Phony Withdrawals and Illegal Wars

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

A new AP report calls attention to the illegality of the U.S. military mission in Syria:

President Donald Trump has approved an expanded military mission to secure an expanse of oil fields across eastern Syria, raising a number of difficult legal questions about whether US troops can launch strikes against Syrian, Russian or other forces if they threaten the oil, US officials said.

The legal questions aren’t really that difficult, but the answers are embarrassing for the US The US has no right to have a military presence in that country. There is no Congressional authorization for a mission inside Syria, and there never has been. There is no international mandate for a foreign military mission in Syria. There is absolutely no legal justification for US troops to be operating there, and they certainly don’t have the authority to launch attacks against Syrian or Russian forces. The oil belongs to the Syrian government, and our forces are there without the Syrian government’s permission. Despite the illegality of their presence and their current mission, these troops are stuck in eastern Syria for the foreseeable future because the president’s advisers thought it would be clever to trick him into supporting an ongoing military presence for the sake of stealing another country’s property. Trump and his hawkish advisers own this debacle equally, and they are all responsible when it goes sideways.

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The Folly of Killing New START

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

New START is the last major arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, and the Trump administration is going to let it die:

New Start expires in February 2021, just weeks after the next presidential inauguration in Washington. While it can be extended for five years by mutual agreement, President Trump and his aides have signaled repeatedly that he intends to let it expire unless it can be broadened to include other nations with strategic weapons, chiefly China.

But the Chinese are not interested – their arsenal is far smaller and they have shown no interest in negotiating a nuclear weapons deal. Mr. Trump’s insistence on including other nations, including China, in a renegotiation has largely been seen as a move to kill the treaty, which was negotiated by President Obama.

President Vladimir V. Putin’s government has said that Russia hopes to renew or revise the treaty – but that the negotiations to revise it would have to begin immediately.

The Trump administration is more openly hostile to arms control agreements than any of its predecessors, and it is the first to go out of its way to dismantle the existing arms control architecture of treaties. First Trump quit the INF Treaty, which gave Russia a free pass for its violations, and then he has signaled his intention to abandon the Open Skies Treaty. Both of these treaties have been valuable, stabilizing agreements that serve US and allied interests, but the president has been persuaded by Bolton and his allies to toss them in the garbage. New START is arguably the most important of the three, and it also appears to be doomed because of this same reflexive hostility to arms control. When New START expires, the last remaining restrictions on the size and deployment of US and Russian nuclear arsenals will vanish, and there will be nothing to replace them for a long time to come. Letting New START expire is purely destructive, and it puts the US and Russia back on a path to a costly and unnecessary arms race. For the first time in half a century, there will be no arms control agreements left, and the world will be less secure and stable as a result.

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A Confused Syria Policy Gets Even Worse

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

U.S. troops sent into Syria on an illegal and pointless mission to “take the oil” don’t know what they are supposed to be doing:

US military commanders overseeing Syria operations are still waiting for precise battlefield orders from the White House and Pentagon on their exact mission to protect oilfields in eastern Syria, according to a defense official directly familiar with the matter.

Nearly three weeks after President Donald Trump ordered troops out of northern Syria, publicly declaring he was taking “control” of the oil and sending troops and armored carriers to protect it from ISIS, US commanders lack clarity on the most basic aspects of their mission, including how and when troops can fire their weapons and what, exactly, that mission is.

The lack of precise orders means troops are on the ground while critical details are still being worked out — exactly where they will go, when and how they will stay on small bases in the area, and when they go on patrol.

Perhaps most crucially, there is no clarity about exactly who they are operating against in the oilfields.

Everything the Trump administration has done in Syria has been horribly confused, so it makes sense that the latest version of the policy would be baffling to our own troops. U.S. commanders lack clarity about the mission because it was cooked up to appeal to the president’s desire for plundering other countries’ resources. It was thrown together on the spur of the moment as an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Syria no matter what, and now those troops are stuck there with no instructions and no idea what they are expected to do. This is the worst kind of unnecessary military mission, because it is being carried out simply to keep a U.S. foothold in Syria for its own sake. The “critical details” aren’t being worked out so much as a plausible justification after the fact is being conjured out of thin air. There is no reason for these troops to be there, and there is nothing that they can do there legally, but the administration will come up with some bad argument to keep them there anyway.

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Endless War Horribly Distorts US Foreign Policy

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

The Pentagon used the president’s fixation on plunder to get him to agree to maintaining a U.S. military presence in Syria:

A US official with knowledge of operations in Syria said that Trump’s interest in the oil provided an opportunity for the Pentagon, which was unhappy with the initial decision, to temper his insistence on a full withdrawal and allow counterterrorism operations and airspace control to continue.

“This is like feeding a baby its medicine in yogurt or applesauce,” said the official [bold mine-DL], one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal US deliberations.

