Political pundits on Left and Right seem to agree that Trump's foreign policy decisions are "incomprehensible." Some have resorted to arm-chair psychoanalysis to try to explain Trump's actions. Others imagine that Trump's opinion is swayed by whatever powerful figure has spoken to him last. This confusion is not a Trump problem; it's a media problem. Trump's foreign policy choices follow a straightforward and easily-digestible political philosophy. His actions in Syria are no exception.
The philosophy that guides Trump's foreign policy decisions in Syria and everywhere else is one that our neoliberal political establishment has forgotten exists, but which would be immediately recognized by any American president who served prior to 1950. I'm talking, of course, about nationalism. No group hates nationalism more than the pre-Trump Republican foreign policy establishment, i.e. the Right half of "the swamp." On a recent Remnant podcast with Jonah Goldberg, Ron Pollack—a swamp creature who has never apologized for his rabid endorsement of the Iraq War—explained the geopolitical strategy of establishment Republicans in Syria. America must show a "willingness to stay indefinitely," he said, so that our presence can provide useful leverage against Assad (and, by proxy, against Russia).
Bewilderingly, these same establishment Republicans are now claiming to be on the side of Kurdish nationalism—a claim which is colossal ignorance at best and deliberate gaslighting at worst. In no conceivable world could America's imperialist meddling on the Turkey/Syria border result in a Kurdish nation. Thus, America's promises to Kurds were always empty. Nothing is less likely to result in a stable Kurdish nation-state than using Kurds to create trouble for the very nations that would be their neighbors. Moreover, the Kurdish "government" that America backed in North-eastern Syria (TEV-DEM) systematically excluded Kurdish nationalists from political participation. The Swamp is lying.
Trump's pull-out is explained by nationalism and a complete disdain for Bush-era imperialist policy. Unlike previous administrations which treated the "global war on terrorism" as the sole responsibility of the West, Trump recognizes that other powerful nations (most importantly Russia and China) have their own national interest in suppressing radical Islamic terrorism. Our NATO allies (including Turkey) share that interest, as well, which is why Trump has pressured NATO nations to increase their share of defense spending.
The only reason Trump sent troops to Syria, in the first place, was to destroy the territorial holdings of ISIS. Now that the mission is accomplished, Trump has zero interest in turning Syria into a never-ending proxy war with Russia, especially when its proxy forces are currently labeled "terrorists" by America's own intelligence agencies. However bad Assad may be, Russia seems to think that his puppet-government is the least-bad option in an area not far from their border. Trump is content to leave it at that. As he said a week ago:
"It’s a lot of sand. They’ve got a lot of sand over there, so there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”
Syria is a nation. Turkey is a nation. As a nationalist, Trump wants to work with these already-existing sovereign entities through diplomacy, sanctions, and, if necessary, targeted air strikes (as he did once before in Syria). If the Kurds ever assert nationhood through political revolution—something that can only happen once we leave the region and let the Kurdish nationalists regain political control—Trump will likely root for the fledgling Kurdish nation from the sidelines, as he should. But, he will not help them nation-build, nor will he leave American forces as human shields in their border disputes simply because some pundits have called them our "allies."
Unfortunately, because the United States has been de facto global hegemon for decades (leading the charge in the Cold War and War on Terror), America's pundit class is stuck in an imperialist foreign policy mindset. It might be impossible for many who have spent their careers in the era of American empire to abandon the preconceptions that make Trump's nationalist foreign policy incomprehensible to them. Regardless, America is moving into a nationalist era with or without them. And Trump is ahead of the curve.