Despite repeatedly promising to pull U.S. troops out of foreign entanglements during his 2016 presidential campaign, Congressional Republicans were shocked this week to hear President Donald Trump was following through with his proposals and planned to fully withdraw military forces from Syria and Afghanistan.
President Trump has experienced some political fallout for his unexpected decision, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis promptly resigning his cabinet-level position and many senior GOP leaders criticizing the move. To make matters worse for Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has joined hawkish Republicans in questioning the president’s national security strategy, releasing a statement in which he said he was “distressed” over the resignation.
While Trump campaigned on an anti-globalist agenda, he quickly changed his mind after his inauguration.
“My original instinct was to pull out [of Afghanistan], and historically, I like following my instincts. But all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” Trump said in August 2017, adding that he would not write a “blank check” extending America’s commitment to the war zone indefinitely.
It was soon apparent that Mattis and other former military commanders who occupied his cabinet were influencing the president.
“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” Trump said, echoing the language used by senior military leaders as far back as the George W. Bush administration. “A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists — including ISIS and al-Qaida — would instantly fill, just as happened before Sept. 11.”
It seems Trump has now returned to the platform that got him elected — but when Trump reneged on the establishment Republican status quo this week, he faced an immediate backlash from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill. Sen. McConnell was speaking for his party when he released a public statement following news of the impending withdrawal.
My statement on Secretary Mattis pic.twitter.com/0n6Hye3096
— Leader McConnell (@senatemajldr) December 21, 2018
McConnell’s statement repeated many of the points first raised by Mattis, a former Marine general. The Senate majority leader reinforced the importance of maintaining strong alliances and articulated his opposition to Russia in his letter before underscoring his position that a full military withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan would be dangerously misguided.
“I am particularly distressed that [Mattis] is resigning due to sharp differences with the president,” McConnell wrote, urging Trump to “select a leader who shares Secretary Mattis’s understanding of these vital principles.”
Despite all of the pressure from his own corner, Trump is unlikely to capitulate. Unlike President Barack Obama, whose top military commander in Afghanistan famously described him as “uncomfortable and intimidated” in the presence of military brass, Trump has surrounded himself with professional soldiers and has commanded their respect.
Besides Mattis, establishment Republicans like McConnell have been Trump’s toughest critics in the aftermath of his policy reversal.
“Virtually everyone who spoke, spoke in opposition to the decision,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) said of a recent meeting between the vice president and key Republicans. “I didn’t hear anybody that disagreed with the view I’ve taken… This is a major mistake. And I hope they reverse it. Because if not, I think it will haunt this administration.“
McConnell’s press release was tame compared to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) statements on the subject.
“We’re going to hold the administration accountable for this decision,” Graham recalled telling Vice President Mike Pence. “If Obama had done this, all of us would be going nuts because it’s such a bad idea. The job of the Congress is to hold the executive branch accountable.
“He’s the commander in chief, but he needs to be held accountable for his decisions. And I want hearings as soon as possible,” Graham demanded.
Meanwhile, Trump’s true supporters have lauded the president’s move, arguing that Congress never officially approved sending troops to Syria in the first place.