Streetwise Professor

December 22, 2018

Given the Realm at Stake, Why Play This Game of Thrones?

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 2:57 pm

The most recent shrieking emanating from DC and its various satrapies is the result of Trump’s decision to exit Syria and draw down forces in Afghanistan, with the clear implication that the US will leave there too in due course. The conventional wisdom is almost universally against him, and as usual, the conventional wisdom is flat wrong.

In evaluating any policy or operation, the first question to answer is: what is the objective? In Syria, is it a limited one–the defeat of the rump of ISIS? Or is it a more grandiose, geopolitical one–to control the outcome of the Syrian civil war and determine who rules there?

Trump has made it clear that his objective is limited and tactical. He has apparently decided that although ISIS has not been extirpated in Syria, it has been so attrited that its remaining enemies can contain it, or finish it off. And there is a Machiavellian aspect to that: why not let American adversaries, Russia and Iran, spend their blood and treasure dealing with the dead enders that remain? You wanted Syria, Vlad–have at it!

The conventional wisdom embraces the more grandiose objective. Perhaps this is purely self-aggrandizement, and lets them resume their college dorm games of Risk for real. Issues of motive aside, it is beyond cavil that those who want the US to remain in Syria, and indeed, to become more heavily involved there want to commit the country to being a player in a Game of Thrones that puts the fictional version to shame.

And that is why the conventional wisdom is wrong. For what does the survivor who sits on the throne rule over? A country that was a largely irrelevant shithole even before seven years of internecine warfare that utterly wrecked and largely depopulated a nation that was already pitifully poor and weak before the war began.

Congratulations Bashar! Congratulations Vladimir! Congratulations Ali! Behold the spoils of your victory! And indeed, spoiled is the right word for it.

And again, from a Machiavellian perspective, tell me why it isn’t smart for the US to let Russia and Iran plow resources into rebuilding a devastated nation? If they do so, these are resources they can’t use against the US elsewhere. Furthermore, even if Russia gains a presence in the country over the longer term, it is an isolated and completely unsupportable outpost that (a) could not provide a base for power projection in the event of a real great power struggle, and (b) could be cut off and destroyed in a trice by the US. Let the Russians put their very limited resources into a strategic dead end.

As for the Iranians, yes, their presence in Syria poses a challenge to Israel. But (a) I am highly confident that the Israelis can handle it, and (b) it’s far cheaper for the US to support their efforts to do so with material support for the Israeli military. And just as is the case for Russia, for Iran Syria would be utterly unsupportable in the event of a real confrontation between Iran and Israel.

The principle of economy of force–something that the policy “elite” in DC appears never to have heard of–applies here. One implication of the principle is that you should concentrate your resources in decisive sectors, and not fritter them away in peripheral ones. For the US, Syria is on the periphery of the periphery. In any geopolitical contest with Russia and Iran, our resources are far better deployed elsewhere.

What’s more, despite the obsession of the foreign policy elite with Russia and Iran, they are secondary challengers to the US. China is far more important, and poses a far more serious challenge. Throwing military resources into Syria is to waste them in a peripheral theater of a secondary conflict.

When I first read of Trump’s decision, I turned to a friend and said: “I wonder what this means for Afghanistan.” And indeed, hard on the heels of the Syria announcement the administration stated that it would draw down forces in Afghanistan, with the clear implication that US involvement there would wind down fairly quickly.

All of the considerations that make Syria a strategic backwater for the US apply with greater force in Afghanistan. The country has spent over 17 years, the lives and bodies of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and Marines, and trillions of dollars on a country that is the poster child for shitholes. Yes, it was the refuge of a particular terrorist threat 17+ years ago. And yes, if we leave it will likely continue to be the cockpit of vicious civil war. Just like it has for the past two plus millennia. It was barely tractable for Alexander, and the British and Russia found it utterly intractable in their 19th and 20th century wars there. We’ve arguably done better, but not much. And again: what’s “winning,” and since the demise of the Silk Road, what in Afghanistan has been worth winning?

The war in Afghanistan has proved a sisyphean task. Sisyphus didn’t have a choice: the gods condemned him to roll the rock up the hill, only to watch it roll down again. The US has been engaged in that futile task by choice, and Trump has evidently decided that he doesn’t want to be Sisyphus anymore. (My skepticism about US involvement in Afghanistan also dates to years ago–as indicated by this post from almost exactly 9 years ago.)

One of the administration’s most important, and largely ignored, decisions has been to reorient US efforts away from conflicts against terrorism in isolated, poor, and peripheral places towards recapitalizing the military for peer conflict against China and Russia. This is the right choice, and long, long overdue. (I wrote a post in 2007 that expressed concerns about prioritizing anti-terror over conventional warfare capability.)

Alas, God will not restore the years the locusts have eaten in the Hindu Kush or on the Euphrates. But sunk costs are sunk. Looking to the future, the right strategic choice is to continue the pivot away from peripheral conflicts to focus on central ones.

