Donald Trump’s decision to suddenly and recklessly withdraw American troops from northern Syria in order to allow the authoritarian government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to send in the Turkish military to attack the Syrian Kurds is a betrayal of a brave and faithful US ally, unconscionable and incredibly damaging to American interests and credibility. But it’s more than that. The decision is the worst foreign policy decision of the Trump administration, one that further destabilizes a chaotic country and an unstable region while benefiting adversaries and outright enemies of the United States. But it’s more than that, too. I’ve studied world politics for nearly twenty years, and I’m convinced that this is the worst foreign policy decision in American history.
I know this sounds like hyperbole. As bad as the Syrian decision was, we can immediately think of US actions or inactions that have had much higher death tolls or have been shown to create long-lasting repercussions: the Vietnam War, Bill Clinton’s choice to ignore the Rwandan genocide, and George W. Bush 2003 invasion of Iraq all come to mind. And yes, the results of these decisions were deadlier (even if the long-term impact in Syria remains to be seen), and thus stand as deep stains on the legacy of America. So do other examples with lower immediate death tolls: the 1961 Bay of Pigs or the Libyan intervention of 2011 were less immediately lethal but set in motion chains of events that became increasingly destabilizing and dangerous over time. Yet, analyzing these foreign policy disasters ultimately allows us to see why retreating from Syria and abandoning the Kurds was a unique mistake in US foreign policy history.
Why do we remember policies like the past failures listed above? Each of these examples, and others like them, cannot pass some major test by which we tend to judge foreign policy. Several policies have failed to achieve their goals, and sometimes failed spectacularly. Many decisions may have been well-intentioned, but suffered from poor planning or improper execution based on bad information, weak resolve, or incorrect assumptions. Barack Obama rightly wanted to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from committing a massacre in Libya, but didn’t figure out what to do after taking out the dictator. Fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s was a useful strategy and may have hastened the collapse of the USSR, but it inadvertently armed and trained groups who would become the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Bay of Pigs invasion against Cuba could have weakened the threat of communism in the western hemisphere; instead, it embarrassed the United States, pushed the Castro regime closer to the communist world, and was part of a chain of events leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world came to nuclear war.
Others policies succeeded in accomplishing their goals, but at an unacceptable or immoral cost. During the Cold War, the US propped up many right-wing dictators while sponsoring coups that took out leftist leaders in countries such as Chile and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These policies resulted in suffering or death for millions of people in these countries, but they served the purpose of maintaining reliable Cold War allies. Similar policies have been employed since the Cold War, supporting dictators to maintain stability, restrict religious extremism, or guarantee access to oil or valuable markets. These policies come at a high cost, usually paid by people in other parts of the world, and they often breed long term resentment against the US, but they work for the immediate purposes for which they are intended.
The line between these two tests – effectiveness and ethics – is not always clear, nor are the measurements of these two criteria. Did the Bush administration accomplish what it wanted to do in Iraq? If the goal was the neocon vision of remolding Iraq and the Middle East as bastions of democracy, then clearly they failed. If the goal was the more immediate motive of removing Saddam Hussein, a bad actor (and the man who once tried to assassinate W’s father), then it clearly worked, but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and thousands of Americans as well. Was unleashing the horror of nuclear bombs actually the least lethal way to end World War II, or just an expediency that did not take into account any consequences other than American lives? Really bad policies, like the many escalations of the Vietnam War, fail both the effectiveness and the ethics tests – the tactics used to hold onto South Vietnam, from My Lai to Agent Orange, were immoral and often criminal, and in the end they failed – Saigon still fell.
But even these failing policies pass a third test: they had a purpose that served some interest of the United States. That purpose could be noble (protecting innocent lives from slaughter by the forces of Gaddafi in 2011), dubious (was the 2003 invasion of Iraq about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein, or oil? Looking at the policymakers in the Bush administration who influenced the decision, that answer probably varied from person to person), or cynical (Bill Clinton succeeded in preventing a single American life from being lost in Rwanda, and all it cost was half a million Rwandan lives instead). Yet these policies were all meant to do something to benefit the country; the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Vietnam War, though disastrous in hindsight, were intended to stop the spread of communism and thus the influence of our geopolitical rival; if they had succeeded, they could have conceivably made America safer or more secure in some way.
