Editor’s Note: Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general and NATO’s former supreme allied commander in Europe, is a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles. Clark consults and advises US and international companies in the security, finance and energy fields, including some with government contracts. The views expressed in this commentary belong solely to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Every military leader understands that the most difficult military operation is the withdrawal under pressure. In the face of the enemy, a bungled withdrawal becomes a retreat, and a retreat can become a rout.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced it was pulling troops from the border area between Turkey and Syria. Just days later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the military would launch an offensive into northeastern Syria, aimed at Kurdish forces, which were left vulnerable with US troops withdrawn.
With this latest US pullback, the United States’ strategic withdrawal from the Mideast looks like an open door to regional disaster – or worse, to a wholesale loss of American influence, perhaps worldwide. The US Senate, and especially the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, owes it to the men and women in uniform, and those who have previously served, to hold the hearings that will make sense of this strategy, or help develop a better approach.
These hearings should be asking the fundamental questions: Why was the withdrawal ordered with apparently no military preparation? Why was there no effort to resolve Erdogan’s boiling ambitions in Syria through diplomacy and mediation? With US troops withdrawn, what is the strategy for maintaining our ability to secure US interests in the region? And what are the implications for US alliances worldwide – and the safety and security of our military and their families serving around the globe?
Sound simple? It wasn’t; any foreign policy expert or military leader could have predicted that mayhem would result, for this thin US presence had been carefully crafted to balance local and regional competitors.
These troops were deployed to protect a vulnerable and largely displaced civilian population, maintain US equities in the region, block Iranian encroachment, assure the containment of ISIS and prevent a long-threatened Turkish military operation that would unravel more than four years of US strategy in the region, according to various statements over time from US sources, as reported in the media.
Now the Kurds are accusing the United States of betrayal – after all, they fought and sacrificed for US interests.
Pulling US troops from northern Syria also exposes Israel to an increasingly unconstrained Iranian line of reinforcements, and thus raises the risks for Israel. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, long condemned internationally for his violent attacks and criminal suppression of his own people, can now ostensibly work with Erdogan to crush any remaining spark of humanitarian assistance and hope along the border.
According to Kurdish authorities, hundreds of ISIS prisoners are making their escape, enabling the terrorist group’s still-intact command structure to buttress its power with numerous experienced fighters. And Russia has stepped forward in a new and more influential role as the arbiter in the region.
NATO, of which Turkey is a member, is deeply challenged by Turkey’s invasion and its threats to unleash hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe in the face of strong condemnation from European NATO members.
How is any of this good for the United States?
Beyond the region, US friends and allies are worried. They see some 70 years of US leadership disappearing. US credibility built on the service and sacrifices of generations of American service members is being tossed aside. In South Korea, our allies are probably asking themselves what will come of the American troop presence and security guarantees when North Korean President Kim Jong Un follows through with his threats to renew nuclear weapons testing and development. Will the United States bow to his terms?
In Taiwan, leaders are likely wondering whether the United States will stand up to Chinese threats. In Eastern Europe and Ukraine, they undoubtedly see the handwriting on the wall, after President Trump said to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the United Nations in September: “I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem.”
He was, of course, referring to Ukraine’s five-year conflict with Russia, which has cost Ukraine some 13,000 lives and divided the country
These Senate hearings should not be partisan, but rather an earnest and informed effort to sort through and stabilize an American foreign policy that is in danger of becoming totally unmoored from the principles and commitments that have prevented war between the world’s major powers since World War II. The Senate must take the lead now in open and public investigations. Pay raises and funding new weapons for our men and women in uniform are no longer enough. The world needs American leadership.