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Syria: Should We Stay or Should We Go Now? | Opinion

American popular culture influences major political debates with increasing, perhaps even alarming frequency. Whether it’s politicians quoting lines from popular pictures or Hollywood big shots tweeting pronouncements on the issues of the day, the pairing of the cultural capital and the seat of government is virtually complete. That said, it’s still odd to have what might be the most cogent analysis of the U.S. position regarding Syria come from a long-ago hit by British punk rockers. 

The Clash put it like this: “Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. And if I stay there will be double. So come on and let me know: Should I stay or should I go?” As regards Syria, this is a question President Donald Trump has been dealing with since the beginning of his presidency. Stay or leave? 

A few weeks ago, he gave us the answer: leave, now. Only after even his friends on the right objected (and after the announcement apparently cost him the services of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis) he’s walking things back. Through surrogates like South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, he’s now saying the withdrawal of the 2,000 plus U.S. troops in the area will be staged and methodical rather than, as he seemed to say at first, a classic bug-out.

Before going deeper into the discussion of the U.S. withdrawal, it’s probably a good idea to review why U.S.  military personnel are there in the first place. The short answer to that is no one is sure. Lots of reasons have been given, few identify a compelling American interest.

One was the need to defeat ISIS, the terrorist front seeking to establish—or better still re-establish—a transnational Islamic state led by a Caliph who could then claim to be the successor to the Prophet Mohammed. It can be argued credibly that preventing this from happening comes legitimately under the umbrella of protecting U.S. interests in Iraq and America’s others allies in the region. The U.S. presence in Syria is, therefore, an example of the Trump administration’s strategy of “principled realism” guided by identified national interests as they intersect with what the president called “our timeless values” when the strategy was unveiled. 

If ISIS has been defeated, and the president says it has, then it’s time to leave. That’s not to say America won’t be leaving behind a vacuum into which chaos may erupt; but, without a clearly defined objective, the mess that remains behind is not America’s responsibility. It’s not Iraq – where we bought it when we broke it. If, as others suggested, the U.S. presence is to check the incursion of the Russians back into the region or, worse yet, to stand between two sides in a civil war trying to keep the peace like lunchroom monitors during recess at a gang-infested inner-city school, then the U.S. is engaged in a fools’ errand fraught with danger. Which also may be the case regarding the idea the U.S. presence in Syria acts as a buffer against the Iranian military gaining a foothold next to Israel.

America is not the world’s peace-keeper. We tried and it and, frankly enough we’re not very good at it. U.S. domestic political concerns always seem to upend U.S. military engagements or occupations over the long term. It becomes a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario for any president, Democrat or Republican, because it inevitably leads to confusion among the troops who have been placed in harm’s way. 
Since it’s not clear why the U.S. is in Syria to begin with, it’s hard to make a convincing case why American troops should stay. Some people have suggested absent a U.S. presence a genocide is in the offing. If true, this would be an international calamity of just the kind the United Nations was created to prevent. It’s only reasonable therefore to suggest the Blue Helmets be asked to step in in place of the U.S. troops the president now wants to bring home. As for the possibility of the Russians stepping up, well—better them than us.

America’s resources are limited. We can’t do the kinds of things we once did, even if we wanted to. The experiment with the exportation of democracy by force has not worked out as well as those of us who originally supported it had hoped. Syrian President Bashar al Assad is no advocate for Jeffersonian democratic principles and natural law. It’s a pretty safe bet those who are trying to bring him down aren’t either. This is not a fight the U.S. should be in the middle of since it’s likely bad if we stay and it’s likely bad if we leave. This is not a choice between good vs. bad so much as it is a choice regarding what’s best for America. The president is probably right to bring the nation’s fighting men and women home.

Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff is has written extensively about politics, culture, and the media for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and various other publications. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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