Donald Trump’s Syria decision is the worst decision in US foreign policy history because it fails all three tests. It fails to make the US, or its soldiers, safer. It’s the height of naivety to think that the chaos set off by Turkey’s invasion, the resurgence of ISIS, and the boon given to the embattled Syrian regime will not create a situation that will draw the US back into military conflict in the Middle East or fighting terrorism against Americans and their interests. The “never ending wars” that Donald Trump has referenced in his Syria decision are not inevitabilities; they’re the outcomes of specific choices, choices like this one.
The Syrian decision was also clearly immoral. For all the nonsense about the Kurds not helping us in World War II, they’ve surely helped us over the last several years. In the midst of situations in Iraq and Syria with no good solutions, America’s partnership with the Kurds in these two countries served as the best option available. Instead of American troops continuing to be in the midst of bloody wars and losing their lives (as they did in Iraq) or trying to feebly fight these wars from afar, the Kurds provided a brave, reliable, non-radical and loyal fighting force who, for reasons of their own (sharing a common foe in ISIS, and being able to establish semblances of the Kurdish state they’ve sought for decades) chose to ally with the US.
The Kurds stuck with that alliance as they sacrificed thousands of their lives to fight the Islamic State and protect minorities such as the Yazidis and the Christians of Syria and Iraq. The Kurds, contrary to the way that Trump has tried to rewrite their efforts over the past week, even sacrificed their own interests in order to serve the interests of the US and its allies: they removed the fortifications they had built along the Syrian/Turkey border at the request of the US (which was trying to placate Turkey, which obviously did not work out) based on the promise that the US would protect the Kurds against the possibility of the Turkish army invading. The US made promises, and then broke them. This is not the first time that the US has abandoned allies: Vietnam again comes to mind. It’s not even the first time the US has abandoned the Kurds. George H.W. Bush encouraged them to rebel against Saddam Hussein, but declined to back them up when they did, and they were slaughtered by the Iraqi regime of the day. But those past betrayals don’t make this one any less reprehensible.
But Trump’s decision stands in a category of its own because it was ineffective, immoral, and also completely without purpose. To anyone who wants to defend this move, I won’t even ask you how this makes the US or its allies safer, because it clearly doesn’t. I’ll ask you a more fundamental question: how could this decision have possibly served any legitimate interests whatsoever? Is there any scenario, any hypothetical in which suddenly withdrawing from northern Syria at the behest of Erdogan’s request to go in and attack the Kurds doesn’t result in exactly the disaster that occurred? Is there any way that it doesn’t harm our allies (the Kurds), our credibility as a strategic ally, and the lives of innocents caught in the crossfire: the Kurds themselves, the civilians of Syria more generally, and future victims of the Assad regime and ISIS? Is there any way this benefits anyone other than Bashir al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, not to mention ISIS, which is currently resurrecting after having been severely wounded and largely contained with the help of the Kurds?
Every American president has had an identifiable outlook on foreign policy. For the first century or so this more or less consisted of expanding American territory and political hegemony in the Western hemisphere while otherwise following George Washington’s advice to avoid “foreign entanglements.” This changed with the dawn of the 20th Century – the Spanish-American War briefly left America with a fledgling colonial empire stretching as far as the Philippines – and WWI brought foreign policy to the forefront like never before. Different presidents responded in various ways. Some guided their actions based on grand theories of the world: Wilson’s liberal internationalism, Nixon and Kissinger’s Realpolitik. Others had less in the way of grand strategy but relied on certain tactics: George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama were, in different ways, multilateral pragmatists. Teddy Roosevelt spoke softly and carried a big stick; Ronald Reagan, confronting the Soviet Union, chose louder words and even bigger sticks.
