2019/11, 28 January 2019
President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and General Mattis’s resignation as Defence Secretary were greeted with dismay and unease by America’s allies and friends in the Middle East. The President’s stated rationale for the withdrawal --- that the Islamic State (IS) had been defeated --- had disconcerting echoes of President George W Bush’s 2003 declaration of ‘’Mission Accomplished’’ in the Iraq war on board an American aircraft carrier when soon afterwards a vicious insurgency would engulf the US army.
The Syria troop withdrawal was announced in a tweet after the President accepted at face value the promise by President Erdogan of Turkey during a phone conversation that Turkey would take care of the remaining IS fighters. There were no prior consultations with the US national security bureaucracy.
Does the Syrian decision harbinger retrenchments from other parts of the world, especially East Asia, in line with Trump’s long-standing isolationist impulses? Will the checks and balances of the American political system be able to restrain him?
As the President becomes besieged during the rest of his term by a spate of investigations and probes into his affairs, some on-going like the Mueller inquiry and others expected to be initiated by a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, will he, in frustration, give full reign to his impulses in order to appeal to his electoral base and distract attention from his domestic political woes?
While such a scenario in not implausible, one cannot yet assume it is likely. In Congress and in the foreign policy establishment, the US commitments in East Asia may be viewed differently from those in the Middle East. This applies particularly to Afghanistan on which many may share Robert Kaplan’s argument in a recent op-ed in the New York Times for the end of US involvement in that unwinnable war.
It is in Asia after all, especially in the Asia-Pacific, that the US faces the more serious and abiding challenge from an emerging peer competitor, China, that seeks to displace it from the continent which is increasingly the world’s centre of economic gravity. The American elite knows that their country’s future as the world’s leading power will be decided in the Asia-Pacific, not the Middle East.
Also, it is just possible, though it may seem unlikely as of now, that the President’s domestic political troubles could make him more, not less amenable to Congress, especially to the Republicans, instead of recklessly rolling the dice of strategic retreat from important parts of the world. One sign of this is his new interventionist stance on Venezuela, reportedly under the prodding of an influential Republican senator.
Still, risks remain. For instance will the President declare victory and begin a military retrenchment from South Korea after accepting some vague and unverifiable commitment from Kim Jong Un on denuclearisation, an action that would have major repercussions on Japan? Will the US political system be willing and able to restrain him? In Southeast Asia, China will be trying to impose a Monroe Doctrine of its own in the South China Sea. If a serious contingency or crisis arises will the US be resolute when its President cares little about the South China Sea or even Southeast Asia?
Mr Daljit Singh is Senior Research Fellow and Coordinator, Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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