The Problem with Trump’s ‘Normandy Doctrine’

President Donald Trump gestures to the news media as he returns from New York to the White House, September 26, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
It’s not just absurd and unfair to the Kurds; it hurts American interests.

To justify his backstabbing of America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, President Donald Trump cherry-picked a line from a op-ed that supported his stance. The piece, by Kurt Schlichter, an Army veteran and author, was a fairly reasonable argument that while the Kurds may deserve our sympathy, they are not entitled to be protected from Turkey at the cost of American lives. But it will be chiefly remembered for a hyperbolic line in which he sought to remind those criticizing this debacle that the Kurds are not a military power with the status of a longstanding ally. “Let’s be honest,” he wrote. “The Kurds didn’t show up for us at Normandy or Inchon or Khe Sanh or Kandahar.”

Trump, seizing on anything he could find in the face of fierce bipartisan criticism, quickly echoed the line to reporters: “As somebody wrote in a very, very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the Second World War. They didn’t help us in Normandy, as an example.”

The ensuing controversy wasn’t terribly different from those that have followed many other outrageous Trump utterances: The president’s opponents labored to point out his mistakes, while his supporters merely ignored it as just one example of how easily he trolls his critics.

The New York Times and other outlets published fact-checking articles, all of which agreed that the president, as is often the case, didn’t know what he was talking about. Kurdish forces were not present during the Allied assault on Adolf Hitler’s Fortress Europa for the very good reason that they didn’t have a state or an army and, like numerous other peoples, weren’t given a chance to formally participate in the Second World War, let alone the D-Day invasion. Trump had been unfair to the Kurds, to put it mildly, and his opponents in the press had been given a bit more ammunition with which to hit him.

Lost in this familiar cycle of outrageous presidential statement followed by mainstream-media condemnation was the grave substantive foolishness of Trump’s capitulation to Turkey — and the seriously troubling implications of conditioning American military and logistical support on a country’s actions in World War II.

First, the decision itself. Schlichter erred in presuming that Trump’s two choices, when confronted by Turkey’s desire to invade Syria and decimate the Kurds, with whom they’ve warred for decades, were either to back down or yo go to war. America has always had plenty of options short of ordering its soldiers to lay down their lives for Kurdish interests. American warnings had, to this point, deterred Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan from invading northern Syria to attack its Kurdish enemies in contravention of a clear U.S. interest. Allowing the Turks to have their way with the Kurds was not only dishonorable; it was, potentially, a gift to ISIS. Coalition forces in which the Kurds had played a crucial role had largely defeated the Islamic State. Throwing the Kurds under the bus telegraphed to the region that being friends with the Americans is a bad bet.

As for Trump’s “Normandy Doctrine,” the idea that your country can’t be eligible for U.S. assistance or allyhood unless it was on the roster of forces at Dwight Eisenhower’s disposal 75 years ago, is not only ridiculous but unsustainable. If it held, the number of countries with whom the United States is allied or even on friendly terms would be very small indeed.

That is, of course, the point of this aspect of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. Trump ran on a pledge to end U.S. involvement in foreign wars, especially those in the Middle East. He sees alliances as being purely transactional in nature and has, at times, expressed frustration with the commitments to small nations —whether it is the Baltic States that live in fear of Russian aggression or the Kurds — that come with being the world’s only true superpower, the nation that others depend on to promote stability if not complete peace.

The problem for Trump is not his willingness to listen to his neo-isolationist instincts. Rather it is that his desire to extricate America from the Middle East cuts against three other key goals of his regional policy: defeating ISIS, pressuring Iran and scrapping the nuclear deal it signed with the Obama administration, and maintaining strong support for the state of Israel. He couldn’t beat ISIS and seek to isolate Iran and bolster Israel against its enemies while withdrawing from the Middle East. He chose appearing to do the latter over doing the former, endangering the success of his pressure campaign against Iran and potentially giving ISIS the opening it needs to make a comeback in the process.

Victorian statesman Lord Palmerston was an open nationalist like Trump. His rule that nations have only permanent interests rather than permanent alliances is compatible with Trump’s “America First” credo. But if we’re judging whether it is in the interests of the United States to back certain friends over others, then it’s clear that the Kurds are every bit as useful to America today as the Brits and the Canadians, let alone the French, were in Normandy.

Seen in this light, the “Normandy Doctrine” is merely an excuse with which any friend of the United States — including the Kurds, who have, despite their small numbers and the danger they have faced, proven both faithful and useful to American regional interests — can be discarded on a whim. Far from an expression of nationalist self-interest, it is a pretext for withdrawal not so much from potential wars but from the policies that will do the most to prevent them. Much like Barack Obama’s ignominious retreats from Syria and Iraq, which Trump has correctly pegged as the primary reasons for the rise of ISIS, the president’s foolish decision to abandon the Kurds may set in motion a chain of events that will drag him or a successor back into war in the Middle East.


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