that the international community would allow them to sell. Iraq post-invasion would do the same. We didn’t seize the oil fields as American assets, with profits going to our Treasury. Whoever controls the oil fields sells the oil on the open market.

    • Dale Moses  On October 21, 2019 at 12:04 pm

      Extraction rights did go to US companies (and UK companies) and that is similar to the US itself taking it from the point of view of Republican policy makers.

      Its similar to how some in the US can support war for the sake of war because the US will have to buy weapons from American companies in order to prosecute that war.

      There is even a semi-reasonable argument that can be made as to this behavior being OK (in that americans profit and the US exists to further the interests of its citizens)*

      *yes, i know why/that this argument fails. The premise is reasonable though, that the US exists to further the interests of its citizens

    • Wade Scholine  On October 21, 2019 at 1:30 pm

      > I don’t see the reasoning behind “We invaded Iraq for the oil”.

      Not in the crass, simple sense of loading the oil onto American-owned tankers and sailing off without paying for it. In the sense of arranging for there to be a compliant (non-OPEC-member) client Government in Iraq which would provide a counter to Saudi Arabia, so that never again would an American President be in the position of begging the Saudis to pump faster.

      And also to arrange for lots of lucrative contracts for American businesses to sell the new Iraqi regime services and equipment to modernize their oil fields, presumably crippled by a decade+ of sanctions. Not to mention various supports for pumping all that oil and bringing it to market.

      So, “for the oil” in the sense that the invasion was intended to stabilize the world market on the basis of large supply at low price.

      > …and that the international community would allow them to sell

      This also. Saddam himself was an inconvenience, beyond his unacceptability for the “compliant client” role. The Bush Administration and its allies were convinced that Iraq could be pumping oil a lot faster than it was, given the right kind of technical support. They were wrong about this (and were informed about the truth before the invasion, but instead of paying attention they fired the people who told them the facts).

    • weeklysift  On October 21, 2019 at 7:30 pm

      Paul, I wondered when I wrote that line if I should elaborate on it. What I meant was something close to what Wade is saying: I don’t think we went into Iraq to steal the oil so much as to control it and the geopolitical power it represented.

      Saddam without oil would not have been a problem for us, but with oil he was a problem. We wanted not just to be rid of him, but to control what kind of government would succeed him, because of the power that government could wield. I don’t believe that making life better for Iraqis figured much in the US decision.

      • Jed Taylor  On November 3, 2019 at 1:48 am

        “But with oil he was a problem” also turns on Saddam moving toward pricing Iraq’s oil in Euros rather than dollars and his attempts to organize an Arab-centered oil marketplace and financial trading center where everything would be denominated in dollars. Doing so, of course, threatened the dollar are the world’s reserve currency.

        The Iraq war was about a number of things, none of which were how it was sold by our government to our citizens, and this was one of them.

  • Wade Scholine  On October 21, 2019 at 1:44 pm

    If we examine our real motives before we start an intervention, usually we’ll either realize that we shouldn’t do this at all, or see that the scope of our mission should be much smaller than taking over the whole country.

    Or, maybe, admit to what resources would be required and commit to providing them. “Nation-building hardly ever works” because it’s not seriously attempted. Because, for example, building an Iraqi military that would be capable of defending the State while not trying to take it over would be the work of 20 or 30 years, with an American viceroy in charge of the State for some large part of that, and maybe a half-million American MPs (with some many thousands of fluent Arabic-speakers among them) to provide security and law enforcement for many years. Something like what was done with Germany and Japan after WWII, only longer, harder, and more expensive.

    • weeklysift  On November 5, 2019 at 8:41 am

      Germany and Japan had the advantage of a prior national self-image. Too many of the countries where we try to nation-build were defined by some colonial bureaucrat drawing lines on a map. The people inside those lines may or may not believe they are part of something, or that they have anything in common with many of the other people inside those lines.

  • TRPChicago  On October 21, 2019 at 3:28 pm

    Syria is a continuum of foreign policy. We’ve been mired in the Middle East in one form or another, for decades. And our Syrian intervention, such as it was, was minimalist given an ethnic assassin’s taking control of the government and committing slaughter.

    In Trump’s presser earlier this afternoon, his conflated his impulsive decision to get out of Syria as a policy judgment about military intervention. It was a transparent attempt to soothe Senate Republicans, to paper over his compulsion to be his own man and make his own decisions his way with no regard for advice from wiser, knowledgeable, time-tested people.

    It is akin to Trump’s earlier decision to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, in which he also undermined support from allies for our decision and made a volatile area more dangerous. The man is demonstrably unfit to lead our nation.

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  • David in California  On October 27, 2019 at 12:44 pm

    Reading the paragraph that begins, “The people in those regions often feel no sense of national loyalty to each other, and the only way they have ever held together as “nations” is under the dominance of some strongman.” My imagination left the Middle East and hovered over the Middle West. From Syria and Assad and the Alawites against the 74% of Syrians who are Sunnis, to Trump and the Evangelicals and the identical 74% of Americans who are not Evangelicals.

    The similarity of those dictators and their denying people their rights by using prison camps, secret police, and party-affiliated vigilante groups and our own private prisons holding refugees, ICE agents camping out at elementary schools while holding brown children waiting to question their parents, and so-called patriot groups hassling brown people along the boarders.

    You add “When they emigrate to the US or Western Europe, they often make fine citizens.” but of course, imagine if an African American family or an fine arts major moved from Georgia to Massachucetts, Of course they would make fine citizens! Thankfully, within the US they are free to do so. I wish that they would stay in those God-forsaken backwaters and help those areas towards freedom, democracy, and a first-world economy rather than causing such a density problem here and using our already stretched natural resources, but I understand, when a person is persecuted because of his race, religion, or political ethics, he should have every ability to leave that persecution behind and come where he is wanted.

    • weeklysift  On November 5, 2019 at 8:49 am

      The center of the country (where I come from originally and still go back at least twice a year) is easy to stereotype. And I do think that significant forces are trying to turn Americans against each other along a bunch fault lines. But the very real prejudices in this country still coexist with a strong national fellow-feeling.

      I’m reminded of George Lakoff’s account of swing voters: It’s not that they hold a middle-of-the-road ideology so much as that they have both liberal and conservative frames in their heads, which they apply to different situations. If you approach them through a liberal frame, they respond like liberals, but they also respond to conservative frames like conservatives.

      Analogous phenomenon here: Lots of Americans have both those-people-aren’t-like-me and we’re-all-in-this-together frames in their heads. Either one can get activated, depending on the situation.

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