The recent Washington Post op-ed by Senator Mitch McConnell, "Withdrawing from Syria is a Grave Mistake," is very disappointing. Rather than acknowledging and taking responsibility for the blunders U.S. foreign and military policy over the last 30 years, Senator McConnell and 69 other senators want the US to continue doing what has proven to be disastrous to world peace and US national security.
Having served two years in Iraq and six years in Afghanistan as a field-level civilian advisor, I witnessed daily the death, destruction and hardships these two Wars of Choice inflicted on the local populations. The aftereffects of these wars continue to this day. The current Congressional and media outrage over the plight of the Kurds in eastern Syria pales in comparison to the ongoing humanitarian tragedies that Washington’s intervention foreign policy caused in these two countries — not to mention Libya, Syria and elsewhere under Congress’ open-ended War on Terror. There was no significant Congressional or mainstream media outrage or resolutions of disapproval when tens of thousands of civilians were being killed as a result of US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t recall any Congressional leader writing an op-ed titled, "Invading Iraq in 2003 was a Grave Mistake?"
That said, the deceit inherent in Senator McConnell’s op-ed is more alarming than its hypocrisy. He uses counterfactual claims to justify and support the Washington establishment’s interventionist foreign policy that he champions as Senate Majority Leader.
In his op-ed, Senator McConnell repeats the neocon canard that President Obama is responsible for the creation of ISIS because of "his reckless withdrawal [of US troops] from Iraq" in 2011. This assertion is just as erroneous as the charge that ISIS will "regroup" and " bring terror to our shores" now that US troops have left Syria. (ISIS itself has never conducted a terrorist attack in America.) This contrived construct is needed to support Senator McConnell’s and the neocon community’s worldview that US militarism abroad conducted under the guise of "no substitute for American leadership" advances peace and security in the world. With the corollary being, the withdrawal of US of troops from civil wars that this US itself created (in the case of Iraq) or aided and abated (in the case of Syria) represents America returning to "the comforting blanket of isolationism in the 1940s. With over 800 foreign military installations around the world and ongoing combat operations in 80 countries, President Trump’s decision to relocate 1,000 US soldiers from eastern Syria to western Iraq hardly represents a return to America’s pre-World War II noninterventionist foreign policy.
I was in Iraq when Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf, Iraq’s most influential Shi’a cleric and the most authoritative voice in the country, pronounced publicly in July 2008 his opposition to the proposed Status of Forces Agreement and US soldiers remaining in Iraq. I was glad I had lined up a job in Afghanistan because I knew with Ayatollah Sistani’s pronouncement, "the fat lady had sung." There was no chance of US troops staying in Iraq beyond the December 2011 date agreed to by the Iraqi Parliament and the Bush Administration. Had Ayatollah Sistani’s decree been disobeyed, it would have started a Holy War with Shi’a Iran intervening to supports Iraq’s Shi’ite majority in an epic battle to drive the infidels out of the Shi’ite part of Dar al-Islam (the Muslim homelands created in the 7th and 8th centuries).
It’s neocon folklore that President Obama could have extended the withdrawal date if only he tried harder to do so. In making this specious claim, the necons never mention the Grand Ayatollah’s decree. Despite whatever the neocons say Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told certain US senators or others in private, Maliki categorically stated that the agreed departure de was nonnegotiable in this Wall Street Journal interview, "Iraq Wants the US Out," with Sam Dagher, dated December 28, 2010:
WSJ: Does this [sovereignty protection] require the presence of American forces?
Mr. Maliki: No, it does not require the presence of American forces because we do not have a problem with other countries. There is no occupation or interference in each other’s affairs between us and other countries.
WSJ: Some American officials have spoken about contingency plans being drawn now in Washington for the possibility that some American troops will stay after 2011. Do you know about these contingency plans, and do you need troops?
Mr. Maliki: I do not care about what’s being said. I care about what’s on paper and what has been agreed to with America, or another country, that’s another matter. This agreement is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration on, it is sealed, it expires on Dec. 31 .
Mr. Maliki: The withdrawal of forces agreement [Status of Forces Agreement or SOFA] expires on Dec. 31, 2011. The last American soldier will leave Iraq [on this date].
This interview was the first that Prime Minister Maliki had conducted after he had formed a new government under Iraq’s parliamentary system. Thus, his publicly stated position on this matter reflected the majority sentiment of the Iraq parliament. If he had reneged on this announced position by making a side deal with the Americans to let US troops stay, he would have been removed from office in a "no confidence" vote – if not suffering a as worse fate in Iraq’s tribal society.
The strategic blunder in US foreign policy that led to the creation of ISIS was the ill-advised US invasion of Iraq in 2003; yet the foreign policy establishment in Washington has denied this fact and failed to accept responsibility for the disastrous consequence of this blunder that truly was the "worse mistake in US history" as President Trump has frequently declared.
