Trump follows the mob, not the blob, on foreign policy

By JOSH ROGIN | The Washington Post | Published: October 23, 2019

The long battle between the Washington establishment and the Trump base over foreign policy took a crucial turn this week when President Donald Trump admitted he is prioritizing the opinions of his rally crowds over his own officials and the GOP when making important national security decisions. For the next year, at least, Trump will follow the mob, not the blob.

The president couldn’t have been clearer in his remarks before Monday’s Cabinet meeting, when he defended his decision to bring U.S. troops out of Syria by pointing to the reaction of the audience during a campaign rally in Dallas last week.

“My largest cheer that night was two things: We’re building the wall; that’s number one. And number two, and probably tied for number one, was we’re bringing our soldiers back home. That was our largest cheer in Dallas,” Trump said. “When I said, ‘We’re bringing our soldiers back home,’ the place went crazy. But within the Beltway, you know, people don’t like it.”

Trump said several other things about Syria, many of them exaggerated, misleading or false. First of all, the troops are not coming home; they are going to Iraq (and thousands more are headed to Saudi Arabia). He said the cease-fire is holding, contradicting some of his own officials on the ground. He said the Kurds are “moving out to safer areas,” when actually Kurds don’t want to leave their homes en masse to facilitate Turkey’s plan to resettle millions of refugees there. He claimed personal credit for defeating Islamic State “in about a month and a half.”

Trump also claimed, “We’ve secured the oil” and proposed selling that oil and giving some money to the Kurds. That’s a ridiculous idea for several reasons. It’s not our oil to secure. It’s under the control of the Kurds — and they have been selling to their new partner the Assad regime. The prospect of oil money was the only reason Trump decided to leave a couple of hundred troops in Syria, for the time being.

But the most honest part of his Syria rant was the theme he returned to several times: He was elected to end the “endless wars,” the base likes it, and experts have no idea what they are talking about.

“I’ve watched these pundits that have been working on this thing for 20 years. They’ve been working on the Middle East for 20 years; they don’t know what they’re doing and they’re telling me what to do,” Trump said. “I sort of have to smile to myself. … And now, all of a sudden, people are starting to say, ‘You know, what Trump is doing is great.’ ”

Trump is not only proudly rejecting the foreign policy advice of GOP leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who last week wrote a Washington Post op-ed titled “Withdrawing from Syria is a grave mistake.”

Several officials told me Trump has stopped soliciting, much less heeding, the advice of large parts of the national security bureaucracy when making big decisions. That’s why the Pentagon is scrambling to devise plans for a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, just in case Trump blindsides the military.

After the Syria debacle, everyone inside the system is coming to terms with the realization the president is making national security decisions based on his 2020 reelection calculations even more than before. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney defended the practice last week.

“I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy,” Mulvaney said, defending Trump’s withholding of aid while calling on Ukraine to investigate his rivals.

It’s true politics have always influenced foreign policy. But prioritizing politics over national security used to be a bad thing that administrations denied or were at least embarrassed about. In fact, it was President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, who coined the term “the blob,” when that administration was trying to justify going against Washington conventional wisdom on U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

In 2011, as Obama ran for reelection, his White House bragged about removing U.S. troops from Iraq as a campaign promise fulfilled. We all know what happened next. ISIS built a caliphate, and Obama had to send U.S. troops back in to destroy it.

Trump criticized that mistake but is now repeating it in Syria. It’s true U.S. military involvement in Syria is unpopular. But doing unpopular things to keep America safe is not only the sworn duty of any president; it’s also a definition of leadership.

“I have to do what I got elected on, and I have to do what I think is right,” Trump said Monday.

The mob has legitimate grievances. The blob has made severe mistakes in the Middle East and elsewhere. On Syria, the blob is right and the mob is wrong. But Trump has made his choice. Now we will get to see what the Middle East without U.S. leadership really looks like.

Over the next year, expect Trump’s political calculations to have even greater influence on foreign policy across the board: China, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan. His crowds will certainly like it — right up until the real consequences of his poor decision-making come back to haunt us.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He is also a political analyst for CNN.

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