Friday, December 28, 2018

Trump's Frustration with "the Blob" Boils Over

Toward the end of his second term, President Obama and his closest advisers took to calling the foreign policy establishment/military industrial complex "the Blob." They were deeply frustrated that the "experts" refused to offer them any options to meaningfully reduce US involvement in foreign wars. Hence Obama's great satisfaction the one time he stood up to the Blobsters, refusing to order attacks after Assad crossed his "red line" in Syria.

And now Trump, it seems, shares his predecessor's frustrations. I of course think that withdrawing US troops from Syria and Afghanistan is a great idea. I do understand that it is better to work with one's generals in arranging these things rather than just announcing them over twitter, but sources are telling the Times that Trump tried to get the military to give him withdrawal timetables and they simply refused.
Some former Trump advisers attributed the sudden nature of the announcement to Mr. Trump’s frustration with generals who resisted him at every turn when he tried to set a timetable for getting out of Syria and Afghanistan — something, his supporters point out, that he had promised to do during the 2016 campaign.

“The apparatus slow-rolled him until he just said enough and did it himself,” said Stephen K. Bannon, who clashed with the generals over Afghanistan when he served as the president’s chief strategist in 2017. “Not pretty, but at least done.”
So there's one thing for Trump; he thinks that the President should set our military policy, not a lot of generals and ambassadors, and is willing to act on his convictions in a way that a more cautious and mainstream leader probably would not.


G. Verloren said...

The thing is, the generals and the ambassadors actually have a goddamn clue what is going on over there. ISIS is in retreat, but if we pull out now, they resurge and start killing all our allies in the region, and creating many millions more innocent refugees and migrants for Europe to try to keep out with barbed wire and guns.

And that's assuming Erdogan's Turkey doesn't simply use our pullout as an excuse to stage a full scale invasion of Syria, annex huge portions of the country, and then throw the Kurds into camps, as he'd just love to do if we weren't around.

Leaving right now basically means surrendering any and all influence in the region. We can leave once things are stable and our allies on the ground can keep the peace, otherwise we basically give up our allies, because they will lose. Also, if ISIS can't be contained, or if they strike some sort of deal with Turkey to give up lands in the north in exchange for being ignored elsewhere, then they could become a real threat to OTHER allies like Israel and the Saudis. (Not that we should really be allies with such terrible people, but...)

Unknown said...

I see both John's and Verloren's points, and I'm pretty ambivalent about the whole withdrawal thing. But the general point that the president sets military policy and the military shouldn't say him nay, which sounds so basic and honest and constitutional, will start to me to look like something that needs to be fudged if Trump orders, say, an attack on Iran. After all, Trump supporters could easily say the same thing about the senate's recent condemnation of aid to Saudi Arabia in Yemen--the president sets foreign policy, so the senate should butt out. But I imagine John supports the senate's condemnation. My point is these issues are a lot harder than a simple, "the president sets policy, not the generals." (Perhaps it's worth remembering that the president's initial reaction to a briefing on our nuclear arsenal was, "if we have these, why can't we use them?")

Shadow said...

I'm with John on this. Like Obama said, ISIS and its ilk needs to be defeated with ideas.

I've heard that leaving Syria has been discussed ad nausium in meetings with Mattis and others. Trump's biggest problem is he is incapable of speaking to the nation from the oval office. If it requires more than 200 letters, he short circuits. But I bet if he gave a nighttime speech on this (one not written by Stephen Miller) from the oval office, the country would be behind him.

And who promised we'd stay and protect the Kurds? Did I miss that vote? Did I fall asleep? Their enemies are Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Turkey is a NATO ally we can at best situationally trust, Iraq is our bastard child that carries a shive up its sleeve, and Iran is our mortal enemy that carries an IED up its sleeve. And they all border the Kurds. Protect the Kurds? For how long? For Eternity! Might as well sever the country from the continent at the Mexican and Canadian borders and start rowing over there, because eternity is too long a time to be doing this from afar. Where are all the geniuses questioning this decision?

