The reaction was unanimous: the so-called idealist diplomats under former President Barack Obama and the neoconservatives under former President George W. Bush all reacted with great alarm to the news that President Donald Trump was withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria and that he had given the green light to Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan to launch his military operation against the Kurds.
The think tank and media establishment in D.C. finds fault with Trump, no matter what he does. The only exception was when Trump bombed Syria. Then the media and think tanks praised him for being presidential and for sending a message to enemies of the U.S. (Why do U.S. messages always have to be violent?) When Trump acts tough in foreign policy, he is praised. But he is often criticized for not being tough enough. If he shows softness in foreign policy, he is fiercely criticized for harming U.S. national security interests.
Media reaction is partly a reflection of the conventional wisdom of the war lobby in D.C. and partly the voice of the intelligence community. The New York Times and The Washington Post have emerged as the willing and uncritical outlets for intelligence agencies. The U.S. media publicize criticisms by unnamed military and intelligence officials while treating them as if they — not an elected U.S. president — should set foreign policy.
What Trump Did Not Realize
When Trump began criticizing the media and the intelligence agencies he did not, due to his political inexperience in Washington, realize that they can be more powerful than a U.S. president in setting the agenda for world media. Nevertheless, Trump retains his support among his core supporters where his popularity within his own party is higher than it was under President Ronald Reagan.
Trump is discovering that criticizing U.S. wars from the outside is much easier than trying to end them from the Oval Office. The crisis in northern Syria did not start overnight, although the media just noticed. The U.S. media is now the voice of the war lobby and they wish to have the U.S. maintain a military force in almost all Arab countries. And once an American occupation starts, the media does not want it to end. Instead it amplifies arguments about the need to “protect allies” (usually armed mercenaries) or “maintain vital U.S. interests” or “keep the peace” (even though the U.S. military presence always causes more bloodshed and exacerbates tensions), or stand firm against U.S. enemies (and naturally the enemies of Israel).
The U.S. media and D.C. foreign policy establishment raised alarm when Trump — during his campaign and later as president— suggested that he wished to withdraw troops from Syria, just as they raised alarm about Trump’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. But Trump has proven firmer against the U.S. military-intelligence apparatus than Obama, who would bend under the slightest pressure from the military.