The core of the Republican Party’s foreign policy platform has been shifting back and forth over the decades between hawkish intervention and cautious support for our allies. At times and under certain administrations, the desire to keep a military presence spread around the world made sense, particularly when the Soviet threat was at its peak.
The current administration matches the populist sentiment that after nearly two decades of a wide military presence in danger zones throughout the Middle East, it’s time to bring troops back home. But as Republicans on Capitol Hill warned of the previous administration’s policies on withdrawal, so too are they hesitant to support the current President’s sudden decisions to pull out of Afghanistan and Syria.
This debate has been highlighted in the press as a chasm between the White House and Senate Republicans following a rebuke by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:
“Simply put, while it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our own shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” McConnell said on the floor of the Senate yesterday. “And we know that left untended these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”
McConnell’s comments came as he announced that he would unveil an amendment to the “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act.”
Unfortunately, both the press and the American public are essentially in the dark when it comes to actual data from the ground. Our continued presence serves purposes we’re never told about, including economic considerations in Afghanistan and disruptive measures in Syria to support Israel. The Islamic State is the scapegoat in both discussions, but the real reasons both Capitol Hill and the Pentagon are hesitant to act so hastily may never be revealed.
Whatever it is, they’re both willing to go against the President at a time when party and government unity are so important. That’s telling.
Syria is the easier of the two to understand. We went there under the Obama administration with the hope of killing two birds with one stone: defeating the Islamic State and subverting the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. But neither of those reasons are truly valid anymore. Assad isn’t going anywhere thanks to being propped up by Iran and Russia, while the Islamic State’s remnants are too difficult to truly eradicate without incurring great costs. This is why it makes sense to accept one bird down while the other escaped. Mission half accomplished.
The new reason we’re still there is Israel. Syria represents a military gateway through which Iran (and possible Russia) can have military forces within easy striking distance to the Jewish state. Our presence there is a deterrent, but one that the President feels is unnecessary at this stage. Israel can take care of itself on that front, and I have to agree. If anything, pulling out of Syria opens the door for Israel to engage more energetically in Syria, and while it may not be easier than letting American soldiers essentially act as human shields preventing Turkey from wiping out the Kurds, it’s not as important as most are insinuating regarding Israel’s interests.
Afghanistan is a completely different story. Our presence there has been a series of failures for 17 years. There may have been a reason to go there in the first place, but there seems to be no reason for our continued presence. But here’s the thing. Even the Obama administration was reluctant to pull out of Afghanistan after pulling out of Iraq. The difference between the two is that Afghanistan will not crumble to outside forces the way Iraq did. If anything, we’re less needed in Afghanistan than in Syria, Iraq, or pretty much anywhere else in the Middle East.
And yet our presence there persists.
Somebody knows something, but it isn’t us. When to take into account Obama didn’t pull out, the military doesn’t want to pull out, and many Senate Republicans are willing to go against the President, there’s obviously something very interesting happening there.
It may just be a matter of style over substance. Perhaps Republicans on Capitol Hill are ready to pull out as well, just not as hastily as the President is requesting. As with many foreign affairs concerns, it could be years or decades before we hear the full story.