Trump’s Syria Decision-Making Could Be Fatal

Since there is no fixed and defined definition of what constitutes an impeachable offense, it pretty much comes down to whatever Congress thinks is unforgivable or at least politically unsustainable. What Nixon did met that definition. What Bill Clinton did ultimately did not. I think it’s obvious that there must be some kind of criminal or at least highly unethical component, but the truth is that the decision will always come in a specific context in which the totality of the environmental conditions are what is determinative.

President Trump is presently working on almost all fronts to justify his removal. For Republican senators, nothing is more damning that his foreign policy decision-making. It’s highly doubtful that this will factor into any actual articles of impeachment, but his impulsiveness and cluelessness and doubtful loyalty are going to at least privately give the senators comfort that they’re justified in pulling the plug.

The Associated Press has the story:

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria was made hastily, without consulting his national security team or allies, and over strong objections from virtually everyone involved in the fight against the Islamic State group, according to U.S. and Turkish officials.

Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, two U.S. officials and a Turkish official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press.

Look at the details:

The Dec. 14 call came a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed to have the two presidents discuss Erdogan’s threats to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria, where American forces are based. The NSC then set up the call.

Pompeo, Mattis and other members of the national security team prepared a list of talking points for Trump to tell Erdogan to back off, the officials said.

But the officials said Trump, who had previously accepted such advice and convinced the Turkish leader not to attack the Kurds and put U.S. troops at risk, ignored the script. Instead, the president sided with Erdogan.

In the following days, Trump remained unmoved by those scrambling to convince him to reverse or at least delay the decision to give the military and Kurdish forces time to prepare for an orderly withdrawal.

“The talking points were very firm,” said one of the officials, explaining that Trump was advised to clearly oppose a Turkish incursion into northern Syria and suggest the U.S. and Turkey work together to address security concerns. “Everybody said push back and try to offer (Turkey) something that’s a small win, possibly holding territory on the border, something like that.”

Erdogan, though, quickly put Trump on the defensive, reminding him that he had repeatedly said the only reason for U.S. troops to be in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State and that the group had been 99 percent defeated. “Why are you still there?” the second official said Erdogan asked Trump, telling him that the Turks could deal with the remaining IS militants.

With Erdogan on the line, Trump asked national security adviser John Bolton, who was listening in, why American troops remained in Syria if what the Turkish president was saying was true, according to the officials. Erdogan’s point, Bolton was forced to admit, had been backed up by Mattis, Pompeo, U.S. special envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey and special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk, who have said that IS retains only 1 percent of its territory, the officials said.

Bolton stressed, however, that the entire national security team agreed that victory over IS had to be enduring, which means more than taking away its territory.

Trump was not dissuaded, according to the officials, who said the president quickly capitulated by pledging to withdraw, shocking both Bolton and Erdogan.

Caught off guard, Erdogan cautioned Trump against a hasty withdrawal, according to one official.

To begin with, the call was only necessary because Erdogan was threatening to attack our Kurdish allies in Syria and we needed to give him some kind of bone to head him off. And that’s all Erdogan really expected or wanted. He was so shocked to have the president take his side that he immediately began backing off, asking that Trump not take any precipitous actions.

That Trump makes decisions like this is bad enough. That he breezily agrees to the slaughter of our Kurdish allies is despicable beyond description. That he could not be talked out of his decision should be fatal.

It caused the immediate resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis and a worldwide outcry of alarm from friends and foes alike. I think, more than any other decision Trump has made as president, this has done the most damage to his relationship with the Washington establishment, very much including the Republican members of the Senate.

He can no longer be contained or constrained, and it’s simply time for him to go. All we need now are the components that will make up the official rationale.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.