Notes On The Withdrawals

Michael Tracey
5 min readDec 23, 2018

Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from two warzones, which prompted the resignation (and now, firing) of James Mattis. It’s one of the most consequential weeks of the presidency thus far, so rather than try to come up with a grand cohesive Take on it all, here are some scattered thoughts.

  • The media doesn’t know how to grapple with an event that genuinely does represent Trump contending with an intractable establishment, which is partially understandable given recent overheated bleating about the Deep State — a phenomena that does plainly exist but has been misrepresented by the dumber portion of MAGA boosters. “Establishment,” likewise, is a fuzzy buzzword, and almost nobody ever claims to be part of it. Trump himself can reasonably be said to be The Establishment considering he is the President. However, this is a specific instance in which Trump really is in direct confrontation with very particular “establishment,” namely the institutional national security apparatus, which exists largely unfettered across administrations. Survey the scene and there’s not a single person in this entire apparatus who apparently supports the Syria withdrawal.
  • So what does the media do? They act, essentially, as vehicles for the grievances of said national security apparatus. Take a look at some of the coverage from the major outlets: NYT, WaPo, AP, etc.
  • OK, who exactly is “outraged,” and why does their sentiment justify featured placement in an Associated Press headline? It’s the national security establishment figures who are outraged, for them Mattis is a patron saint. These are the people AP, NYT, and WaPo reporters rely on to inform their natsec coverage. This NYT example is less subtle, and far more egregious:
  • Really? Robert Kagan, to the uninformed reader, might just be some innocuous “expert” offering his wisdom, but Kagan is one of the most significant neoconservative foreign policy luminaries ever, competing ignominiously for that distinction with Bill Kristol. And it’s his ideology which is being transmitted to unwitting readers by way of the NYT. People who hate Trump will be susceptible to the message, because what he’s saying portrays Trump in a very negative light, but they’re also consuming loads of stubborn interventionist pablum along with the typical anti-Trump dopamine hit.
  • Collectively, the theme of all mainline media coverage in reaction to the withdrawals is some combination of “chaos,” “disarray,” “tumult,” etc. Never is it ever considered that the very fact of multiple endless military deployments in hot warzones is also “chaotic.” And destructive. And insanely expensive. And unpopular with the wider public. None of these facts amount to “chaos” in the minds of fretting journalists, because what they’re being informed by is the sentiments of the “natsec” apparatus Trump has just acted against. (Oh yeah BTW the Syria deployment is also illegal and unauthorized, and has been since Obama launched it on false pretenses, but again, that’s definitely not chaotic.)
  • On a slightly different note, it’s also worth harkening back to the time, earlier this year, when John Bolton was appointed National Security Advisor. I joined in the dismay, considering Bolton is one of the most fervent unreconstructed hawks in the entire country, and has *even today* not stopped defending the Iraq invasion. I attended a speech of his in DC about a month before the appointment when he did so, once again… in 2018. His Iran antagonism is a virulent obsession, and he called for a first strike on North Korea in February.
  • But what happened subsequently? Bolton’s wishes have been totally overruled at every turn, most notably at two spectacular junctures. The first was Trump’s Korea diplomacy initiative, when Bolton was made to sit meekly at the negotiating table with Kim’s generals, whom he’d not long before declared should be wiped out with a preemptive strike. Then this week, the Syria withdrawal is among the most epic humiliations conceivable, as Bolton has specifically and publicly declared that US troops would not be leaving Syria until Iranian influence was repelled (i.e., essentially never).
  • So those are crucial facts to consider about Bolton’s influence in the administration. I still think it’s dangerous to have him anywhere near the locus of military power, because who knows what leverage he might wield in the event of some unforeseen crisis. But he’s clearly not anywhere close to calling the shots, or the last 9 months of the Trump presidency would have gone much differently. (If he had any personal pride he’d resign in the wake of the Syria withdrawal, but Bolton’s principal priority is proximity to power, not personal consistency or pride. Unlike, evidently, Mattis.)
  • In sum: the initial freakout when Bolton was appointed at least had basis, because he’s a dangerous person, but the freakout over the policies which he’s (ironically) presided over have engendered an even greater freakout, by several orders of magnitude. And those policies have tended to be dramatically less belligerent and militaristic than what you’d expect from an Administration in which Bolton resides. (The two leading examples again being Korea and Syria/Afg withdrawals.) So you have to wonder what the freakout is really about then. Maybe it’s just simple knee-jerk Trump hatred. (Yeah, it’s that.)
  • There’s a running fight in certain Online Circles about whether Trump is a “non-interventionist.” My point was always that Trump clearly evinced greater non-interventionist tendencies than Hillary Clinton, but that 2016-specific observation has been exaggerated by certain bad faith agitators into a bogus charge that I claimed Trump is some pure, peace-loving anti-war voice. Obviously that’s NEVER been the claim. Any assessment of Trump’s scatter-shot “non-interventionism” has to coexist alongside the acknowledgment that Trump has dropped large quantities of bombs in pre-existing warzones, and killed lots of civilians in the process. That’s bad. At the same time, Trump has now declared his intention to end two wars that were started by previous administrations, and has not started any new ones. He’s done so over the strident objections of his own staff, advisors, and 95% of his own party. Clearly the “instincts” I noted, and then was ruthlessly ridiculed for noting, had some basis in reality, or we would not be where we are.
  • Trump, during the campaign, frequently complained about the trillions squandered in the Middle East. Hillary Clinton never did (because she was partly responsible for it). Therefore, the comparative assessment was warranted. Nobody ever assumed Trump’s complaint would automatically translate into a swift, seamless change in US policy, or that the US would now become a beacon of wholesome anti-interventionism. It took two years, but Trump has now taken tangible steps to actualize those complaints, at significant political risk.

OK, that’s it for now. Also, programming note, between Christmas and New Year’s I’m going to be announcing a new venture, so be on the lookout for that. The venture is going to involve solicitation of funds (but it will be worth it!). If you’re in the Holiday Spirit and want to give funds prior to the announcement, on faith alone, that’s very nice of you! Go here.