I’ve been asked to comment on the recent pullouts in Syria and Afghanistan announced by Trump. Allow me to exploit this as a springboard for a continuing analytical series on the topic of geopolitics as I feel like.
To the matter at hand, both these statements are correct:
- We have and haven’t had any strategy governing our presence in the Middle East since I was a tot.
- No strategy governs our announced pullout from Syria and Afghanistan, which may end up helping antagonistic actors like Russia and Iran.
I say this because geopolitics is a godless morass of competing concerns and interests. Boiling it down to a simple equation, moral or otherwise, is the province of charlatans. Now, people rejoice at the withdrawal, others decry it. While I can see arguments for both, I’m divided, highly inclined to agree on Afghanistan, where we’ve been spinning our wheels for nigh two decades. If our presence has proven so ineffectual, it begs the question as to what possible calamity our absence might work. Regarding Syria, I’m more skeptical. The question there is “why.” The larger conflict is decided insofar as a butcher like Assad will survive, a tall king of ashes. What lies beyond is unripe speculation, and I’m not sure it matters much anyway. If one’s concern bends towards Iran, I’m sorry to say that ship has sailed. There was little we could have done to blockade it. Even in an intervention scenario, Iran would have attained a net positive increase in its influence and reach. If, on the other hand, the concern bends toward Russia, well, that’s a different story. I’m not terribly concerned by even a stark victory for a dying power squandering its last frail spring on more misplaced imperial adventures. Let the little people blow. Sauron will deal with them later.
To specify, my only real concern with the Syria pullout is the motivation of those who made the decision–a single mendacious Individual-1–and those reacting to it with either dismay or welcome. The presence of a few thousand American troops, such formidable currency in such parts, cannot be said to be the crux of the conflict. I agree that the Kurds don’t deserve to be abandoned again, but again, see #1. If we wish to support the Kurds, there must a goal and vision for that other than mere maintenance. Maintenance, prevention, deterrence, etc., are better called “idling” without those. The bitter truth is that Trump has brought some much-needed sense to the analysis (broken clocks, man), bolstered entirely by a question that hasn’t been asked in a shameful while: what the hell are we doing there? There are worse things to do than throw up his hands and withdraw when no general or expert can give him a convincing answer. “Bad things might happen” or “the bad people might win” aren’t that, but how children answer questions about a bedtime story. The American Empire ought not be run with such scholastic dotage.
I suspect Trump is tainted by an atavistic, selfish sympathy toward Russian whispers, but I can’t help but think that here his instinct just saw a vague, interminable mess and said “screw it.” That’s how the readout seems to me. It’s not his fault that American Middle Eastern doctrine is bankrupt and can’t meet basic questions. That such an approach is better than what we have is a condemnation of the latter, not the former. There a number of better approaches to tackle this issue, the best of which lies not in bases or allies or scheming above a map, but by building insane amounts of solar panels, wind farms, and nuclear power stations, rendering the one thing that keeps this region’s medieval squabbles relevant a sunbleached relic. For Iran, the better approach was the goddamn deal we made that opened a path to rapprochement, also known as neutralization. The best way to thwart Iran is to transition from a hated to a neutral potential partner across the wide sea. As long as Tehran can cast us as an acute enemy, they’ll be a threat, as we’ll be one. Were we to become something more benign, their scheming would fall by the wayside, their eyes and hands turned elsewhere. Oftentimes the best defense is a dodge.
That’s it. One minor Parthian shot: there’s a tendency and temptation to treat every last development in the Game as apocalyptic. No. Everything matters, not everything is key. Most waves cancel each other out.