President Donald Trump is receiving an onslaught of criticism for his decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan. Congressional Democrats should not pile on without offering an alternative vision. We should applaud the president’s desire to put an end to these interventions, but should challenge him to assemble a team that does so with better planning and diplomacy. We should articulate a foreign policy doctrine of responsible withdrawal that prioritizes restraint and human rights.
Let’s start with a fact that the mainstream media has glossed over when criticizing Trump’s Syria decision: His decision is in compliance with U.S. and international law. The presence of U.S. troops in the Syrian civil war was never authorized by Congress. We are also violating international law by invading Syria without the approval of the United Nations. Before any administration official can advocate keeping troops in Syria to fight the Islamic State, Congress needs to offer authorization.
Trump also deserves credit for standing up to the war hawks within his own administration who started inventing rationales for remaining in the country: countering Iran and seeing an end to the Assad regime. That is the definition of mission creep. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator and should be tried at the Hague for international war crimes, the United States should not militarily overthrow him.
There is no doubt Trump should have articulated a more prudent withdrawal strategy. He could have consulted beforehand with our allies and regional partners. One alternative to an immediate withdrawal in Syria is announcing a full withdrawal over the next few months. That would give us time to prepare local forces and to deploy intelligence platforms and networks that address potential terrorist threats.
We also cannot just leave without some consideration of our moral obligations to the Syrians that come from having engaged in war. We need to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians and accept our fair share of refugees. Trump should have used his leverage with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ensure a cease-fire and guarantee protection for the Kurds. We should not sell Turkey Patriot missiles until we get that commitment.
In the case of Afghanistan, Trump announced that we will be reducing our troop level by 7,000. This is, fortunately, a reversal of his deployment of 3,000 troops there in September 2017. His instincts as a candidate of ending the war and bringing our troops home were spot-on.
We have spent more money in Afghanistan than we did in the Marshall Plan and continue to spend more than $40 billion each year. Our military approach has not worked. After the 2008 surge, the Taliban now exerts influence or maintains control over 70 percent of Afghan territory instead of just 40 percent.
There should be a short timeline for bringing home our troops to allow for a smooth transition. We should engage in direct talks with the Taliban and seek a negotiated settlement, involving regional actors such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and India. The task calls for the talent of a negotiator with the skill of a Bill Perry, George Shultz, or George Mitchell. We should also retain the right to strike terrorist cells that directly threaten our homeland, while taking precautions to avoid harm to civilians that can create new conditions for hate.
Most urgently, the president should apply his newfound commitment to anti-interventionism to Yemen’s devastating civil war. The United States should stop taking Saudi Arabia’s side in Yemen, especially in light of the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. After pressure from a bicameral War Powers Resolution that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and I led, the administration decided to stop refueling Saudi-led coalition jets. In January, we will pass the War Powers Resolution, which would remove U.S. forces from hostilities in Yemen except to fight terrorism as allowed by the 2001 war authorization. The president should sign it and demand that Saudi Arabia stop bombing ports and allow Yemenis to access food and medicine.
In an Independence Day speech in 1821, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams said America should offer “her heart, her benedictions and her prayers. . . . But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Almost 200 years later, the world is a very different place. But Adam’s wisdom still applies as we seek to lead in the 21st century.
A few days ago, I was with Trump as he signed one of my bills. I said, “Mr. President, China has not been in a war since 1979. If we want to win the race against them, we should not get bogged down in war.” He nodded and then observed that they have enriched themselves without firing a shot.
I am not pollyannaish about the deep partisan battles that divide us. But when it comes to ensuring that America remains the global leader, with all that implies for freedom and democracy, let us take inspiration from Adams and find common ground in a foreign policy of greater restraint, one that would entail responsibly extricating ourselves from bad wars. Let us focus on developing our capabilities and talents here at home to be a model for the world.