In this picture taken Thursday, March 29, 2018, U.S. soldiers, left, sit on a house that turned to an outpost on a road leading to the tense front line...
Hussein Malla

Trump’s vows about not telegraphing his military moves completely unravel

Donald Trump’s position on withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria has taken a few unpredictable turns over the last few months, but as of yesterday, U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, left little doubt about our exit. Reuters reported:

The United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal of ground troops from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump, the top U.S. commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday. […]

The U.S. military has already started withdrawing equipment from Syria. Asked whether the withdrawal of America’s more than 2,000 troops would begin in days or weeks, Votel said: “Probably weeks. But again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground.”

“In terms of the withdrawal … I think we’re right on track with where we wanted to be,” Votel told reporters traveling with him during a trip to the Middle East.

It’s important to emphasize that the general added that the details may yet change, depending on conditions on the ground, but Votel – who was not consulted on U.S. policy in Syria, despite his CentCon leadership role – nevertheless made clear that he expects the withdrawal of American servicemen and women to unfold in the coming weeks.

All of which leads to an awkward question for the White House: didn’t the president vow never to telegraph his decisions related to national security? Isn’t the Republican now doing precisely what he said he’d never do?

This came up during Trump’s recent “Face the Nation” interview with CBS News’ Margaret Brennan.

BRENNAN: But also campaigned saying that, you know, President Obama made a big mistake by telegraphing his military moves. You’re telegraphing your retreat.

TRUMP: I’m not telegraphing anything. No, no, no. There’s a difference. When President Obama pulled out of Iraq in theory we had Iraq. In other words, we had Iraq. We never had Syria because President Obama never wanted to violate the red line in the sand. So we never had Syria. I was the one that actually violated the red line….

This made far less sense than the president realized. Trump obviously doesn’t remember what the “red line” debate was all about – the issue was Assad’s use of chemical weapons, not lines the United States was willing to cross – just as Trump doesn’t remember that he endorsed Barack Obama’s decision to intervene in Syria’s civil war. It’s why the current president’s comments in the interview came across as gibberish.

The bottom line is simple: Trump thinks it’s fine for him to telegraph his moves on national security because he says so. Pressed to explain the contradiction between his promises and his actions, the president was plainly lost because there is no good answer.

Donald Trump, Foreign Policy and Syria

Trump's vows about not telegraphing his military moves completely unravel