Bring the troops home

News alert: I agree with a decision President Donald Trump made! I have opposed almost every thing he has said and every action he has taken as president, so I think it’s important to recognize when I agree with him. Let me qualify it by saying that I think Trump made the decision precipitously and is executing on it in a reckless and foolish manner. But I agree with the bottom line that American troops should be vacating Syria and Afghanistan completely and in the near future.

I’m one of the few people who agree with Trump. The U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, Brett McGurk, resigned in protest over Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. Even the most stalwart of Trump supporters, Lindsey Graham, gave the president the harshest of criticism by invoking his nemesis Barack Obama, saying to Trump that “I believe you are on course to make the same mistake President Obama made in Iraq.” Surprisingly, Democrats are also criticizing Trump’s dovish decision, with the Speaker of the House-to-be Nancy Pelosi calling it a “Christmas gift to Vladimir Putin.”

Granted, it was a knee-jerk decision based on a phone call with President Erdoğan of Turkey rather than in consultation with Trump’s national security team but it was the right decision. Granted, he should have carefully planned the withdrawal with the Pentagon and in coordination with our coalition partners before tweeting that “it’s time to bring our young people home” from Syria and considering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But as a principle, I think the withdrawal of American troops from the greater Middle East is long overdue.

I understand the arguments against doing so and even agree with them to some degree. Yes, there are still thousands of ISIS fighters in Syria but I agree with Trump’s assessment that “on Syria, we were originally…

It would be naive to think that ISIS could be completely eradicated, no matter how long American troops stayed in Syria. Proponents of our presence in Syria would say that we should wait until the conditions are more favorable for a withdrawal but they neither say what those conditions would look like nor offer objective benchmarks that would identify when the conditions have been met. And while they might be able to tinker around the edges to provide some temporary help in isolated situations, it’s also naive to think our troops could have any significant positive impact on the clusterfuck of overall conditions in Syria long term.

The situation in Afghanistan is much the same in terms of the outcomes we could expect. We have been there for seventeen years now and the security situation has been relatively stagnant for well over a decade. Russia got bogged down in Afghanistan for twenty years before they were smart enough to withdraw. Let’s not waste more years there than Russia did because we’re too proud to admit we did not win a war. We have not been able to eradicate the Taliban in seventeen years and we wouldn’t be able to do it in seventy years. As in Syria, staying in Afghanistan any longer would not have any significant positive impact on the overall conditions there either.

So mark my words—President Trump is right to order our troops to withdraw from the greater Middle East. He should listen to his own national security team for advice on how to do it rather than succumbing to the whims of other autocrats. But one way or the other, he should bring the troops home.

The path of most resistance

Back in September, President Barack Obama called for the USA to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year. Since then, there have been cries from all levels of government to not permit this immigration from Syria. Not surprisingly, those cries have increased and gotten louder since ISIS perpetrated the terrorist attack on Paris earlier this month.

I sympathize with most of the people voicing those sentiments. While some criticize the plan simply to oppose the president, most sincerely feel that their security would be threatened by Syrian refugees in the USA. They are concerned for the safety of their loved ones. The problem with this sentiment is that it’s based on faulty logic—it would not help prevent a terrorist attack in the USA.

Yes, as the name Islamic State of Iraq & Syria implies, ISIS occupies portions of Syria. And yes, ISIS uses terrorism to control Syrians and terrorize people like the French and Russian. But if an ISIS terrorist wanted to attack inside the USA, posing as a Syrian refugee would be the last method he would use to enter the USA. Just about any other way in would be more suitable for a terrorist. That’s why the odds of being killed by a refugee in a terrorist attack are about 1 in more than 3.6-billion, according to a Cato Institute study (PDF).

The process for a Syrian refugee to resettle in the USA is long and arduous, involving numerous federal agencies and intense background checks. It must begin in a refugee camp run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) somewhere outside of but neighboring Syria. After registering with them, not only does the UNHCR decide whether it will resettle the refugee at all, it also decides to which country it refers the refugees who get resettled. Well over 95% of Syrian refugees resettle in five Muslim countries around Syria. Only about 0.05% of the 4.3-million Syrian refugees have arrived in the USA.

For the small number of Syrian refugees the UNHCR refers to the USA, the U. S. Department of State takes over the admissions process. But they do so in the refugee camp—it will be about two years before the refugee makes it to the USA. In the meantime, they undergo the most rigorous screening of any traveler to the USA and only about half of them will be accepted. They have an adjudication interview then, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, they conduct an enhanced security screening on refugees from Syria. If the refugee passes all this, they undergo a health screening and those with a contagious disease, such as tuberculosis, do not enter the USA. A U.S.-based resettlement agency provides a “sponsorship assurance” before those that can clear all these hurdles steps foot on American soil.

It’s far faster and easier for someone to enter the USA as a tourist, a student, or a businessman—and with less scrutiny—than it is as a refugee. Any Syrian wanting to commit an act of terrorism inside the USA would follow the path of least resistance to get here, which would be just about any method other than as a refugee. A terrorist could easily get a counterfeit Syrian passport in just a few days for less than $1,000 in places like Istanbul. The only people who would take all the time and deal with all the difficulties of the refugee process to get to the USA are Syrians desperate to escape the terrorists in their homeland.

Doonesbury comic strip about Jihadis entering the USA as a refugee
Doonesbury