The Departure of Mattis and Engagements in the Middle East

The Departure of Mattis and Engagements in the Middle East, by Victor Davis Hanson.

The near-destruction of ISIS in a matter of months (losing 99 percent of its landed caliphate), the restoration of sound defense budgeting, a reestablished sense of deterrence, and stable recalibration with allies were the signature achievements of James Mattis. And it seems a mistake not to have him finish a four-year stint at Defense.

No doubt continued U.S. deployments in both Afghanistan and Syria loomed large in Trump’s sudden decision to leave the latter even if it would cause Mattis’s departure, as well as the sense that as 2020 looms he wants MAGA orthodoxy throughout the cabinet.

The abrupt pulling of U.S. troops out of Syria is likely a mistake — given that for the size (about 2,000 troops on the ground) and cost of the deployment (few casualties), we were keeping ISIS moribund, somewhat checking Iran as well as Russia, and protecting the Kurds and what was left of the democratic Syria resistance. True, Syria was a mess, unlike a relatively stable Iraq in late 2011 (see the comments of Vice President Biden and President Obama), when the U.S. likewise abruptly left and opened the door for ISIS. Yet Syria’s future now is either going to be much more of a mess or soon a calmer colony of Russia and Iran.

No doubt the U.S. will likewise be reexamining the soon to be 18-year-long slog in Afghanistan. …

The irony is that under Mattis, we were finally getting to a smaller but deadlier footprint abroad and, at least in Syria, fulfilling Trump’s “Bomb the sh** out of ISIS” promise in the sense of more rubble/less trouble realism. Trump’s base is neither pro-isolationist nor pro–nation-building interventionism, which leaves something in the middle like “Don’t tread on me” Jacksonian realism that his generals seemed to be enacting.