17 years and counting and we still can't land a president in Iraq without turning all the lights off. Then you have to cancel any meetings with the Iraqi gov't for security reasons and usher the prez back out of country the same day before the enemy gets wind of his arrival. We had to do that 17 years ago. Nothing's changed. And what's everyone complaining about? The troops handing Trump red MAGA hats to autograph. Trump has made the entire country stupider.

This is Richard Haass type thinking. In all the time I've been reading and listening to Haass -- and Good Lord, the man is on TV 4 or 5 times a day telling us how important it is to keep the same foreign policy as we had during the Cold War -- I've never heard him whisper an original thought. He's standard, overused, boring, foreign policy establishment fare. Plug him in the outlet and you'll get a dim, unflickering light, but don't expect anything more.

G. Verloren said...


Apparently you did fall asleep, because the US military promised we'd stay and protect the Kurds.

The Kurds are the people on the ground who we approached and said, "Hey, be our allies, risk your necks to help us fight ISIS, and in exchange we'll protect you from our mutual enemies". We approached them precisely BECAUSE we don't want Syria being annexed by Turkey or Iran, and because we know that the puppet government in Iraq is a house of cards that could fall at any time. (Again.)

They've put themselves in extreme danger to assist us, at our request, not only directly fighting on our behalf, but also providing vital intelligence, communications, and reconaissance. These are the local people, who know the land, who know the language, who know the politics, and who make it possible for us to operate there with any degree of effectiveness.

And when we came knocking and they asked, "Why should we risk our hides to help YOU?", we promised them help in return.

But apparently you think we should blatantly backstab our only real ally in the entire conflict, abandon them entirely, and let our rivals and enemies simply do whatever they please, throwing the region back into chaos and turmoil, and just forget about trying to clean up the massive mess that WE made.

Then, the next time we need help from locals, and they ask "Why should we risk our hides to help YOU?", and we promise to help them in return? They'll just laugh.

Turkey and Iran will also laugh, and feel emboldened in their agendas and opposition toward us. Moreover, all our allies will question whether they can really trust us, since we've proven ourselves so willing to backstab our own allies, with no warning, for no good reason.

ISIS will remain, to either grow into a massive problem that we'll be dragged back into dealing with in 10 years time when they inevitably attack Israel or the Saudis; or to be defeated by someone like Turkey - which would sure be a humiliation for us. "The mighty US military couldn't stop ISIS, but the Turks could? Hah!"

Yes - we never should have gotten ourselves into this situation, no question. The Middle East was actually a better place before we invaded Iraq on false pretexts.

But it's far too late for that now, and we've got to deal with reality as it exists. And the last time we tried to pull out of the region without ensuring it was properly stable, we directly created the circumstances that led to the formation of ISIS. If we had stayed, we could have been done by now. But we tried to call it quits when the job was half-way done, and doing so cost us all the progress we had made, and forced us to start all over from the very beginning, or worse.

The cost of leaving right now is not just too high in the short term - it's also way too high in the long term. We have a hell of a lot that we stand to lose if we go.

And even if we decide that's a price we're willing to pay, and we should leave? Then we at least need to consult our goddamn allies, give them proper warning, and conduct and orderly withdrawal over time that doesn't utterly compromise the entire situation for everyone else involved.

Shadow said...


The U.S. has no treaty with the Kurds, nor can I find anything saying the U.S. explicitly promised to protect the Kurds against Turk aggression, and given that Turkey is a NATO ally I doubt any such agreement exists or any verbal promise was given. My point being this is probably an exaggeration of something far less dramatic that has been uncritically embraced by those who want to stay in Syria.

I am well aware of how helpful the Turks have been; it's the agreement to defend them against the Turks I am not aware of. Having said that, if there was one made, it should not have been made, because we can't enforce it without fatally harming NATO. If an agreement exists, it reminds me of the Budapest Memorandum, which was, I think, an insincere promise made to Ukraine. But then it got the nukes out of Ukraine didn't it?

It's all fine and dandy to wax apoplectic over the outrage -- and it may be an outrage -- but I don't see a military confrontation between U.S. and Turkey over the Kurds. That doesn't mean behind the scenes' threats, promises, and arm twisting can't occur, but U.S. troops don't need to be there for that to happen.

The U.S. has already supported Turkey's incursion into Northern Syria.

