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The Consequences of Trump Washing His Hands of the Middle East

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Trump’s core message in announcing a U.S.-mediated halt to fighting between the Turks and Kurds was that in his calculation, these costs are eclipsed by the benefits of extracting the United States from the Middle East, at least militarily. Yes, the Trump administration will for now keep a small number of forces in Syria around oil facilities in the north and at a base in the south, has yet to pull U.S. troops from conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recently deployed thousands of American soldiers to Saudi Arabia after Iranian attacks on oil facilities there.

But what should be obvious to allies and adversaries alike from Trump’s comments today, if it wasn’t evident already, is that his heart isn’t in these deployments and in involving the United States in any regional conflicts. The president’s goal “is to have all American troops out of Syria, and that’s something that we believe will ultimately happen,” a senior Trump-administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters after the president’s speech.

In remarks that America’s enemies, from ISIS to the Taliban to Iran will no doubt heed, Trump made clear that while he is willing to make some modest diplomatic and economic investments in molding developments, he has little appetite for expending military resources to secure U.S. interests—even when it comes to something as central to the defense of the homeland as preventing the resurgence of the world’s most virulent terrorist groups with, relative to the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a small deployment of U.S. troops.

“Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand,” Trump said today, regarding territory on which more than 11,000 Kurdish fighters perished in the fight against ISIS so U.S. troops didn’t have to. (The president thanked these fighters for their “sacrifices” and said they’d “been terrific.”) The United States has done a “great service” and “great job” for Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds by engineering a pause in their perpetual fighting, he argued, “and now we’re getting out.”

Even as he denounced Barack Obama for not retaliating militarily against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians in 2013, Trump expressed the very same fatalism about the Middle East that had prevented his predecessor from pulling the trigger to enforce his infamous “red line.”

“We have avoided another costly military intervention that could’ve led to disastrous, far-reaching consequences,” Trump said of his decision not to oppose the incursion by Turkey. “We have spent $8 trillion on wars in the Middle East … But after all that money was spent and all of those lives lost, the young men and women gravely wounded—so many—the Middle East is less safe, less stable, and less secure than before these conflicts began.”

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