He had foreshadowed his decision. Nevertheless, President Trump’s order for a complete withdrawal of American troops from Syria came as a shock. Not only was the order sudden, abrupt, it flew in the face of the advice of virtually all the experts. The experts at home, and those abroad who count as reliable allies were all known to be strongly, even virulently opposed to reducing America’s military footprint in Syria from small to nonexistent.
The list includes those closest to the president – particularly his national security team, which includes Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo; Secretary of Defense, James Mattis; and National Security Advisor, John Bolton. In this instance it includes also a fourth : Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, who is the president’s chief military advisor.
What we have then is a president who made a major military decision with major foreign policy implications not only without the consent of the four men who should be his closest counsel. But without even their knowledge – each was blindsided by the president’s order. Moreover, each is not only privately fiercely opposed to the president’s policy, but publicly. All four have at some recent point testified publicly to the utmost importance of maintaining a U. S. military presence in Syria.
Which raises this question: Given the situation in which they find themselves, what should Pompeo, Mattis, Bolton, and Dunford do? They have several choices, which range from meekly and mutely following the president’s order at the one extreme, to vigorously and vociferously resigning in protest at the other.
If they asked me, which up to now they have not, I would tell them that they must not, that they should not, be lily-livered or even timorous. That they ought to stand up for what they believe in. That they ought to take on the president when they judge him to be deeply misguided and badly mistaken.
If their strategy is to be fearless but cautious, what should be their tactics? Six suggestions:
- Work in concert – think collectively and act cooperatively.
- Dawdle implementing the order.
- Recruit allies of every stripe – military and civilian, Republican and Democrat, domestic and foreign.
- Include in the conversation the few the president still trusts.
- Approach the president when he is feeling least beleaguered – say during his holiday stay at Mar-a-Lago.
- Enable him to save face.
If it turns out that they fail to persuade the president to reverse course, and if they remain persuaded that his decision is disastrous for the nation and the world, they have a moral obligation to resign in protest. Good followers refuse to obey leaders who give bad orders – particularly when such orders are thought likely to have deadly consequences.