G. Verloren said...

Of course no treaty exists. Treaties exist between governments. You can't have a treaty with people who don't have a government.

And of course the agreement isn't specifically to defend them against the Turks. The entire point of the operation is to restore rule of law to Syria, which negates the need for Syrian Kurds to be protected, because Turkey won't dare declare a war of conquest against a legitimate Syrian government.

But if rule of law is NOT restored, and Syria is allowed to be overrun by ISIS / rebels, then the legal situation is wildly different. Turkey can make the argument that, since no one else has the situation under control, they're free to step in and take action, up to and including annexation of territory.

The Turks can't get away with conquest against an internationally recognized legitimate government of Syria, but if the country of Syria ceases to exist because it gets left to the wolves, then they absolutely CAN get away with conquest against a non-recognized illegitimate body like ISIS or rebel warlords.

The Kurds are working with us with the understanding that the entire point of the fighting is for Syria to be restored, even if only nominally with a different government, thus maintaining international legitimacy and protecting them from Turkey, Iran, et cetera.

Shadow said...

That's a lost goal. Even if there is a internationally recognized gov't, Ankara will ally with Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran in return for freedom to deal with the Kurds. That leaves us in an unenviable situation, one we can't maintain.

szopen said...

" the US military promised we'd stay and protect the Kurds."

Wow. Your country is more weird than I thought. You mean US military can just promise someone they would stay and fight for them and democratically elected government can't break that promise?

Unknown said...


No one is saying the democratically elected government *can't* break previous US government promises. My understanding is that Verloren is saying that breaking that promise is a bad idea.

In the US, citizens of course retain the right to *criticize* anything and everything their government does. And the whole system is structured so that citizens have plenty of ways to stop the government doing something they don't like.

John said...

I guess I am writing from frustration with the bias our system seems to have toward always intervening, always using force to solve international problems, refusing to curtail commitments, and so on. This is supposed to be a democracy, and a majority of Americans do not support these open-ended wars. Why are we never able to make our will felt? Because the experts, the people immediately in charge, resist us at every turn. If Trump is going to take on the establishment and try to make the will of the people real, then I support him not matter how great his ignorance. After all, Obama tried to do the same thing but was just not able to make it happen.

G. Verloren said...


I seem to recall most of the nation being incredibly eager to invade Afghanistan, over our deeply wounded national ego in the wake of the WTO attack.

Democracy cuts both ways. If the public majority hadn't been so gung-ho about getting revenge, then the G. W. Bush adminstration never would have been able to push for getting involved in an unwinnable war - invading "The Graveyard of Empires" without any real plan for victory, a mere 12 years after the Soviets pulled out in the wake of their own decade long occupation and humiliating defeat.

Iraq was much the same story. We hadn't achieved victory in Afghanistan, and people were frustrated by the war dragging on. We wanted a big win, but we weren't going to find it the current war, so why not start a NEW war, that can be won easily and quickly, boost morale, give the economy a jolt, secure cheap oil for us, AND that we can all feel good about because we'll remove a dictator from power? After all, the last time we invaded Iraq, it was a total and resounding success! We beat Saddam once, obviously we can do it again, and clearly it'll happen quickly!

The only trouble was, people weren't really on board with starting another war. During the Gulf War, there was the justification that we were protecting Kuwait, and that gave the effort popular support. But this time, Saddam wasn't doing anything nefarious for us to march in and put a stop to. He was an awful dictator, but that alone wasn't enough.

So, of course, we manufactured a casus belli, claiming that Saddam was stockpiling WMDs which all evidence suggested didn't exist. The UN investigated, told the world that they couldn't find any trace of WMDs, stopped just short of calling us a bunch of liars, and then we invaded anyway, because at that point it didn't matter if our flimsy pretext convinced anyone internationally - it had already worked wonders on our own ignornant population, and the public majority was once again eager to start another war, in the hopes of achieving a quick victory.

Of course, in a sense we got it. Saddam's armies didn't pose much more of a threat than they did in the Gulf War, and we managed to assassinate Saddam himself, at which point the war was pretty much done in the public imagination. All that was left was to help the Iraqis install a new government, and come home!