(A contingent of US forces was allowed back in Iraq on an interim basis in 2014 to help fight the ISIS insurgency. The current turmoil in Iraq partly involves whether these troops should be allowed to stay now that ISIS insurgency in Iraq has been suppressed. Ayatollah Sistani has already said the wants these US troops gone.)
The other deceitful and counterfactual passage in Senator McConnell’s op-ed is, "The combination of a US 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."
The real "strategic nightmare for our country" in Syria was America’s intervention in the Syrian civil war starting in 2011. To effect regime-change, the US government supported and funded Syrian rebel and terrorist groups trying to topple President Assad. The ensuing chaos and preoccupation of the Syrian national army in western Syria led to the creation of the ISIS caliphate in the ungoverned eastern region of Syria. By aiding and abetting the Syria civil war under the Obama Administration with Congress’ support, the US bears some responsibility for the war crimes that were committed; the deaths of an estimated 400,000 civilians; the 5.7 million refugees that fled the country, and the 6.2 million displaced persons. (Syria’s prewar population was about 22 million.)
In chiding President Obama for his indirect support of the Syrian civil war as "leading from behind," it seems Senator McConnell’s preference would have been for the US to launch another massive invade-and-occupy War of Choice and futile nation-building endeavor in Syria. Imagine that quagmire.
Given this history, it’s disingenuous for Senator McConnell and other war hawks to ignore, in their critique of President Trump, the US"actions precedent" that created the scenario in which the US military decided to support the Syrian Kurds. Staring in 2015, the US aligned with the Kurds in their fight against ISIS to regain their homelands in eastern Syria. Similarly, the US military – with Iranian assistance – supported the Iraqis in their battle and eventual defeat of ISIS in Iraq. In both cases, the city-by-city fighting was primarily done by local forces, including Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.
As anyone (including Kurds) who reads the New York Times or other mainstream US publications knows, the US relationship with the Kurds in Syria was always declared to be "temporary, tactical, and transactional to defeat ISIS." These articles (and others) also made it clear, going back to January 2018, that long-term US national security interest stood with NATO ally Turkey – not the Kurds who were only a "battlefield" ally in a military campaign. Using Senator McConnell’s rationale that President Trump has "weaken important alliances" by letting the Kurds fend for themselves, the US should be ingratiated to Iran since Iranian military forces (led by the now sanctioned Republican Guard Quads Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani) allied with the US and played a major role in the defeat of ISIS in Iraq. Wars create temporal bedfellows — as World War II showed.
Thus, the howls of alleged betrayals, bloodstains, and "leaving comrades on the battlefield" dishonor with respect to the Syrian Kurds, as well as Senator McConnell’s characterization of President Trump’s actions as "precipitous" and creating a "strategic nightmare," are factually inaccurate. They are merely outcries expressing the Washington establishment’s angst against President Trump for his willingness to execute military policy as he sees fit as the Commander-in-Chief based on the campaign pledge he made to voters. As three esteemed Middle East experts have opined after Senator McConnell’s op-ed was published, the U.S.-Kurd relationship was never going to last; there won’t be a second ISIS Caliphate; and Syria is not a vital US interest.
That said, Senator McConnell is correct in saying the president’s action "have set back the United States’ campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorists." So what? All the local and regional actors who will "fill the vacuum" (favorite neocon expression) created by the US pulling out of Syria – the legitimate Syrian Assad government in Damascus, Turkey, Iran, Russia, and both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds – are more committed and capable of fighting and defeating ISIS and (other Sunni jihadi terrorists) than the US military. (Being able to speak Arabic – as all Muslims learn to read the Koran – is instrumental for being effective and respected in this part of the world.) These local actors all have skin the game. They will fight the Sunni jihadi terrorists for their own reasons – as Iran showed in its defeat of ISIS in Iraq. Contrarily, deploying US military personnel to fight in this region’s centuries-old ethnic, religious and territorial disputes is counterproductive. As I witnessed over my eight years in war zones, US soldiers are perceived as intruders and infidels in the Islamic World. This fact makes the US military’s presence in the Middle East inherently destabilizing – as 9/11 showed.
As President Trump noted, America is over 7,000 miles away from the Middle East. The US no longer relies on Middle East oil. As FBI Director Christopher Wray recently reported, more Americans are currently killed each year by homegrown white supremacists than foreign jihadi terrorism. Where is the Congressional outcry and op-eds against this more lethal form terrorism within our shores?
Ronald Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA and MIT graduate who has served in the Air force and worked for USAID in Iraq and Afghanistan for seven years. He has written a book, When Will We Ever Learn? (Amazon Kindle), critiquing US foreign and military policy from his involvement in the War on Terror and his experiences living and working in Europe and the Middle East for over 20 years. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico.