Donald Trump Finds His Middle East Policy: Capitulate to Dictators

I’ve mentioned before that President Donald Trump 1) likes to make a big show of US military force but is extremely hesitant to actually use it (which is…not the worst thing in the world), 2) likes to gain favor from dictators and strongmen while kicking sand in the face of traditional American allies, and 3) has no idea what he wants to do with his Middle East policy.   I thought this was not the recipe for a coherent foreign policy. When I first saw that President Trump suddenly announced that he was withdrawing US troops from northern Syria (he’s made similar announcements in the past, but this time US troops are already on the way out) and essentially handing the fight in the northern part of the country over to Turkey for a “military operation” against a US ally, only weeks after pledging to send US troops into Saudi Arabia to put them in the middle of a fight between the Saudis and Iran, I thought that this incoherence had reached new levels (sorry, that was a long sentence, but there’s a lot to cover here). After thinking about it for a few minutes though, I realized I was wrong, but now I almost wish I was right the first time.

Let’s back up a bit. To be fair, the US never really wanted to be in Syria. The civil war there is extremely messy, with multiple shifting sides; ISIS, al-Qaeda and other radical groups intermingled with the fighters opposing a positively evil regime of Bashir al-Assad; international interference from countries including Russia and Saudi Arabia, and more. Barack Obama, having been burned by intervention in Libya (although preventing Gaddafi from launching a quasi-genocidal attack against a rebelling area of the country was a good thing, it turned out that, just like Iraq, getting rid of the long-time dictator didn’t suddenly make a stable democracy appear) dithered in his Syria policy, most notably getting egg on his face along with John Kerry over the “Red Line” on Syrian chemical weapons.

Interestingly, it was actually President Trump who, early in his term, actually took Syria to task by bombing several sites in the country after it was revealed that the Bashar government had again launched a chemical attack in a civilian neighborhood.  This was not only the most dramatic use of US military force to occur under the Trump Administration but also one of the few times that Trump seemed to be genuinely moved by an emotion that didn’t involve hubris (the story goes that he called for the strikes after seeing images of children suffering from nerve gas poisoning).

Now, Donald Trump has essentially said “eff you, Syrian kids!” (one could argue that he said that back in January 2017 when he banned refugees from Syria from coming into the United States).  US intelligence services recently concluded that Assad used chemical weapons yet again earlier this year, but the reaction this time was a toothless rebuke and now a backing away from the war effort against the Syrian government. And for good measure, this new withdrawal, getting out of the way of Turkey, significantly hurts our Kurdish allies. Again.

The Kurds are a stateless people, a predominantly Sunni Muslim ethnic group who live in a more or less contiguous area that spans parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.  The US famously screwed over the Iraqi Kurds after the Persian Gulf War; the Bush (41) administration had encouraged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein, but when they did, they received no backing from the Americans (who simply picked up and went home after embarrassing the Iraqi army in Kuwait). Saddam Hussein, being the level-headed ruler he was, massacred the Kurds by the tens of thousands.

Nevertheless, the US and Iraqi Kurdistan mended fences after the 2003 US-Iraq War and especially after the rise of ISIS to the immediate south of the Kurdish land (which has enjoyed regional autonomy under the current Iraqi government). The aggressively expanding Islamic State gave the US and the Kurds a common enemy, and the Kurds emerged as the fiercest and most heroic foes of ISIS, taking back much of ISIS’ Iraqi territory and liberating captured groups like the Yazidis in the process. Meanwhile, the Syrian Kurds have also set up their own quasi-state, which they call Rojava (I like the name), and their main fighting force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG in the local language) has also been a big ally of the US fighting ISIS in Syria.

