Listening to his campaign rhetoric, the last thing you would expect Donald Trump to do as president would be to escalate a ground war in the Middle East. He won the Republican nomination last year by campaigning against both George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and Barack Obama’s war in Libya.
But as Trump’s young presidency has shown, many of the candidate’s foreign policy positions are not as firmly held as his supporters had hoped. It’s not just that Trump struck the Syrian regime after last week’s chemical weapons attack on rebels. It’s not just his recent reversals on Chinese currency manipulation and the NATO alliance. The president’s biggest foreign policy surprise may be yet to come.
Senior White House and administration officials tell me Trump’s national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, has been quietly pressing his colleagues to question the underlying assumptions of a draft war plan against the Islamic State that would maintain only a light U.S. ground troop presence in Syria. McMaster’s critics inside the administration say he wants to send tens of thousands of ground troops to the Euphrates River Valley. His supporters insist he is only trying to facilitate a better interagency process to develop Trump’s new strategy to defeat the self-described caliphate that controls territory in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. special operations forces and some conventional forces have been in Iraq and Syria since 2014, when Obama reversed course and ordered a new air campaign against the Islamic State. But so far, the U.S. presence on the ground has been much smaller and quieter than more traditional military campaigns, particularly for Syria. It’s the difference between boots on the ground and slippers on the ground.
Trump himself has been on different sides of this issue. He promised during his campaign that he would develop a plan to destroy the Islamic State. At times during the campaign he said he favored sending ground troops to Syria to accomplish this task. More recently, Trump told Fox Business this week that that would not be his approach to fighting the Syrian regime: “We’re not going into Syria,” he said.