In an aside during what was supposed to be a speech about infrastructure last week, President Trump announced, “We’re coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon — very soon we’re coming out.”
This was at odds with what basically every other U.S. official has said over the past few months, so many hoped this was just one of the president’s meaningless public musings. But Trump reiterated his desire for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria during a press conference on Tuesday, even as senior U.S. officials in the campaign against ISIS were making the case for remaining there indefinitely elsewhere in the capital.
Senior administration officials claim that during a meeting with the National Security Council several hours later, Trump agreed to stop insisting on immediate withdrawal after military commanders said they needed more time to wrap up their mission. However, he instructed them to wrap up the operation so the 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria can come home in a matter of months.
On Wednesday White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders framed this as a responsible transition to local enforcement that will ensure ISIS can’t reemerge in the region.
“As the president has maintained from the beginning, he’s not going to put an arbitrary timeline,” she said. “He is measuring it in actually winning the battle, not just putting some random number out there.”
But on Thursday stunning leaks from the White House situation room revealed that in a contentious exchange, Trump demanded the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops and an end to the civilian stabilization program. When top officials said they’d need more time, Trump put some random number out there: five or six months instead of a year. The AP reports:
Mattis countered, arguing that an immediate withdrawal could be catastrophic and was logistically impossible to pull off in any responsible way, without risking the return of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in newly liberated territories, the officials said. Mattis floated a one-year withdrawal as an alternative.
Trump then relented — but only slightly, telling his aides they could have five or six months to complete the mission to destroy the Islamic State and then get out, according to the officials. Trump also indicated that he did not want to hear in October that the military had been unable to fully defeat the Islamic State and had to remain in Syria for longer.
According to CNN, when the officials protested that six months wouldn’t cut it, “Trump responded by telling his team to just get it done.”
The explanation for how we got to the point where the president is setting foreign policy deadlines on a whim may be even more troubling. The AP reports that the national security team has been giving Trump the illusion of power by presenting him with very limited choices (a tactic parents use with toddlers). But this time the game didn’t work:
If those aides failed in obtaining their desired outcome, it may have been because a strategy that’s worked in the past — giving Trump an offer he can’t refuse — appears to have backfired.
Rather than offer Trump a menu of pullout plans, with varying timelines and options for withdrawing step-by-step, the team sought to frame it as a binary choice: Stay in Syria to ensure the Islamic State can’t regroup, or pull out completely. Documents presented to the president included several pages of possibilities for staying in, but only a brief description of an option for full withdrawal that emphasized significant risks and downsides, including the likelihood that Iran and Russia would take advantage of a U.S. vacuum.
Ultimately, Trump chose that option anyway.
Demanding that U.S. troops abandon an operation because you’ve suddenly become fixated on the mistaken idea that the U.S. wasted $7 trillion in the Middle East is not a good look for any president. But Trump in particular can’t be caught issuing specific time frames for troop exits because during the campaign he repeatedly attacked President Obama for doing just that. Obama announced that a 30,000-troop surge in Afghanistan would be followed by a withdrawal in 2011, and followed his predecessor’s plan for removing troops from Iraq by the end of that year.
But Trump has a simple solution for that: he instructed his national security team not to refer to his five or six month deadline as a “timeline.” On Thursday Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, told reporters, “the president has actually been very good in not giving us a specific timeline,” so it seems Trump’s strategy is working. Well, except for all the leaks.