In this comment on the recent US decision to leave Syria, Henry Alexander looks at the broader issue of whether the US is changing in far greater ways than we might at first realise. Are we, in fact, approaching a tipping point in terms of the US’ relationship with the rest of the world?
It is hard to see how anyone could come to the conclusion that a situation as complex as Syria has been “sorted” to the extent that, within the space of a few weeks, it could possibly make sense to withdraw all US forces from the region. On a number of levels, it forces the rest of the world (apart from a small band of countries), to face up to the fact Mr Trump is perhaps not the best man for the job in terms of developing stable grand-strategy in a modern world.
We have watched Mr Trump lead the US away from a series of international conferences and agreements, ranging from environmental concerns to nuclear proliferation treaties. In each case, he has made it clear that he is prepared to ignore not just the pleadings of the rest of the world but also the strong advice of leading US experts. That he has been able to do so is perhaps an indication of just how little faith the American people now has in the “Establishment”; Mr Trump came to power on a promise to “clean the swamp” and he has set about his self-appointed task with relish.
However, like many of his followers, he seems not to recognise that not everything that lives in a swamp is bad or evil. He also seems not to understand that swamps sometimes develop over many millennia and achieve an equilibrium that is easily upset if altered too quickly. What is more, the results of doing so cannot easily be foreseen; you tamper with them at your peril.
The war in Syria has somewhat upstaged the continuing operation in Afghanistan against the Taliban which now has many parallels with Viet Nam. The cost in US casualties might now have tailed off, but the financial drain is still significant (put at some $45billion per year). Both those might be bearable to the US voters if it were not for an increasingly knotty problem that is now facing the US military.
The US has been training Afghan troops to a standard such that they felt comfortable about making very public claims that they were good enough to take on, and beat, the Taliban wherever they met them. And yet the reality has recently proven to be rather different, with well–equipped detachments of Afghan “elite” troops being effectively wiped-out by local Taliban forces.
It has forced many in the West, and especially the US, to confront an unpleasant truth which is that no amount of gung-ho drills and equipment will change the fundamental nature of the Afghan people. Just like the people of Viet Nam, they have proved themselves to be remarkably impervious to the “American Dream”, with local loyalties, cultural values and national characteristics taking over very quickly once out of immediate US control or oversight. It also leads inevitably to the conclusion that if you want the job done – you have to do it yourself, and so the US body-count begins all over again.
Trump has, somewhat remarkably, stayed the course in Afghanistan since coming to power, in spite of his general promises to remove the US from overseas forays or expeditions. (He could, of course, do so knowing that he could always blame his predecessors for getting the US involved in the first place.) However, faced with the prospect of getting bogged down in what his senior advisers have publically admitted is a 40-year stalemate, he has recently gone against the advice of General Mattis, his Defense Secretary, and ordered the start of a US withdrawal from that country as well.
Mattis has just announced his early resignation and it is hard not to conclude that he has got to a point where he cannot support his President. Perhaps a better way to describe that would be to say he cannot “control” the President’s determination to make executive decisions regardless of the strong advice of his senior team members. And here we come to the question of the “Tipping Point”.
When a national leader loses confidence in those around him or her, and convince themselves that the advice they are getting is fundamentally incorrect, they start to pursue policies which rely more and more upon their own personal grasp of events, both domestic and abroad. As the more powerful intellects either leave the team or are dismissed, the remaining members will be under a lot of pressure to tell the top-person what they want to hear. It is a classic case of a small bubble of people reinforcing ideas without question: in the old days the phenomenon was called “The Emperor’s Clothes”. Today, it is called an “Echo Chamber” and is highly prevalent in the world of social media, something that the US President seems to use a great deal these days.
The end result of a situation such as seems to be developing in the US is that bit by bit, the national social, legal and commercial structures of a country are picked apart. Assumptions about how things are done or the role of a nation in the World Order are turned on their head. It might seem extreme to talk in this way, but there are a number of examples of countries where these changes have taken place almost without people realizing just how far things have gone.
Related Article: UK to send another 440 troops to Afghanistan
And then, one day, when decent people wake up and say “enough is enough”, they discover it is all too late. It happened in Germany in the 1930s, it is going on in Russia today. Many believe Turkey is gently slipping back into an autocratic regime where Democrats are being rounded up and imprisoned or worse. Might the same be possible in America?
Most of us would dismiss the idea out of hand. But turning the clock back once changes have been made is not always that easy, particularly where it can be shown that such a move is at the behest of the “Establishment” who are resisting the advancement of the poor or oppressed in society. Trump knew this when he ran for President. He plays this card every time someone crosses him and he vilifies them on his twitter site.
That is why international attempts to clean up this planet are portrayed as being against the interests of hard-working Americans; or why the Iranian nuclear agreement was just a lousy deal for the average US citizen. It is also how he is winning support in the US to threaten to pull out of NATO: “Let the Europeans start to pay their fair share” is his motto.
The problem is that in some ways Mr Trump is right. NATO is horribly reliant upon US military might and countries like Germany are absolutely ignoring a pledge to spend 2% of their GDP on defence. And China is most likely doing many of the things that he has accused them of, such as dumping cheap goods on the US markets, and “stealing” jobs from US companies.
And so, as we watch the US remove itself from the world stage, we might reach a tipping point where we have to ask the serious question: “Has America fundamentally changed – and is that change permanent?”
Some believe that that point is not that far away. They fear Mr Trump will even try to increase the rate of change in the last years of his presidency. They point to the speed at which he is ordering the military out of areas of long-term conflict such as Syria and Afghanistan as being examples of this change. And then, in America at least, many will start to pray.
Related Article: The UK will not join the European Army
Follow-on note to article
After publishing the article by Henry, reports have emerged from the US that the rate of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is going to be much faster than had been assumed. It is now reported in the US media that some 7,000 of the 15,000 troops in country are to be pulled out as soon as possible. Although the DoD has not commented officially, it has generally dismissed concerns about the impact on the Taliban, which has been increasingly active over the last year or so. A senior Afghan official reportedly told the BBC that the effect of a withdrawal would have little impact on the overall security situation as the forces concerned were only acting in a training and advisory role.
However, General Mattis, the US Defense Secretary who recently resigned, has now stated in public that Mr Trump should appoint someone more in alignment with his policy of withdrawal from that troubled country. The change in policy from a year ago when Trump ordered another 3,000 troops into Afghanistan is remarkable and illustrates the overall problem of dealing with such an un-predictable president in the White House. As recently as early this week, Gen Carter, the UK CDS, was saying that he was completely satisfied that the US was totally committed to supporting the Afghan government in its fight against the Taliban. Perhaps the relationship with the US is not quite as steady as might have been hoped at a time when the UK seems to be turning away from its European partners and back to the older US/UK arrangement.