President Trump’s Syria Decision Draws on Hard Lessons from History

December 31, 2018

by John M. Howting


President Trump recently expressed his intent to withdraw US forces from Syria and Afghanistan. This should not be a major surprise. Trump campaigned in 2016 on an America First message, taking aim at many of the previous two administrations’ policies. He blasted American intervention in Iraq and proclaimed that we should leave Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, allowing him to fight ISIS in Syria. He voiced a desire to “get along” with Russia and even suggested that NATO may be unnecessary. He criticized nation building and promised to build a military so great and powerful that we would never have to use it. And, he promised not to “surrender American sovereignty to the false song of globalism.” Therefore, no one should be shocked by his recent announcement.

However, America has also learned a hard lesson about far off military ventures. The United States has partaken in a number of lengthy Middle Eastern military ventures in recent memory: in Iraq for about a decade, in Afghanistan for 17 years and counting, in Syria for about 18 months, aiding the Saudis in Yemen, etc. These adventures have always wound up being considerably more complicated, expensive, and lengthy than initially advertised to the American people. If Americans have learned anything from our dalliances in the Middle East, it is that military power is still relative to distance — a lesson our more attentive allies learned decades earlier.

On December 7, 1967, Enoch Powell (then the U.K.’s Shadow Defense Minister) gave a speech on this subject. To give context, a lot of questions lingered in public discourse at that time concerning Britain’s future role on the world stage: Should Britain aid its ally America in Vietnam? Should Britain maintain a loose, ineffectual alliance with its former colonies that it called “the Commonwealth”? Powell felt a need to address these questions. He began by affirming an old military axiom: “…military power is relative to distance: it is effective in inverse ratio to the distance at which it is exercised.” He continued, “For military purposes, short of mutual suicide … distance and geography are as significant today as they have ever been.”

This axiom was no longer widely accepted in Britain due to technological advancements: rockets, missiles, new weaponry, new planes, and new boats. Although Powell noted that these new advancements “made it easy for the cliché to be mouthed and believed, that space has been annihilated,” he cited several recent examples to buttress his claim that space still mattered, starting with Israel’s victory earlier in the year:

… Israel inflicted a decisive defeat on Egypt and Jordan. She did what Britain could probably not have done, and even with the United States would’ve had the greatest difficulty in doing. … Israel lives there, and we do not. Israel is now the principal military power in the Middle East … But she has no military power at all on the Straits of Dover or in the Low Countries. She doesn’t live there.

Of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Powell explained:

The United States could indisputably sink any vessel trying to get to Cuba and, if necessary, could occupy the island; so as soon as it became clear they were ready to do so the show was at an end. It is no use having a long arm if the fingers in the hand at the end of it can be chopped off.

Of course, Powell also had to address America’s difficulties in Vietnam:

… Observe the importance of geography in frustrating the American arms in Vietnam. … Americans do not live in Southeast Asia, whereas the North Vietnamese and their neighbors do. Consequently, since the Americans do not intend to set up shop permanently in Southeast Asia … hardly any degree of military force, however great, could produce that decisive effect on their opponents’ will which is the meaning of victory. If you can’t win and you don’t live there, you lose.

Finally, he turned to his own government’s recent intervention in its former colony of Rhodesia:

To take an example of our own: Rhodesia. … We overlooked the basic fact that Britain is incapable of exercising physical power in central Africa. We have behaved as if Rhodesia and Rutland were for practical purposes interchangeable. … Militarily speaking, we aren’t there, and we can’t get there.

Powell pointed out that as armies have ventured far from their homelands they have been required to do many functions which are not of a traditional military nature. Since the army is unable to move the fight closer to home, they have tried to move home closer to the fight. Powell did not get too specific, but one can imagine this taking the form of colonization, nation-building, establishing foreign bases, etc. Sound familiar?

Powell abhorred anything that would take the military off its main objective of waging war. And, as Powell said, “War is about winning. War is about striking what matters most with all ones might.” War is not about making a foreign land more like one’s home. War is not about “making the world safe for Democracy.” Once we have assumed such objectives, Powell would say, we have overextended our military and are thus trying to bring home closer to the fight.

As I read this speech of Powell’s, I feel like I am reading a speech that could have been written for President Trump. Trump’s stance on immigration has garnered him comparisons to Powell on more than one occasion. However, I believe the two have a great deal in common on foreign policy as well. Both men saw their nations spill blood and treasure in far off conflicts. One could argue, both men watched their countries go through imperial phases. And, they both came to the realization that there are certain things which technology simply cannot eradicate: borders, distance, and distinct nations. These things may move about, they may expand and contract, but exist they always have and always will. The pursuit of strength and security begins with this realization.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore


John M. Howting III is a Catholic traditionalist from Southeast Michigan with a strong interest in the English Catholic literary revival. Follow him on twitter @howtingmi.

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