Many American isolationists voted for Donald Trump because they saw in him a new path for the Republican Party and Washington D.C. as a whole. A path that would take us away from endless overseas conflicts that ate up American money and put our troops in harm’s way for unclear benefits to the country. Hillary Clinton, they figured, would just deliver more of the same Bush-era doctrine of intervention and nation-building. And a country sick to death of war in the Middle East was looking for someone willing to tell the Pentagon: Enough is enough.
Trump appeared to be that man, and his hesitant overtures to Russia were part and parcel with his views on foreign policy. He didn’t come into the White House with Obama’s naïve belief that we could talk Islamist dictators out of being Islamist dictators, but he wasn’t shutting the door on the possibility of…well, possibility. His praise of Vladimir Putin struck some as inappropriate and even un-American, but the point was this: Why close diplomatic doors when the alternative could be war with a nuclear-armed Russia?
But even the best negotiators can find themselves in situations that are tough to wrangle free of, and we might be in just such a situation in Syria.
After the U.S. shot down a Syrian fighter on Sunday, claiming that it had dropped bombs in an area controlled by our allied groups on the ground, the Russian government responded with a round of harsh threats the next day. Russia demanded that the U.S. and its coalition allies provide a full accounting of exactly what happened with the Syrian bomber. It also suspended communications with the U.S., including a special hotline that had been kept open so that U.S. and Russian forces could avoid midair confrontations and collisions. And in a statement, the Russian Defense Ministry said that any U.S.-led coalition forces found flying west of the Euphrates would be considered targets for destruction.
In further comments, Russian officials appeared eager to avoid an escalation of military conflict with the U.S. Viktor Ozerov of the Russian parliament said he felt certain that the Trump administration would take the Defense Ministry’s statement to heart.
“I’m sure that because of this, neither the U.S. nor anyone else will take any actions to threaten our aircraft,” Ozerov said. “That’s why there’s no threat of direct confrontation between Russia and American aircraft.”
While no one can be pleased to see Bashar al-Assad remain in power, and there is even less reason to be thrilled about Iran gaining military strength with Russian support, the time may be coming for Trump and the Pentagon to start pulling out of Syria. This is a proxy war that has too much potential of turning into an actual war. The Russians and the Iranians seem to have a more effective bead on ISIS than we do in Syria, and our support for other shades of Islamists doesn’t really make great sense. If the choice is between letting our Syrian “allies” down and escalating conflicts into World War III, that’s not much of a choice at all.
It might be time to cut our losses.