In mid-December the international community was stung by a tweet from Donald Trump (welcome to modern diplomacy). The President announced his plan to withdraw 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, half of its current force, and all of its 2,000 troops from Syria. Claiming that ISIS had been defeated, Trump said in a short video from the White House lawn: “it’s time for our troops to come back home.”
This decision is likely to be celebrated by the American public at large. After seeing their country embroiled in decades-long conflicts in the Middle East, while achieving few military or political objectives, Americans are war weary. A poll from YouGov in October 2018 showed that an overwhelming 61% of Americans would support all US troops being removed from Afghanistan, while only 20% oppose the idea. And while policy hawks and opportunistic Democrats have criticised the move, Trump’s policy has gained support from some unconventional sources, even 2020 presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren.
America’s battle fatigue has intensified during the War on Terror, but it stems from over a century of misjudged military interventions. Indeed, America’s record abroad is pretty appalling (see: Cuba, Vietnam and Nicaragua, among others). American action has been rushed, arrogant and culturally insensitive – leading to some disastrous consequences.
However, historic failures don’t justify apathy in the modern world. America’s efforts have been ill-conceived and ill-executed, but as we wrestle with past errors, we cannot cede control of world affairs to authoritarian bullies abroad. American principles of democracy, liberty and human rights must be defended, now more than ever.
Ultimately, there is little evidence that the fate of the world improves through US inaction. A cautious approach has been adopted in the ongoing Syrian conflict, epitomised by the West’s collective failure to intervene in 2013 after Bashar al-Assad deployed chemical weapons against civilians. Once this act of terror was allowed to go unpunished, the West couldn’t justify any future action against the Syrian President. Assad has therefore remained in place, enjoying the patronage of assorted high-level criminals. The most powerful of these, Vladimir Putin, is now the puppet-master of Syria. As highlighted by the New York Times, Assad has paid a high price for Russian protection, namely sacrificing control of Syria’s foreign policy, as well as command of the military and security services. Meanwhile, America’s strategic withdrawal from Afghanistan (initiated by Barack Obama in 2011) has merely emboldened the Taliban. The Afghan government now controls just 56% of the country, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, down from 72% in 2015.
Of course, Trump doesn’t argue that the withdrawal of American troops will save the world; quite the opposite. Instead, his self-proclaimed motivation is to protect the lives of soldiers, and to end their role as the world’s policemen. However, there are other influential actors in the debate who strongly believe that a more timid United States would assist world peace. They include various anti-war activists who grew up with the ever-present spectre of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, not least the current Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.
These groups harbour a fiercely anti-American ethos, underpinned by the notion that our current adversaries have been provoked by American aggression and would demonstrate their innate benevolence if only Western imperialists let them. This is a powerful strand of thinking in the United States and particularly in Britain, where it has transformed the leadership of the Labour Party. Indeed, writing for the Guardian in August 2008, Corbyn’s current director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, claimed that conflict in Georgia was a result of “American expansion, not Russian aggression,” saying that George Bush was determined to assert his country’s global hegemony.
This is a gap-year attitude to foreign affairs. It assumes that all other governments are fundamentally friendly and liberal; they only choose to clamp down on human rights and democracy as an act of self-preservation. These arguments form the basis of Corbyn’s foreign policies, despite a mountain of evidence suggesting that certain foreign leaders are brutal, repressive and hell-bent on global influence, even as America recedes from the world stage.
Firstly, as I have already stated, Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people. Syria, the country that he is supposed to lead and protect, is now a wasteland. Putin, meanwhile, rigs elections, assassinates dissidents and invades foreign countries. Iran is a repressive religious dictatorship more concerned with regional influence than a domestic economic crisis. Indeed, Foreign Affairs magazine has identified Iran’s use of foreign militias, such as Hezbollah, in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. These groups help to further Iran’s military objectives, while affording the regime plausible deniability. The magazine points out that “the Iranian regime has trained, equipped and deployed several thousand such forces to Syria, going as far as recruiting child soldiers.”
Without American pressure in the region, these regimes will run riot – each competing to fill the void. It sets the scene for a continental boxing match between pampered tyrants, leaving ordinary people to suffer the consequences. If this happens, America and the West will be complicit, just as we are complicit in the ongoing destruction of Syria. In this context, why is the cost of intervention treated differently to the cost of non-intervention? If we believe in responsible foreign policy, we should set up a Chilcot-style inquiry to investigate our failure to prevent Assad’s actions, which have cost an estimated 500,000 lives.
Corbyn is an advocate for peace, but he fails to acknowledge the collateral damage of pacifism. Just like Trump, Corbyn preaches a ‘sorry mate, can’t help you’ attitude to the problems of foreign countries. The crossover is clear: Trump’s anti-war narratives draw heavily from the populist left, and America is now abandoning its global leadership role, as many in Britain and the United States have hoped for decades. As a result, the failure of Trump’s foreign policy will also be owned by the pacifist left.
While reckless intervention won’t solve the world’s problems, neither will obstinate inaction.
Sam Bright is the Director of Backbench