And these costs are not purely monetary. Last night, due to a travel nightmare, I ended up returning to Houston on a flight that landed at 0230. On the plane were a half dozen young Marines heading home for the holidays. There were also two men, in their late-20s or early-30s, with prosthetic legs. They almost certainly lost them to IEDs in some godforsaken corner of the Middle East or Central Asia. With Trump’s decision in mind, I thought: what is the point of turning more young men like the fit and hearty 19 or 20 year old Marines into mutilated 30 year olds in places like Afghanistan and Syria? I certainly can’t see one.

I’m not a peacenick or a pacifist, by any means. But I understand the horrible cost of war, and fervently believe that it should only be spend on good causes that advance American interests. I cannot say with any conviction that this is the case in Syria, or in Afghanistan, 17 years after 911. Indeed, I can say the opposite with very strong conviction.

At the risk of stooping to ad hominem argument, I would make one more point. Look at the “elite” who is damning Trump’s decision in Syria. What great accomplishment–let alone accomplishments plural–can they take responsibility for? The last 27 years–at least–of American foreign policy has been an unbroken litany of bipartisan failure. The people who scream the loudest now were the architects of these failures. Not only have they not been held accountable, they do not even have the grace or maturity to admit their failures. Instead, they choose to damn someone who refuses to double down on them.

The biggest downside of Trump’s decision is that it apparently caused Secretary of Defense Mattis to resign. I hold General Mattis in the highest esteem, and believe that if he could no longer serve the president in good conscience, he did the right thing by resigning. But if he decided that Syria and Afghanistan were (metaphorically) the hills to die on, for the reasons outlined above I respectfully but strongly disagree.

My major regret at Mattis’ departure is again completely different than the conventional wisdom spouting elite’s. They lament the loss of an opposition voice within the administration. I cringe for reasons closely related to my reason for supporting a major pivot in US policy: I think that Mattis was the best person to oversee the reorientation of the Pentagon from counterinsurgency to main force conflict. We desperately need to improve the procurement process. We desperately need to focus on improving the quality and number of high end systems, and raising the availability of those systems we have: the operational availability of aircraft and combat units is shockingly low, and Mattis has prioritized increasing them. He has made progress, and I fear that a change at the Pentagon will put this progress, and the prospect for further progress, at risk.

Listening with dismay at the cacophony of criticism from the same old, failed, and tired “elite” reminds me of Einstein’s (alleged) definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. The “elite” is invested in the same thing, and changing the same thing is a not so implicit rebuke for their failures. Until they can explain–which I know they cannot–why doing the same thing has led to such wonderful outcomes in the past quarter century, they should STFU and let somebody else try something different.


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  1. Re Israel, I think US withdrawal might actually strengthen its position, since it insentivizes Sunnis to accept Israel as an ally vs Iran et al. Also, US might grant Israel more freedom of action in the region, again to counterbalance growing Iranian influence etc.
    My concern is about Kurds… What do you think is going to happen to them?

    Comment by mhiu — December 22, 2018 @ 9:53 pm

  2. Re. the opposition to Trump’s decision (and from what I understand it was very much Trump’s decision):

    1. the media squawking – general Trump Derangement Syndrome; ‘Orange Man Bad’, even when Orange Man does exactly what you advocated that he do X months before;

    2. the policy elite – public choice theory, principle-agent problems, moral hazard, etc; these people make a living from moving flesh-and-blood chess pieces around the global chessboard, and the more of the chessboard they can play on, the better; from what I understand, they travel on private jets, so they don’t have to share red-eye shuttles to Houston with the magnificent wounded left over from the wargames they play in Washington, let alone see the ghosts of those who never made it back, nor hear the sobs of those they left behind.

    Well done President Trump.

    Re. Mattis, I agree I think he is a loss. However, thanks to President Obama’s policy of cashiering any senior officer who showed initiative, independence of thought and patriotism I suspect there is a deep pool of very high-quality, experienced and patriotic generals, admirals and air marshals who would be pleased to serve their country once again.

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — December 22, 2018 @ 11:47 pm

  3. The drawdown is completely consistent with Trump’s campaign promises. There is nothing new or surprising here.

    I suspect that in the end he intends to have the myriad groupings fight it out amongst themselves, with the possible injection of outside force when needed to assure a balance of power.

    Pity about the Kurds. But let’s not forget that the most active Kurdish rebel forces are profoundly leftwing, steeped in Marxist dogma. They may not be embracing Islam completely, but it will only be a matter of time before they will turn on the US.

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — December 23, 2018 @ 8:45 am

  4. “The drawdown is completely consistent with Trump’s campaign promises. There is nothing new or surprising here.”

    Surely that should read:

    “The drawdown is completely consistent with Trump’s campaign promises. This is therefore new and surprising.”

    Where’s your wall, Mr Trump?

