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When ‘Get Out’ Is a President’s National Security Strategy

When he pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, it was over the objections of a secretary of state, a national security adviser and a secretary of defense — all since departed — who urged him to build on the past agreement. Sixteen months later, he fired his next national security adviser, the hawkish John R. Bolton, for fear that Mr. Bolton would send him down the road to another “forever war.”

In that regard, Mr. Trump has correctly read the American people who, after Iraq and Afghanistan, also have a deep distaste for forever wars. It is the one issue on which Mr. Trump and former President Barack Obama agree, and a reason for Mr. Obama’s decision not to make good on his promise of bombing Mr. Assad for crossing the “red line” of using poison gas.

But Mr. Trump’s objections go beyond Mr. Obama’s. “Like some of those who are running to replace him, President Trump has conflated ‘forever wars’ with an open-ended presence,” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior George W. Bush administration official as America went into two wars between 2001 and 2003.

“We’ve had 70 years of open-ended presence in Germany, Japan, South Korea,” he noted. “It’s part of an alliance. And it keeps countries from doing things you don’t want them to do,” like building their own nuclear weapons.

The Syria presence, Mr. Mattis had argued, was in that vein — low risk, low casualty, high returns for America’s security. It was a tripwire to keep the Islamic State from rising again, and Turkey from starting a war. Mr. Trump’s Sunday night tweet, saying everyone in the region was going to have to work things out themselves, announced an abdication of that role.

He may well pull back in coming days; in fact, by lunchtime on Monday he already appeared to be pivoting, declaring on Twitter that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey.”

It was a strange threat to utter to a NATO ally. It did not specify what was out of bounds. And most of all, it did not describe how the United States would exercise that kind of power in a world in which America is viewed in many capitals as already getting out.

Lara Jakes and Edward Wong contributed reporting.

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