It doesn’t bode well for US interests when the president’s subordinates are determined to manipulate him into perpetuating an illegal military deployment in a war zone and the president is gullible enough to be so easily swayed because of his crude desire for stealing other countries’ resources. The confused quasi-withdrawal from Syria exemplifies everything that’s wrong with how Trump runs US foreign policy. He makes poor, ill-informed snap decisions and fails to consult with anyone, but then he allows himself to be talked into some half-a-loaf compromise policy that is the worst of both worlds. The president frequently makes poor decisions and even when he moves in the right direction he does so for the wrong reasons, but then his subordinates try to trick him into reversing himself for their own bad reasons. Because the president is deeply ignorant and easily swayed by hawkish advisers, he always falls for the trick. That leaves the US with policies that the president doesn’t really like interrupted with sporadic bursts of confused, frenetic activity as he tries to change them and then gets manipulated into doing more of the same. Trump’s subordinates rely on his lack of discipline and focus to prevent him from doing things they dislike, and Trump’s own ineptitude encourages them to keep doing this because they assume that they can get away with it.

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Zombie NATO Expansion Stumbles On

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

NATO expansion stumbles on mindlessly like a zombie:

The U.S. Senate approved the accession of North Macedonia to NATO in a 91-2 vote Tuesday, meaning the small Balkan nation is a step closer to becoming NATO’s 30th member.

NATO doesn’t need any new members, and adding North Macedonia adds nothing to the alliance except another security dependent. There is never any serious debate about continued NATO expansion. It is simply taken for granted as something that the alliance will keep doing for as long as it can get away with it. The lopsided vote in the Senate is proof that this alliance commitment has been made automatically and unthinkingly. Almost nothing in our foreign policy debates commands near-unanimous support like this, and when that happens it is a good sign that no real debate has occurred. Sens. Paul and Lee deserve credit for voting against the measure. It is telling that the supposedly NATO-skeptic Trump has expressed no opposition to bringing in Montenegro or North Macedonia. Ben Friedman remarks on this:

North Macedonia’s accession doesn’t risk dragging the alliance into a war, unlike some other current and prospective members, but it also serves no purpose for the alliance or US security. The US has far too many security commitments as it is, so if we are going to add another one there had better be a compelling reason for it. But there is no compelling reason to bring this country into the alliance. It is treating membership in a military alliance as a cookie to reward their government for good behavior. That is the wrong reason to extend a serious security guarantee, and it paves the way for making the same mistake again in the future.

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Trump’s Plunder Doctrine Comes to Syria

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

Part of the small residual U.S. force that the Trump administration is keeping in Syria serves no real military purpose:

“Al-Tanf has no obvious military purpose,” added Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group. “The real justification is, to my knowledge, denying the Syrian government and its Iranian ally access to the neighboring al-Tanf/al-Walid border crossing with Iraq. That blocks a key trade route that would better integrate Syria with its regional surroundings and help government-held Syria get on a more stable economic footing, which some in DC believe would diminish US leverage to force a political resolution to the war.”

The Tanf base represents a determination to retain a mostly symbolic military presence inside Syria if only to keep a small part of the country out of the Syrian government’s control. Keeping US forces there accomplishes nothing for US security, it is flagrantly illegal, and it puts these soldiers at risk for no good reason. Iran hawks desperately cling to this base because it is their last foothold in Syria from which to pursue their obsession with Iran.

In the latest twist, Trump has touted maintaining a military presence in Syria for the sake of “keeping the oil”:

President Trump said that he is planning to keep a small number of troops in northeast Syria to protect the oil fields there and suggested that an American company might help the Syrian Kurds develop the oil for export.

“I always said if you’re going in, keep the oil,” Mr. Trump said at a cabinet meeting Monday. “We’ll work something out with the Kurds so that they have some money, so that they have some cash flow. Maybe we’ll get one of our big oil companies to go in and do it properly.”

One of the only consistent features of Trump’s foreign policy views is his belief that other countries’ natural resources should be ours to seize and exploit as we please. Trump’s worldview is a bizarre mash-up of crude colonialism and racketeering in which allies are expected to pay protection money and open-ended military intervention is fine as long as it gets you paid. We have previously heard him express a desire to seize oil resources in Libya, Iraq, and Venezuela, and so it was inevitable that he would want to do the same thing with Syria.

Besides the obvious practical difficulties of controlling Syria’s oil fields with only a few hundred soldiers, there is the small matter of the sheer illegality of what Trump is proposing to do. Not only do our forces have no legal justification for being there and no authorization from Congress, but our government also has no right to sell this oil:

“Oil, like it or not, is owned by the Syrian state,” Mr. McGurk said Monday in an appearance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. “Maybe there are new lawyers, but it was just illegal for an American company to go and seize and exploit these assets.”

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