    Anyway, it is amusing when an ignorant lout such as Trump pursues a foreign/military policy that is infinitely more intelligent than one the Washington elite would pursue. How wise the deplorables were to ensure that Hellary was beaten.

    Comment by dearieme — December 23, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

  5. What happened when Obama removed our military from Iraq? ISIS and loss of most of achievements of the decade-long war. Now Trump repeats the same in Syria. His reasons are different, but the result – with high probability – might be the same. I think it’s a mistake to count on rationality in Arab leaders – their feudal, tribal hatred of Jews supersedes all considerations of profit and alliance against common enemy. Or, rather – Israel is their common enemy with Iran, and that beats any inner-faith fights.

    Comment by ETat — December 24, 2018 @ 8:45 am

  6. There is a marked difference between the Obama withdrawal and the Trump withdrawal. Obama proceeded with the assumption that without US troops being present, the different factions would have no choice but to come to a cooperative understanding with each other. Trump, on the other hand, couldn’t care less, and most likely would like to see the killing continue, if only to keep Muslims preoccupied. That’s not an unreasonable stance to take.

    The threat to Israel is probably minimal: they have dealt with worse, especially when Saddam was around. Trump has also been very clear about his support for Israel, and most likely would step in to thwart any overt threat (his Jewish children would probably see to that). Obama, on the other hand, was no friend to Israel, and arguably worked against Israel’s security interests at every turn.

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — December 24, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

  7. I have to disagree with you about the analogy between Syria and Iraq, @ETat. In Iraq, absent US force there was nothing to oppose ISIS (ex-Al Qaeda in Iraq), the Iraqi army being craven, incompetent, and badly led. Syria is now swarming with potential foes–other rebel groups, a Syrian army which though hardly formidable has been reconstituted sufficiently to have defeated (with Russian and Iranian help) other jihadi groups, and the Russians, Iranians, and now the Turks. IMO, this portends (a) that ISIS will not metastasize like it did in 2014 in Iraq, and (b) the war will grind on.

    I share your views on the inveterate Jew hatred of virtually all of the combatants (Russia to some degree excepted, for a variety of reasons). But if anything, leaving the locals and the Iranians to handle ISIS actually helps Israel, by diverting the attention and resources of those who would destroy it to continuing their internecine slaughters.

    Israel has been one of the beneficiaries of the long Syrian civil war. A definitive end thereof would permit the Iranians and Syrians and Hezbollah to turn its attentions exclusively on it.

    Yes, this is a rather cynical view, and a cynical strategy. But given the nature of the Middle East, cynicism is a virtue.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 25, 2018 @ 9:02 am

  8. Happy Christmas to the Streetwise Professor and his family.

    Comment by Peter — December 25, 2018 @ 12:55 pm

  9. Professor – and Mr. Pembroke,
    I do hope you are right. There is only one way now, since the order is given: to wait and see.
    Hope you are having a wonderful, warm Christmas.

    Comment by ETat — December 25, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

  10. This paragraph cannot be emphasized enough:

    “At the risk of stooping to ad hominem argument, I would make one more point. Look at the “elite” who is damning Trump’s decision in Syria. What great accomplishment–let alone accomplishments plural–can they take responsibility for? The last 27 years–at least–of American foreign policy has been an unbroken litany of bipartisan failure. The people who scream the loudest now were the architects of these failures. Not only have they not been held accountable, they do not even have the grace or maturity to admit their failures. Instead, they choose to damn someone who refuses to double down on them.”

    Comment by Brien — December 26, 2018 @ 8:50 am

  11. Syria isn’t anything like Iraq or Afghanistan in terms of the scale of US engagement – the US has mostly avoided getting entangled in the Syrian mess mostly by getting the Kurds to do the heavy fighting for them.

    Now the Kurds are going to be left to the mercy of Assad/Russians, the Turks and the Iraqis; some sort of genocide is not completely improbable. I can’t imagine any of these three even bothering to offer the pretence of avoiding civilian targets once they train their bombers on Kurdish areas. Not exactly a great reward for aligning yourself with the US.

    Comment by derriz — December 26, 2018 @ 3:52 pm

  12. I think that part of the reason that Mattis and the envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition resigned is because they had been negotiating a slow drawdown of U.S. forces, to be replaced by units from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and the precipitate Trump tweet may have torpedoed the deal. As it is, Trump says that U.S. air and special forces assets in Iraq will still be available for intervention in Syria on an as-needed basis. (What was supposed to happen with the Turks and Kurds is not at all clear.)

    Comment by srp — December 28, 2018 @ 8:58 pm

  13. Once again, find myself closely aligned with the musings contained here. Particularly the commentary about the elites who’ve not only got us into this mess, but demand that the current admin blunder along the same way. As has been said – to continue to make the same mistakes over and over again, and expect a different outcome is insanity.

    Comment by doc — January 2, 2019 @ 5:40 pm

  14. Jim Webb’s name is being floated, I think he would be good.

    Comment by Joe Walker — January 4, 2019 @ 10:22 am

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