Worldviews could change according to time and events: after the downing of an American Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia in 1993 led to a firefight that left 19 Americans dead, Clinton refused to use American military might except from a safe distance, thus intervening in the former Yugoslavia by air but not in Rwanda, which may have required significant numbers of boots on the ground. His successor, George W. Bush, initially pledge to dial back even the Clinton era “nation building” until the events of 9/11 caused him to engage in just such projects on a massive larger scale in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even if there were few commonalities in the principles upon which past US presidents relied, there was at least a consistency that there was some guiding logic shaping their policies. This notion does not apply to the Trump administration, as evidenced by his Syria decision.
This decision was not merely wrong (in both the strategic and moral senses of the word); it was also, at best, incomprehensible. There’s a reason that even Trump’s most ardent allies in Congress and most blindly devoted supporters among the voting population have questioned this decision. It was immediately, obviously doomed to make things worse for America and the world, and only benefit terrorists and dictators. Again, the decision was at best nonsensical, and at worst sinister. One need not see Donald Trump as a Manchurian candidate to understand why Vladimir Putin wanted him to win – Donald Trump caters to dictators.
Why Trump does this is an open question, or at least a multiple-choice one: is it because he envies the power that authoritarians wield, respects the toxic masculinity and plutocratic tendencies that define strongmen and monarchs, or simply because he is susceptible to the type of flattery that dictators can offer because they are not constrained by the dignity and popular oversight that comes with democracy? But whatever combination of reasons there may be, Trump has consistently, almost gleefully used American power to do the bidding of authoritarian regimes like Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. He’s even praised the leadership of adversaries like China and North Korea, all while consistently spitting in the faces of American allies such as the non-Turkey members of NATO: confronted with the reality that ISIS fighters are escaping detention in the current Syrian chaos, he’s essentially said that this is Europe’s problem, not ours. This is not the language of an ally.
It seems that the best case scenario going forward is one in which the situation in Syria and across the Middle East does not become radically worse: Syria remains the violent stalemate it’s been for years, Russia’s growing influence and ISIS’ resurgence are limited, and the Kurds mostly survive. But any improvement that happens in the Middle East from here on out will be in spite of President Trump’s withdrawal, not because of it, and many ways in which the region could have advanced have now been sabotaged.
President Trump has been trying, ad hoc, to defend what appears to have been a hasty and appallingly poorly-thought out decision, and he’s thrown out many attempts at justification: that we’ve spent enough lives and money in the Middle East, that the Kurds have not been important allies, that the Middle East will always be at war, and so on. These various rationales are all paper-thin, filled with falsehoods, misrepresentations or false dichotomies. At last weekend’s Values Voters Summit, where President Trump tried out many of these justifications in front of a friendly crowd of Evangelical Christians, he eventually revealed what I believe were his true thoughts about the decision to withdraw: “let’s see what happens.”
This is not a policy statement; it’s a callous disregard for consequences and a stunning abdication of responsibility. Even American isolationism after WWI, over the pleas of President Woodrow Wilson, could be explained by weariness from a war that cost over 100,000 American lives (out of a US population one-third the size it is today) and the existence of a world that, although more globalized than it ever had been in the past, was not nearly as interconnected as it is today. In 1918, the idea that America could withdraw to its massive home territory, safely between two oceans, seemed feasible and even consistent with most of the country’s history. In 2019, this type of isolationist thinking is pure fantasy.
And it’s not even a fantasy that Donald Trump believes; remember, this Syrian withdrawal comes mere weeks after announcing that America will be sending more troops to Saudi Arabia, a decision that both places American soldiers in the middle of an ongoing conflict between the two biggest powers in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and also echoes the policy that Osama bin Laden used as justification for his jihad against America culminating in September 11, 2001.
There is no plan here, no consideration, no morality and no strategy. To call the US withdrawal from northern Syria a blunder underplays the human suffering already happening, and that to follow. This is a disaster, and a completely avoidable one at that. Various presidents of both parties have made bad decisions throughout the history of this country concerning America’s role in the world. This one was the worst so far.
Dr. Christopher Rhodes is a lecturer in Social Sciences at Boston University.
Article pictures by Gage Skidmore, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 (Trump), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Flickr, public domain (Erdogan), kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 (Putin), mash-up by Jakob Reimann, JusticeNow!, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.