Except, no, of course it couldn't be that simple. We put a corrupt puppet government in place that the Iraqis didn't view as legitimate or capable, and then we started to withdraw, just sort of expecting it not to end up being toppled immediately by rival factions vying for power for themselves. Guess what happened.

At that point, though, the public no longer cared. They wanted to bring the troops home. We'd "won" the war, so why keep them there?

And so Iraq went from bad to worse, and when we eventually faced the music and realized we had to get back in there in force to fix things before the entire region went to hell, people started to grumble. Turns out our quick and easy victory wasn't so quick or easy after all.

Democracy simply means that when you can fool enough people into thinking something is a good idea, they'll jump on the bandwagon for the most foolish of things; and that when a good or necessary idea fails to retain popularity, it risks being abandoned, even at catastrophic cost and without any real good reason.

Unknown said...


I think the biases in the system are more subtle than that. The establishment tends to prolong interventions once they've taken place. But interventions themselves tend to be at the will of the democratically-elected executive. The Bush administration, in particular, took on the establishment's resistance to an Iraq invasion, and won. And the establishment, especially the generals, were a major force preventing the Bush admin from starting a war with Iran. I suspect that continues under Trump.

It would be interesting to know the inside story of Obama's decision to withdraw from Iraq. That may well have been a circumstance in which establishment and president were in harmony.

The people's will is also fairly subtle. It looks to me like many Trump voters who oppose open-ended commitments on the ground would also support the routine use of bombing to indicate American displeasure. Their basic accusation against Obama was that, on the one hand, he was too wimpy and let foreigners get away with too much, and, on the other, he was spending too much of our money in Syria and Afghanistan.

Unknown said...


You're mischaracterizing both of the Bush interventions. Yes, the public wanted the Afghan invasion, but the Bushies actually soft-pedaled the US action there, by co-operating with ISI on removing some of their favorite assets, including fighters in the thousands, by refusing to send US troops into Tora Bora, etc., etc. Virtually from the night of 9/11 onward, Bush and his team had their eyes on Iraq. And the push for the invasion came from them, not from the public (although the public and Congress were easily enough manipulated into supporting it).

szopen said...

"My understanding is that Verloren is saying that breaking that promise is a bad idea."

I think that giving military the right to promise anyone anything, which is binding to the government is generally a bad idea.

Unknown said...


I don't know of any evidence that our military made that promise, and certainly not on its own. My impression is the promise is considered to have derived from the way the US, at the explicit direction of five successive civilian administrations, backed the Kurds first against Saddam Hussein, then against Baghdad under the Saddam successor governments, and then against ISIS. The promise is an implicit one, not the result of a formal treaty. If Trump wants to break this implicit promise, he has the right to make that his policy, and others have the right to criticize the policy if they want to. It seems to me that it is pretty reasonable to think that an implicit promise has been made, and also pretty reasonable to say that a US president has the right to break it. That's international politics.

szopen said...

A reasonable position.

Personally, I have a lot of sympathy to the Kurds. They have bad luck of being conflicted with US allies. I remember in 90s many people here were mentioning Kurds' fate under Turkey, for example, when discussing Kosovo war.

Shadow said...

Don't make promises you may not be able to keep should be a fundamental principle of governing, particularly when you know you are unwilling to commit totally. Yes, the Kurds may be getting screwed, but Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran are the rising powers in Syria. That bodes poorly for Kurds and US. Syria was and is way too damaged and chaotic to have made such a promise.

Unknown said...


I think the promise made a fair amount of sense back under Bush I when it started. Then it extended no farther than some humanitarian aid and the famous No-Fly Zone, which at least stopped Saddam dropping mustard gas on the Kurds.

The problems really started with Bush II, whose foreign policy after 9/11 was completely unhinged. It's worth remembering that Iraq was projected to be only the start of a series of foreign interventions. I remember Rumsfeld had to be talked down from sending his troops into Syria right after Saddam fell. Iran and Sudan were also projected. "Yemen is another one," I remember Ken Adelman saying on a Sunday morning news program.

Others shared the approach. I remember a global map in The Atlantic or something showing ten countries John McCain had wanted to intervene in since, maybe, 2000.