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December 31, 2018 3:02 pm

American Retreat From Syria May Be the Least Bad Option for Israel

avatar by Ira Stoll

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US and Turkish soldiers conduct the first-ever combined joint patrol outside Manbij, Syria, Nov. 1, 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Arnada Jones/ US Army / Handout via Reuters.

An American Jewish figure I’ve long admired, with impeccable pro-Israel credentials, sent a wire in response to my recent column that appeared under the headline, “What Bret Stephens Missed About Trump and Israel.”

The wire said, in essence, “come on. How can you not see Trump’s precipitous withdrawal from Syria at the behest of Turkey and Russia as a big problem for Israel?”

Well, as I said in the column, “Stephens could be right that Trump’s limited pullback, if not full retreat…could be bad for Israel.” But since the column has gotten some attention, and since my friend asked, allow me to clarify with two additional points.

Suppose that Trump had ignored or rejected Turkey’s reported request to clear out, and suppose that Turkey then had gone ahead and moved in there militarily. And suppose the Turks killed 200 or 300 or 500 American troops. And suppose, in the press scrutiny and Congressional investigations and UN Security Council meetings that followed, the Turkish government took the position, “Hey, we warned the Americans to get out of there, but they refused to leave because they needed to be there to protect Israel.” And suppose then that the argument took hold that a couple hundred American troops had died overseas in a war to protect Israel, a war with no clear congressional authorization and no clear American public support. How would that outcome be for Israel?

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It’d be a disaster, not least because one of the standard points used by American pro-Israel groups to advocate for the billions of dollars a year in US military aid to Israel is that those funds help Israel defend itself and make it unnecessary for US troops to deploy abroad and put themselves at risk to defend Israel. It’d also be a disaster because the likeliest next move after the military funerals would be for Trump to do what President Reagan did when he faced a similar situation in Lebanon in the early 1980s — withdraw. One may argue in retrospect that Reagan’s retreat emboldened the terrorists. But given the choice of withdrawing before hundreds of American casualties or after hundreds of American casualties, isn’t it better for Israel that the withdrawal take place before the casualties, so that Israel isn’t blamed?

Now, plenty of people say that Turkey was just bluffing, and that it’d never actually have gone in against American troops. Could be. But how many American troops’ lives would or should one be willing to risk to test that proposition, especially knowing the chances that Turkey could, after the fact, release a Jamal Khashoggi-style audiotape of a phone call of Trump being warned of an impending Turkish invasion and perhaps even being taunted about the US troops just being there to defend Israeli interests?

Finally, the discussion about the effect on Israel of the American withdrawal has made much of the importance of America keeping its promises to its overseas allies. (This discussion often omits that Turkey is a NATO ally, but that’s a topic for another day.) There’s another set of promises worth keeping in mind, though, and those are the promises of candidate Trump to the voters.

There was a more interventionist candidate in the 2016 presidential election, named Hillary Clinton. She also ran in 2008 against Barack Obama as the more interventionist candidate. Both times she lost, in 2008 against Obama who criticized her vote for the Iraq War, and in 2016 against Trump who ran criticizing regime change and costly endless Mideast wars. A tweet from Clinton on December 21 made clear her views about the situation: “Actions have consequences, and whether we’re in Syria or not, the people who want to harm us are there & at war. Isolationism is weakness. Empowering ISIS is dangerous. Playing into Russia & Iran’s hands is foolish. This President is putting our national security at grave risk.”

It’s good for both Israel and America if foreign policy direction is responsive to voter decisions in elections, rather than immune to it. The American electorate and political donor base is broadly more pro-Israel than the foreign service or national security elite. What often happens is that presidential candidates make pro-Israel foreign policy promises that the permanent bureaucracy then resists implementing. Even if one disagrees with Trump’s specific move here either because of the substance or because of the timing and communication, the broader message that the American government responds to the president, and that the president will keep his campaign promises, is one that is good for Israel.

In this case, the military and National Security Council and State Department have to respond to the orders of an elected president rather than continuing on with a deployment that the president opposes and that Congress has declined to expressly authorize. If Trump doesn’t want these troops there, and if Congress doesn’t want them there badly enough to either declare war or pass a resolution authorizing their presence, then what were they doing there? I get that Secretary of Defense Mattis wanted them there, but no one elected him. And if the answer is “the troops were protecting Israel,” well, any pro-Israel lobbyist in America or Israeli diplomat who thinks it’s great for Israel to deploy 2,000 American troops indefinitely to Syria as human tripwires without either presidential or congressional authorization may want to at least consider rethinking the issue.

If Israel’s American friends think a robust American troop presence in some of the most perilous spots in the Middle East is good for Israel and for America, then we need to find some American politicians who share that view and who can convince a majority, or at least a plurality, of American voters. Until then, some humility is in order. Expecting these deployments to continue regardless of election outcomes will only fuel the sense by many Americans that their elites are unaccountable, out of touch, and unresponsive.

So, to answer the email query from that reader in response to my criticism of Bret Stephens’ New York Times column: sure, the quick withdrawal may not be great for Israel. But it may nonetheless be preferable to the alternatives of mass American casualties or of a vivid demonstration that policy is dictated by the permanent national security establishment rather than set by elected representatives. Neither of those outcomes would be particularly good for Israel, or for America, either.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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