As recently as March, many of the Trump administration's top officials on national security -- including Defense Secretary James Mattis, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and White House National Security Advisor John Bolton -- all declared with confidence that the United States was committed to a long-term military commitment in Syria. Their boss disagreed.
Regular readers may recall that Donald Trump, despite vowing to never publicly disclose his future military plans, declared in the spring, "We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.... Very soon -- very soon we're coming out."
After weeks of contradictions, in which the president and his team sent competing signals about U.S. policy in Syria, the Washington Post, citing White House advisers, reported that Trump was "operating on a tornado of impulses -- and with no clear strategy."
Eight months later, the Trump Tornado landed somewhere new.
President Donald Trump is pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria, a sudden policy shift that blindsided Congress and most senior officials at the Pentagon and State Department. [...][N]either the president nor anyone else at the White House provided any details on changes in the Syria strategy that officials described as the next stage in the conflict.
It is difficult, at least for now, to assess the details of the administration's new policy, because no one seems to know what it is. Will any U.S. forces remain in Syria? When will the withdrawal begin? When will it end? What has the White House done to prepare for the likely consequences?
These are life-or-death questions in one of the most complex security environments on the planet, and neither the president nor anyone in his administration has even tried to provide the most basic answers.
The official line, by way of Trump himself, is that the United States has defeated ISIS in Syria, so there's no longer a need for American troops to remain in the country. The official line, according to the Trump administration's own estimates, is demonstrably wrong: the Pentagon's inspector general last last month released a report on the current strength of ISIS, and it concluded that there are between 20,000 and 30,000 ISIS fighters, just in Iraq and Syria.
So if the official explanation is inaccurate, what's the real reason?
No one knows, and Team Trump either won't or can't say.
This is not just a dynamic in which the White House is keeping the public in the dark. Trump didn't notify relevant members of Congress or our international allies. Neither the Department of Defense nor the State Department had any idea what the new policy was. Literally no one in the Trump administration could explain what Trump's directive meant, or how (or even whether) it would be implemented.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) went to the White House for a meeting and expected to get a briefing on the new policy. While the Republican senator waited in the West Wing, Trump decided to cancel the meeting, leaving Corker with nothing.
By one account, even Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "was in the dark" until after the president had made his decision.
Many of Trump's top aides strongly disagree with his decision -- which contradicts months of international assurances from the administration -- as do many of his closest allies in Congress. The president, by all appearances, doesn't care.
To be sure, there are domestic critics of the status quo who can make credible arguments in support of a withdrawal of U.S. forces. I'll gladly leave it to experts to speak to that position with authority and in more detail.
My principal focus at this point, however, is about the lack of a responsible policy process. Whether one wants to see U.S. troops remain in Syria or not, everyone can agree that a coherent foreign policy is rooted in a mature, deliberate decision-making process, where consequences are weighed carefully.
In this instance, none of that happened. There was no interagency process. There was no consultation with Congress or our international partners. Instead, there was an amateur president, impetuously typing out a vague directive via Twitter.
It is a classic example of post-policy governing. Donald Trump didn't consider the seriousness of the circumstances or the importance of his unique responsibilities, choosing instead to simply blurt out an abrupt and dramatic policy change that's likely to wreak havoc in a very dangerous part of the world.
The message to our friends and foes is the same: so long as Trump is the commander in chief, our commitments are suspect, and recklessness will rule the day.