Jeet Heer* – The Nation
The Middle East mess requires diplomacy, not Trump’s green-lighting of Turkish aggression.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on occasion the most undiplomatic of diplomats, a trait that has the virtue of making some unpleasant truths visible. On Monday, he tweeted about a conversation he had with his British counterpart Dominic Raab in which they discussed “Turkey’s plans to potentially invade Syria.” This is unvarnished reality: not Turkey’s plans to intervene in Syria or to create a safe zone in Syria, but “Turkey’s plans to potentially invade Syria.” That was the plan Donald Trump green-lighted on Sunday night in a conversation with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan when Trump agreed to withdraw American troops from Northern Syria who had been serving as human shields for the Kurds organized as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Syria remains a divisive issue on the American left, with a vocal anti-imperialist faction arguing that Trump’s removal of troops should be welcomed, while others believe that solidarity with the Kurds requires continued intervention. The anti-imperialist argument is hard to credit in the face of Pompeo’s blunt acknowledgement that his government has given its imprimatur to open territorial conquest.
Donald Trump often talks about bringing to a close America’s endless wars, but there’s no reason for anti-imperialists to welcome his foreign policy, since Trump’s goal is to reassert American power by other means. Trump acknowledges that American military presence in a few danger zones is too costly—but he doesn’t want to replace an overextended empire with an America that engages peacefully with other countries through diplomacy. Rather, Trump believes that he can achieve the same goals as the existing empire by befriending autocrats and making deals with them. Some of these deals, like the bargain he struck with Erdogan, are themselves threats to peace.
Equally destabilizing is the erratic way in which Trump makes his decisions, often tottering back and forth like a drunk so that other world powers have no idea where he’s going to land.
Betraying the Kurds
Trump first hinted at his possible betrayal of the Kurds in a press conference at the United Nations when he took a question from a reporter he called “Mr. Kurd.” The president was effusive, “We do get along great with the Kurds. We’re trying to help them a lot. Don’t forget, that’s their territory. We have to help them. I want to help them. They fought with us. They died with us. They died. We lost tens of thousands of Kurds, died fighting ISIS. They died for us and with us. And for themselves. They died for themselves. They’re great people. And we have not forgotten. We don’t forget. I don’t forget. What happens someday later but I can tell you I don’t forget. These are great people.”
Most of this statement seems like it is strongly pro-Kurd, but it also contains a strange clause that was in fact a verbal escape hatch: “What happens someday later but….” In this torrent of words there is a suggestion that Trump wasn’t as fully committed to protecting the Kurds as his hyperbolic words would indicate. There was no guarantee about what could happen “someday later.”
In December of 2018, Trump tried to remove American troops from northern Syria only to receive pushback from his secretary of defense, James Mattis, who resigned soon afterward. But the conflict with Mattis did delay Trump from taking action until this week.
Even now, Trump seems to be wavering. After being accused by Republican supporters like Senator Lindsey Graham of destabilizing America’s position in the Middle East, Trump took to Twitter with one of his strangest tweets: “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” Yet even as he issued this truly bizarre warning, Trump continued to make friendly overtures to Erdogan, pushing ahead with plans for a White House visit by the Turkish leader.
We can reject Lindsey Graham’s militarism and still argue that Trump’s helter-skelter foreign policy is dangerous for the world. As Ishaan Tharoor of The Washington Post noted, “What distinguishes the current moment of Kurdish betrayal from earlier eras is perhaps its seeming strategic incoherence. On Monday morning, officials in the Pentagon and State Department voiced bewilderment over the president’s tweeted announcements; reports suggested that neither the SDF nor other U.S. coalition partners on the ground were given warning of Trump’s decision.” A president who makes life and death decisions on the fly, with no advance warning given to people who had staked their very existence on the promises of the American government, is one who is making the world much less safe.
Blame for the Syrian mess doesn’t rest just on Trump’s shoulders. On Tuesday, Senator Chris Murphy wrote a thoughtful Twitter thread on how the ultimate problem was that American governments, including that of Barack Obama, relied too heavily on a military solution rather than diplomacy.
“Our real interest all along was defeating ISIS,” Murphy noted.
And with the Turks unwilling to help, and our justifiable reluctance to send hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops into Syria (creating another Iraq-like disaster), we rightly turned to the Kurds and the SDF to do the job. But we knew that this would enrage the Turks (and it did), but we just closed our eyes to the coming political nightmare. We had 1 (yes, ONE) diplomat in northern Syria for much of 2015-17 trying to figure out the politics of post-ISIS northern Syria. Had we had less hubris and focused on ISIS’s defeat AND worked from the start with Kurds/Arabs/Turks to create a post-ISIS governance structure, we could have at least had a shot to avoid both the prolonged nightmare of the civil war and the coming slaughter of the Kurds. But much of DC refuses to learn the lessons of Iraq. U.S. intervention in the region tends to make things worse, especially when we lots of military tools and not enough diplomatic tools. Yes, Trump will have blood on his hands, but this disaster was years in the making.
Trump, no less than George W. Bush or Barack Obama, prefers military solutions to diplomatic ones. What distinguishes Trump is merely that some of his military solutions are offshored, as in the stamp of approval given to Turkish aggression. This is not a policy that can be called anti-imperialist. As Djene Bajalan and Michael Brooks pointedly asked in Jacobin, “Would a US pullout that facilitates a Turkish invasion truly be a victory for the cause of peace? And considering Turkey’s longstanding membership in NATO, would it even be a blow to US imperialism?”
Trump is doing nothing more than fanning the flames of regional violence. The only way forward is for Congress to step up to the plate and challenge Trump’s foreign policy while also letting Turkey know that there will be a cost to slaughtering the Kurds. Beyond that, America needs a post-Trump president willing to invest in diplomatic solutions rather than simply giving the thumbs-up for his fellow autocrats to invade other countries.
*Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent at The Nation and the author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014).