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Sunday October 20th, 2019 12:54PM

Trump defends Syria move, doesn't want US troops in Mideast

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump lashed out Wednesday over sharp bipartisan criticism of his decision to pull back U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, saying he is focused on the "BIG PICTURE" that does not include American involvement in "stupid endless wars" in the Middle East.

"Fighting between various groups that has been going on for hundreds of years. USA should never have been in Middle East," Trump said in a series of morning tweets. "The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!"

Turkey launched its offensive Wednesday, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announcing on his official Twitter account that the operation had begun. Erdogan said the operation aims to eradicate "the threat of terror" against Turkey.

Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish fighters who have helped the U.S. against the Islamic State as terrorists, and Trump's decision to pull back U.S. troops leaves them vulnerable to the military onslaught. It's also been condemned by some of Trump's staunchest Republican allies.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close Trump ally, stepped up his criticism of the president Wednesday, telling "Fox & Friends" that if Trump "follows through with this, it would be the biggest mistake of his presidency."

"I hope he's right. I don't think so," Graham said, comparing Trump's views to the "pre-9/11 mentality that paved the way for 9/11."

Trump defended his unpopular decision, arguing on Twitter that "GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY!" He said the U.S. went to war under a "false & now disproven premise, WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION. There were NONE!"

Trump said he is "slowly & carefully" bringing home "our great soldiers & military," in line with his campaign promise to do so.

He added: "Our focus is on the BIG PICTURE! THE USA IS GREATER THAN EVER BEFORE!"

But the U.S. military has kept a decades-long focus on the Middle East as part of a strategy of stopping or minimizing security threats before they spread to American and allied shores.

Trump has long criticized President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003, but the subsequent rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State has convinced many national security officials, and lawmakers such as Graham, that a precipitous U.S. troop withdrawal from the region would leave the U.S. and its allies even more vulnerable to extremism.

Trump also claimed the U.S. has spent $8 trillion "fighting and policing" in the Middle East, up from the $7 trillion figure he has cited numerous times.

Trump is using an inflated estimate on the cost of wars and referring in part to predicted costs going decades into the future, not money actually spent. Some of the spending also reflects his policy decisions he made since taking office nearly three years ago.

Graham said Congress "will push back" against Turkey. He had said earlier this week that he was working on a bipartisan bill to sanction Turkey if they invade Syria, but he did not mention the proposal during Wednesday's interview.

"We're not giving Turkey a green light in Congress and we're not going to abandon the Kurds," he said. "If the President does so, we won't."

Trump announced Tuesday that he and Erdogan will meet at the White House on Nov. 13.

--

Associated Press National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.

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