This update is best made with relatively little commentary. One important point is that every news organization has said multiple White House sources confirm it is the letter Trump sent to Erdogan on 9 October, after their phone conversation on 6 October.
Fox News has a clip of the press conference in which Trump referred to the letter and offered to release it. See the 0:40 mark.
After that commitment, the letter depicted in the image below is the one that was released.
Again, multiple sources at the White House have confirmed that this is the letter that went to Erdogan.
Social media have been in full meltdown mode over the letter. I will advance just one thought-package before letting readers have at it. It’s this: I’ve read every published personal letter Ronald Reagan wrote to a Soviet leader, and found each one to be a uniquely identifiable expression of Reagan’s ideas and way of thinking. He hand-wrote letters to Soviet leaders, but even once they were typed, there was no mistaking them for the communications of any other president. Reagan didn’t constrain himself to express ideas of principle, strategy, or national priorities in the conventional jargon of foreign policy or security writing.
In his own way, neither does Trump. Pause here for a belly laugh; I know you need it. But the laugh needs to be at ourselves as much as at Trump. It is so crystal clear by now that none of Trump’s critics has had the courage or vision to actually pursue the conventional “solutions” they proclaim there are to the Syria problem. I mean, mine has all along been the best solution, but nobody was smart enough to try it, including Trump. A pox on everyone. With that said, it really is unseemly to screech at Trump for not coloring within the lines of other people’s triangulating non-solutions.
Was he right to jack around so abruptly with the situation in Syria, which he did not by pulling a few dozen troops out of the safe zone but by enunciating what was already true: that we weren’t there to guarantee Syria’s border against Turkey? That’s an answer we don’t have yet, although pretty much everyone thinks he has it, one way or another.
There’s no question that the move had to come off as a betrayal of the Kurdish partners we’d been working with to defeat ISIS. But Trump’s oath is to the Constitution, and his chief obligation to the American people who charter his presidency. Look behind the “signaling” made about U.S. intentions by placing token forces here and there, and you find that in northern Syria, the legacy “signal” has mutated to the point that it has no grounding in strategy, objectives, or national interests, expressed by either constitutional means or the conventions of the post-World War II era of national security deliberations. Note that Lindsey Graham’s triangulating non-solution is to just keep acting as if U.S. troops are there to guarantee the border, even though they’re not. Ask the question, “Then what?” and there’s no answer.
Trump calls that, inelegantly, “staying in endless wars.” It is hardly more elegant, however, to call it “racist xenophobic isolationist nativism” if someone — e.g., Trump — notices that we’re performing a mission we never actually signed up for, and there are some really big disconnects involved. Force composition doesn’t suit the implied mission at all. That’s one. Another is the one Trump mentions explicitly in the press conference: that we have a big border security problem right here at home, and we’re not addressing it.
Trump’s plan apparently is to move the unimpressionable Erdogan with sanctions. Trump has gotten some kinetic effects that way, in terms of policy jolts. I continue to think it will be concern about Russia backing the Kurds that deters Erdogan’s military moves in the days ahead. But the sanctions may make a difference in getting to more of an end-state agreement. We’ll see; we haven’t seen yet.
So the Trump letter might not be “What J.E. Would Do,” which is a fairly regular occurrence with Trump’s procedural execution of foreign policy. As for the policy behind it, this, right here, is a big reason I didn’t vote for him in 2016. (I wrote in Ted Cruz.)
But in substance, it’s not actually sillier than what we’re getting from most of Trump’s critics. You want to be an adult supervisor, write us a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force to justify guaranteeing the border of Syria, sell it to the people and the Congress, get majority backing in both houses, and craft a deliberate strategy to achieve stated objectives that the people have signed up to, so that we’re not backing ourselves tuchus first into a situation in which seven or eight different armed gangs are running circles around us while we don’t even know what we’re doing there. Hand that to Trump to make decisions about — a real, scoped alternative to a drawdown, something to compare the outlines of a drawdown to — and then it will be time to label Trump “the” idiot because he prefers his priorities, the ones he understood himself to be elected on, to a better idea.