Streetwise Professor

December 29, 2018

Is the Withdrawal From Syria a Bitter Pill for Jacksonians to Swallow? I Think Not

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:02 pm

I admire the work of Walter Russell Mead a great deal. I especially admire his identification of Jacksonians as a uniquely American political community, and his respectful and understanding treatment thereof, which is in stark contrast to the treatment given them by the sneering classes. I was therefore surprised by his recent column, which in my view completely misreads how Jacksonian America will respond to Trump’s decision to leave Syria and (perhaps–there are conflicting accounts) draw down forces in Afghanistan.

It’s fair to say that I was among the first (along with Mead) to identify Jacksonians as Trump’s core constituency, so I think I have some insight as to how they will react to his decision. And I think that Mead is off-base here:

That harmony may soon sour. Mr. Trump’s decisions on Syria and Afghanistan risk a rift between the president and his Jacksonian supporters and provide a way for some in the GOP to break with the president without losing their own populist credentials. The betrayal of the Kurds, the benefits to Iran of American withdrawal, the tilt toward an Islamist and anti-Israel Turkey, and the purrs of satisfaction emanating from the Kremlin are all bitter pills for Jacksonians to swallow.

Of the two wings of the GOP populist movement, the Jacksonians are the stronger and, from a political standpoint, the more essential. The GOP base is more hawkish than isolationist, and from jihadist terrorism to Russian and Chinese revisionism, today’s world is full of threats that alarm Jacksonian populists and lead them to support a strong military and a forward-leaning foreign policy.


Neoconservatives tried and failed to rally GOP foreign-policy hawks against Donald Trump. Should Jacksonians turn against him, they are likely to pose a much more formidable threat.

Where does Mead go wrong? Well, in part by forgetting some of the key attributes of Jacksonians that he identified about 25 years ago. One is the Jacksonian way of war. He noted that Jacksonians are reluctant to engage in foreign wars, but when they do they favor the massive application of brutal force to achieve rapid and total victory. Kill a lot of people, destroy a lot of stuff, and go home.

The wars in Syria and Afghanistan are the antithesis of this. Jacksonians were on board for the initial action in Afghanistan, oh so long ago. The US went in hard, employed all elements of its national power (except nuclear), and achieved what appeared to be a decisive and rapid victory. Then came 17 years of grinding, inconclusive combat. There is no prospect of a decisive outcome there. Similarly in Syria, the Jacksonian objective–destroying ISIS–has been largely achieved, and it is decidedly un-Jacksonian to get involved in a protracted Game of Thrones where there are no obvious good guys, and indeed, pretty much everybody is a bad guy by Jacksonian lights.

Insofar as allies are concerned, there is absolutely no cultural affinity between American allies in Syria or Afghanistan and Jacksonians, and as Mead noted, Jacksonianism is a peculiarly cultural, as opposed to intellectual, mindset. Further, as Mead also noted, Jacksonians despise corruption, and it is hard to imagine more corrupt societies and polities than Afghanistan and the Middle East. The tendency of our allies in both regions to turn their guns on American soldiers in “green on blue” attacks only confirms deep misgivings that our ostensible allies are not honorable people–and honor is a preeminent value among Jacksonians.

Jacksonians support wars that smite American enemies, and redeem American honor. Wars to build up nations with profoundly alien cultures that appear incapable of becoming stable polities, let alone ones that are grateful for American sacrifice on their behalf–not so much.

The Kurds may be something of an exception, but Jacksonian America has never shown much interest in them, despite the US’s long involvement with the Kurds in Iraq in particular. It is sad, but nonetheless true, that the US has sacrificed Kurdish interests on many occasions in the last 30 years. All without eliciting a peep from Jacksonian America. Why should now be any different?

Further, if they learn more about the Kurds, Jacksonians will realize that it is hardly a black-and-white picture. Yes, the Kurds have fought against ISIS, and fought well (as is their wont), but this is a matter of survival. But the long-running Kurdish fight with Turkey, led as it is by hard-core communists and socialists, and using as it does terrorist methods, will not garner sympathy from Jacksonians. They are not likely to be enamored with Erdogan’s Turkey either, but given the lack of a clear good guy that appeals to Jacksonian sympathies and sentiments, the likely response is to be to hell with them all, that’s not our fight.

Insofar as Iran is concerned, Trump has been sufficiently aggressive in going after the mullahs to counter any concern that he is soft on those who shout “death to America.” There are hardly purrs of satisfaction emanating from Tehran.

Similarly, Trump has been far more aggressive with respect to China, and even Russia, than his predecessors. Russian crowing about Syria stands in sharp contrast with their incessant bitching about everything else Trump has done, so despite the media’s and the Democrat’s and the anti-Trumpers’ insane claims that Trump is Putin’s pawn Jacksonians will not be fooled.

If anything, Jacksonians will conclude that Trump is focusing on the big adversaries where it matters, rather than frittering away American lives and treasure where it doesn’t. That is, they realize that Trump is hawkish where it counts, is not isolationist, and is working to rebuild the military. Against these big things, Syria is a trifling matter.

