Trump is discrediting a sane foreign policy
American foreign policy has been an overreaching mess for a long time — especially in the Greater Middle East.
First we toppled the government of Saddam Hussein for no good reason, beginning a chain of events that has destabilized the entire region — prompting an insurgency and civil war in Iraq that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and then, a few years later, sparking a civil war in Syria that has killed half a million more. Along the way, Iran has been empowered by having its leading regional rival laid low, a savage new Islamist movement emerged and set up a caliphate, and we spread the chaos to North Africa by doing the whole thing over again in miniature by toppling the government of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
At each stage of this slowly unfolding disaster — including the return of American troops to Iraq and insertion of them for the first time into the morass of the Syrian civil war in order to defeat the Islamic State we helped to birth — the wise men and women of Washington's bipartisan foreign policy establishment have been ready with arguments about how we must never, ever, ever withdraw from the region. Why not? Because American airpower and artillery are its only source of stability. If we leave, the bad guys will come roaring back in no time, and we'll have to return and fight again at greater cost, just as Barack Obama did after prematurely pulling out of Iraq. In this way, every decision to intervene militarily, no matter how bad the consequences, requires an extension or even expansion of our intervention. Because withdrawing always makes it worse.
These arguments have seemingly received vivid confirmation over the past week or so, as Donald Trump, at the request of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, withdrew a small number of troops from northeastern Syria, where they were protecting Syrian Kurds who had helped the U.S. to defeat the Islamic State's caliphate and were holding a number of ISIS fighters in makeshift prisons. If news reports are to be believed, this shift of just a few dozen American soldiers has precipitated a catastrophe. Turkey has started bombing, killing our Kurdish allies, including civilians, and even committed war crimes. ISIS fighters have broken out of their captivity and will soon spread terrorism all over the Middle East, Europe, and even the United States, while also reestablishing the caliphate. Meanwhile, every adversary of the United States within thousands of miles of the fighting — Syria, Turkey, Iran, Russia — is jumping for joy at their good fortune.
As far as pundits from across the political spectrum are concerned, Trump has tried to "end our endless wars" and shown it to be a disaster. The hawks, it seems, have been thoroughly vindicated.
Except they haven't been. What we've learned from the debacle of the past week or so is rather that, for what feels like the thousandth time, Trump is unfit to serve as president of the United States — and that Trump's critics will revise any previously held opinion in order to gain added leverage against him in our country's cold civil war.
To begin, as we always must, with Trump: The president knows next to nothing about the world. He is incapable of thinking strategically about anything beyond his personal enrichment. He is impulsive and impetuous. And he has numerous financial interests in various regions of the world that remain murky at best. Some mixture of these considerations seems to have resulted in Trump deciding, after a single phone call with Erdogan on the night of Sunday, October 6, to withdraw a small number of American troops to make way for the Turkish military to begin operations in Syria intended to create a buffer zone along the border separating the two countries.
That move has produced a mess in both humanitarian and geopolitical terms. But was that the inevitable outcome of the U.S. pulling troops out of this area of Syria? Not at all. If Trump had made it clear what he wanted to do and stood by it resolutely, and if he had staff in place who could be trusted to get his preferred policy enacted, many other scenarios could have unfolded, with most of them far less bloody and chaotic than what's happening on the ground right now. Planning matters. Talking to allies matters. Thinking beyond the next few hours or days matters. Trump has failed on all these fronts, and far more. He's dangerously ill-equipped for the job he holds, and lots of people are paying the price.
But what's the excuse for those who should know better? I'm talking about those who suddenly think the U.S. owes greater loyalty to a battlefield ally (the Kurds) than we do to a longstanding member of NATO (Turkey). I'm also talking about those who should know very well that the Kurds of Syria are dominated by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a far-left organization known for practicing terrorism and eager to foment civil unrest as a means to helping the Kurds of Turkey to establish an independent state. One needn't be an Erdogan apologist to recognize that this constitutes a threat to the territorial integrity of a treaty ally. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certainly understood it when she vowed during a visit to Turkey in August 2012 that "Syria must not become a haven for PKK terrorists whether now or after the departure of the [Bashar] al-Assad regime."
If the U.S. military was able to form an alliance of convenience with the Syrian Kurds in order to achieve a mutually advantageous goal (defeating and dispersing the caliphate of the Islamic State), great. But that doesn't mean that we should be risking our far more geopolitically important relationship with Turkey because we're now best buddies with and long-term protectors of a group we treated with well-founded suspicion less than a decade ago.
Then there's the matter of what exactly we're even doing in Syria. Yes, our actions in Iraq helped to set events in motion that ultimately precipitated the Syrian civil war, and its consequences have been horrific. But that doesn't mean there is anything the U.S. could have done or could do now to produce a better outcome. Obama understood this, which is why he resisted getting involved — at least until the rise of the Islamic State required it. He did so with a very limited goal: degrade and destroy the fragile territorial caliphate using airpower and a limited number of troops. It made sense that the scope was limited because Congress hadn't approved another war.
Whatever euphemism we use to describe it, the operation in Syria was a success, achieving its goal under President Trump. Yet now we're told that we need to maintain a military presence indefinitely to keep the caliphate from returning. Or to protect the Kurds. Or to guard imprisoned ISIS fighters. Or to serve as a counter-weight to Iran and Russia. Or to try and undermine the government of Assad. Or all of the above. The reason almost doesn't matter, as long as we never leave.
This is unacceptable. We can't allow Trump's moronic way of governing, or his limitless capacity to inspire idiocy in his partisan opponents, to discredit the attempt to change course. Fashioning a saner and more sustainable foreign policy depends on it.
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