Turkey, a US ally that is sometimes more trouble than its worth, has also been a big US partner in the fight against ISIS.  This three way relationship – between the US, the Kurds, and Turkey – Is more than a bit complicated.  You see, the largest chunk of Kurds live in Turkey, and the Turkish Kurds have long been engaged in an on-again, off-again war with Turkey’s government for autonomy or even independence.  Turkey has deemed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK in the local language), the main group fighting against Turkey’s government, as a terrorist group.  And the PKK has connections to the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish fighters, and Turkey, which considers the two groups to basically be the same entity, is about to launch a major military offensive to push the YPG back from territory the group holds on the Syrian side of the Turkey/Syria border.  Now, the US could stop this by, well, not stepping aside and letting it happen, but President Trump had a phone call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (has anyone yet considered cancelling the White House’s phone plan? AT&T likes to shut me down when I forget to pay the bill, and yet the Oval Office line continues to cause international incidents without interruption of service), and Trump was convinced by the call to let Turkey do its thing (its thing = kill our allies).

But wait, this move is not a capitulation to Turkey, says President Trump. Trump, in a bizarre (even for him) Tweet in which he talks as if the Wizard of Oz was also the US President (that’s…actually a pretty accurate description of our current condition, now that I think about it) warned that if Turkey did anything that Trump, “in my great and unmatched wisdom” deems unacceptable, that Trump would “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” as he has “done before!” (caps and exclamation points in original).  Well, surely that will restrain Turkey in its mission. And, to remind you, that mission is explicitly meant to fight the force that’s been helping us defeat ISIS in Syria.

How big of a spitshow (I try to keep it PG-13 here, sometimes) is this? Let’s ask Lindsey Graham, long-time Senator of my home state South Carolina and generally reliable Republican Hawk, what he thinks the consequences of this withdrawal will be:

That’s…quite bad.  And Graham hasn’t been alone in the criticism. Let’s sample some other usual Trump supporters or former aides:

Nikki Hayley, Trump’s former US Ambassador to the UN and often rumored 2020 running mate if the Mike Pence thing doesn’t work out): “The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake

Brett McGurk, former  Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (in other words, a man who knows what he’s talking about): “Donald Trump is not a Commander-in-Chief. He makes impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation. He sends military personnel into harm’s way with no backing. He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.

Even Mitch McConnell, whose nickname might as well be Poland Springs given how much water he’s been carrying for the President, came out with a strong warning that “a precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime.”

I’m just waiting for Don, Jr. to Tweet out “Yeah, dad, can’t really back you on this one.  Don’t revise the will, though, ok?”

While this decision is, by all appearances, horrible for US interests in containing ISIS or fighting the Syrian government, severely detrimental to US credibility in the Middle East and the larger world, and disastrous for US allies in the region, it does make sense in a perverse way. Donald Trump has found his Middle East policy, and it’s essentially an extension of his foreign policy in general: support dictators.  He’s done it consistently with Vladimir Putin, and with other Middle Eastern despots like Egyptian military strongman Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (Trump’s “favorite dictator,” in his own words) and the Saudi royal family.  Pretty much any dictator whose interests aren’t fundamentally aligned against those of the United States (so, sorry China, Iran and Venezuela) is eligible to have Trump do his bidding.  Heck, even those who DO have fundamentally conflicting interests, like Kim Jong Un, can get a lot out of Trump by simply flattering him at the right time.

This is not a foreign policy that is particularly wise, or noble, or principled, or, well (Orwellian?) good for the world.  But it is, weirdly, consistent once you think about it.  I could “armchair psychiatrist” the reasons behind it all day: Donald Trump finds dictators easier to work with than democracies with all those rules; he not-so-secretly wishes that he had free reign to rule over the US the way these guys do their countries and is thus reigning vicariously through them; he admires the personality traits that leads one to be a dictator in the first place and so finds kindred souls among them – who knows?  What we do know, from many examples now, is that he is conducting a foreign policy that lacks both the wisdom and the honor of past presidents of both parties, and it’s leaving our allies, and potentially us, in harms way.

The danger of this foreign policy has become so evident that President Trump may have sparked a mini revolt in the Republican Party.  Lindsey Graham has threatened to work with Democrats in Congress to both demand the reversal of Trump’s decision and suspend Turkey from NATO if Turkey attacks the Kurds.  While this pushback likely won’t lead to a broader break between President Trump and his Congressional allies (up to and until the impeachment process reveals something that pushes them over the edge), it give a sliver of hope that some Republicans in power are still willing to put US interests ahead of partisan politics.  Let’s hope that trend grows and puts a very dangerous strategy in check.

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