Outcry over withdrawing U.S. soldiers from western Syria came both from Democrats and Republicans who saw the move as abandoning the Kurds. Admittedly, President Trump’s announcement was ham-handed, but it revealed a much larger issue. That issue is encapsulated by the Kenny Rogers lyrics of “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away.”
After Saigon fell in 1975, thousands of South Vietnamese fled the country while others were exiled to “reeducation” camps or killed. Those of us who fought in Vietnam had and have an emotional stake in military involvement in foreign wars. We know firsthand what it is like to fight, bleed and die only to have Congress cut off funding and air support to South Vietnam and then see that country overrun by North Vietnamese troops and tanks. The nagging question is whether it was worth it.
Our major combat role in Vietnam began in 1964 and ended in 1973. We have been involved militarily in the Mideast off and on since 1945, with the Gulf War and 9/11 being the watershed events.
A March 1975 Washington Post poll revealed that only 36% of Americans believe it is “important for the United States to make and keep commitments to other nations.”
A 2019 poll indicates that 51% agree that “We have a responsibility to engage in military conflict in other nations in response to direct threats to the United States or attacks on U.S. interests.”
Nevertheless, 38% believe “The wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan were a waste of time, lives, and taxpayer money, and they did nothing to make us safer at home.”
Only 35% believe that “Maintaining an active military presence in other countries is necessary to ensure our standing as the world’s greatest superpower and to protect our people.”
Trump was elected with a promise to end the endless wars in the Mideast. The polls cited above indicate that the American people agree.
In 2002, U.S. forces drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan, but they reconstituted in Pakistan. Then we conducted an invasion of Iraq, a move that I thought was a bad idea. We tried to turn countries with little to no histories of democracy into modern mirrors of ourselves. Meanwhile, countries such as Iran and groups such as ISIS continued to behead those who did not accept Islam, engage in flogging and amputation as punishment and treat women as less than equals.
Mideast countries have been fighting each other since the seventh century. They continue to slaughter one another over who are the proper descendants of Muhammad. The only thing that unites them is “death to America” and a desire to wipe Israel off the face of the planet.
Mideast countries are ripe with an ideology that flies in the face of western civilization. No amount of U.S. intervention, money, cultural exchange or debate will change that. We cannot replicate western ideals in the Mideast. We cannot “fix” that region.
What we have to do is make the best worst choice. Should we have troops protecting Syrian oil fields? As galling as it is, that is the only way to prevent Iran from seizing the facilities and selling oil to fund terrorists and develop nuclear weapons.
Should we placate monarchies to use their bases from which to launch counterterrorism operations?
We and our allies have inflicted great damage on ISIS, but how many troops do we need to keep in the region to counter the hydra of radical Islam?
We cannot negotiate relations between the corrupt Palestinian Authority and Hamas-controlled Gaza which continues to fire rockets into Israel. Carter tried.
Are we going to put troops into Syria to protect the Kurds from our supposed NATO ally Turkey?
We have been at the poker table holding our cards for years. We have anted up almost 15,000 American lives (military, civilian, contractors) since 9/11. We have eliminated many terrorists who were at the table, the garbage known as Al-Baghdadi being the latest. Obama, despite his red line, could not drive Assad from the table.
Perhaps it is time for the U.S. seriously to consider folding and walking away from the table. Maybe sitting at the table with a full house gives us some leverage, but should we continue to be all-in during an endless game that we cannot win?
Rich Kiper is a Leavenworth Times columnist.