National Security & Defense

Trump’s Middle East Strategy and the Kurds

Kurdish security forces ride in a military vehicle in Erbil, Iraq, July 23, 2018. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)
There’s a problem with getting too close to Turkey.

President Trump is right to dismiss the “freedom agenda” in the Middle East. Long experience has disproved that idea that, under the umbrella of U.S. military might and with American encouragement, tribal Muslim societies with medieval and theocratic cultures and institutions will transform themselves into free democratic republics. Instead of an Arab Spring, we got years of jihadi civil war, culminating in the ISIS scourge of violence and terror.

With the ISIS fanatics largely (though not entirely) brought to heel in Syria, and all other reasons for having U.S. troops in the Middle East exhausted, Trump aims to bring the troops home. As Hudson scholar Michael Doran argued in a recent, widely read Mosaic article — with Walter Russell Mead concurring in the Wall Street Journal — this doesn’t mean Trump has no Middle East strategy. Doran notes that Trump is trying to forge a Sunni–Turkish–Israeli coalition as a realpolitik counterbalance to Iranian power in the region, rather than leaving a vacuum for jihadists to fill, and argues that this is the right strategy.

But there’s a problem with getting too close with Turkey, one that the strategy’s advocates acknowledge but have done too little to address: the country’s treatment of our allies the Kurds. It is a matter of national honor not to abandon our allies to slaughter, as we abandoned the Montagnards after Vietnam and our translators and spies in Iraq. It is disgraceful that, as Henry Kissinger has said, while it is dangerous to be an enemy of the United States, to be its friend is fatal.

Certainly we ought to do something to try to protect them from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Doran writes, but he doesn’t specify what this is. Both National Security Advisor John Bolton and Trump himself, meanwhile, have issued categorical demands to Erdogan for specific protections for the Kurds.

You can see from Erdogan’s ferocious outrage over these demands — he wouldn’t even see Bolton when he came to Turkey recently — the fatal flaw in the Doran-Mead argument: Turkey is not our friend. Erdogan, as Mead quotes Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as charging, is an anti-Semitic dictator. In fact, to my mind, the speed and determination with which he has dismantled Ataturk’s secular state and turned it into a Muslim sharia regime shows that admitting Turkey into NATO was as foolish a miscalculation of the striped-pants liberal globalists as letting China into the World Trade Organization. Admitting power-hungry dictators into the global club does not transform them into rule-abiding, contract-respecting, peace-and-freedom-loving liberals. It just opens the door to subversion of the West.

There is a better realpolitik strategy here, an old-fashioned balance-of-power one. We shouldn’t merely be protecting the Kurds, which will require at least some U.S. troops. We should clandestinely continue arming them, training them, and encouraging and supporting their aspirations to be a semi-autonomous region and, ultimately, the full-blown state of Kurdistan, extending from somewhere in Turkey — from Elazig in the northwest is ideal but a pipe dream — through the northeastern corner of Syria and Irbil in Iraq and as far east to Mahabad and Bakhtaran in Iran. These Sunnis will no more become democratic republicans than the rest of the Muslim world will — and as Mead points out, getting Sunni states to cooperate is like herding cats — but the Kurds are warlike, fierce in their devotion to independence, and bound to be a thorn in the sides of their neighbors, at least two of whom are our enemies, especially Iran. Perhaps we can enlist the clandestine help of the Israelis, particularly since the Kurds helped rescue the Iraqi Jews more than half a century ago (albeit for money, not love), and particularly since realpolitik in the face of Iranian expansionism and Russian opportunism in the region is making strange bedfellows.

There’s no need to stop being friendly to the Turks, but being in bed with them is a geostrategic error.

Myron Magnet, editor-at-large of City Journal and a National Humanities Medal laureate, is author of Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution, to appear in May.

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