So, pace Dr. Mead, I don’t think that Trump need to have any concern that his most important constituency will find his recent decisions on Syria and (perhaps) Afghanistan a “bitter pill to swallow.” They are more likely to conclude that he has his priorities right. Furthermore, they are sure to notice that the people who are screaming the loudest about Trump’s decision are people they despise and who despise them in return. The louder that the Bill Kristols and Max Boots squeal, the more Jacksonians will conclude that Trump is doing the right thing.

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9 Comments »

  1. “Moderation in war is Imbecility”: Jackie Fisher.

    Not a nice fellow, Fisher, but very effective. He put First Things First.

    Still, horses for courses, eh? Maybe moderation is just the thing in the Middle East?
    Though Mahomet clearly didn’t think so.

    Comment by dearieme — December 30, 2018 @ 7:40 am

  2. “The US went in hard”: yeah, but a bit too slow.

    Comment by dearieme — December 30, 2018 @ 11:41 am

  3. Could. Not. Have. Been. Said. Better. War has become a social engineering project for control freaks doing good. Thomas Friedman and his stupid “you broke it, you own it” policy is a dead end. We broke it, it’s your’s to fix” is more like it.

    Comment by The Pilot — December 30, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

  4. @dearieme–One of my favorite quotes. Moderation is the LAST thing you want to do in a Middle Eastern (or Central Asian) war. It is imbecility squared (or e to the imbecilic).

    When Alexander conquered Afghanistan, he had to be brutal. No moderation there. Things haven’t changed in 2300 years. And this is not to mention Tamerlane.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 30, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

  5. @swp..You are quite correct.

    Comment by Richard Whitney — December 31, 2018 @ 4:16 pm

  6. Or as Napoleon put it, If you’re going to take Vienna, take Vienna.

    I think by this he meant that if you have some objective in mind, you don’t pussyfoot around, you get on and take it.

    Had Obama been in charge of invading and subduing Austria he would have had no idea whether taking Vienna was a good idea or not. This has been a big part of the problem.

    Comment by Green as Grass — January 2, 2019 @ 6:53 am

  7. The US, England, France and the Scans lost something irretrievable when Colonialism went so badly out of fashion. Due to the spoils taken by the world powers during the 15th thru mid 19th century, we finally were shamed into the ‘high road’ with indigenous peoples. Our and the Soviets, and the French(Dien Bein Phu,etc) have failed miserably to drag the 16th century ‘cultures’ into the modern era. As for the Muslims, due partly to the issues of consanguinity causing declining mental and cultural development, and partly due to all our oil being under ‘their’ sand – things such as a state-state solution can’t ever be implemented. However, it has worked as with S Africa, the PI, Israel, and perhaps a few others around the globe.

    We could have tried to follow the Jeffersonian process with the ME, and sweep them from the seas, then force a truce on our terms, but sadly – world politics don’t permit the US to take that strong a stand anymore. Jackson’s only war as we recall was against the central bank! A decisive victory, although not sure if we are better of without a central US bank(yes, I know, I know).

    Moving forward to our times, I was happy to server our armed forces in all three of our prescribed foreign interests. Germany, Japan, and Korea. I consider our presence there to be vital to global security, and American hegemony – be that it is so far benevolent where we are embedded. As I get older, I find myself being less directed by our benevolence, and more directed by ‘what have you done for me lately?’ Do the Syrian muslims, or the Afghan muslims have anything we want or need? Of course, they have plenty of poppies, and the product of such, but I don’t really have any interest in that. So – why are good young men and women in harms way out there? For some tin pot dictator who is marginally less offensive than the last guy? Meh – not for me, and my Marines. Lets take every paper clip, tire, and bullet and hit the road. Would much prefer to see them between Brownsville and San Diego, doing some good work closer to home.

    Comment by doc — January 2, 2019 @ 2:12 pm

  8. The US objective in Syria was never to defeat ISIS, more correctly called ISIL or Daesh in Arabic. It was to bring about regime change, as the US had done in Libya and Egypt. ISIL was initially the US’s ally. Even when it became apparent that ISIL were not the kind of people you’d invite into your home, the US reaction was “Yes but have you seen what that monster Assad is up to?” Practically all ordinance delivered by the US has been targeted at the Syrian Arab Army, and practically none at ISIL.

    US involvement in Syria started out and stayed at Pearl Harbor scale: no boots on ground. America provided the rebels (including ISIL) with air cover, arms, finance, and diplomatic interference. Only when Putin got stuck in did America back down on its no-fly zones and stop interdicting Syrian Arab Air Force missions. It’s been a classic proxy war.

    The Syrian rebels are just as bad at human rights as Assad, and if they ever get hold of the prison system they can catch up with Assad there too.

    Comment by Michael van der Riet — January 8, 2019 @ 3:20 pm

  9. Any chance of a postscript now that Trump is reportedly dithering (sorry – re-evaluating) over withdrawing US forces? Another strategic masterstroke?

    Comment by David Mercer — January 9, 2019 @ 4:36 am

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