National Security & Defense

The America-First Chimera

A U.S. military vehicle behind the Syrian-Turkish border wall during a joint U.S.-Turkey patrol in northern Syria, September 8, 2019. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)
Trump’s rhetoric about ending stupid and wasteful wars in the Middle East is not matched by the reality of policy.

Over at Townhall.com, Kurt Schlichter heartily praises President Trump for his integrity. “Donald Trump came into office promising to not start any new wars and to get us out of the old ones our feckless elite had dragged us into, and now that he’s doing it in Syria, the usual suspects are outraged,” he writes. My friend Tucker Carlson sounded a similar note on his show the other night: “For once, Americans are coming home from a Middle Eastern tar pit, rather than staying forever, and we ought to be celebrating that.”

The president himself dressed up his decision in the language of America First.

But we’re not bringing them home. Just moving a few score men and their materiel to another part of the Middle East: Saudi Arabia. Nobody is coming home. Fooling our Kurdish battlefield allies against ISIS about our intention to protect them, and then signaling to our treaty-ally Turkey that it’s okay to move against the Kurds in northwest Syria — that’s hardly “non-interventionist.” That move is closer to nihilism than to neutrality. It’s certainly ruthless, but not realist.

Carlson and others who are now praising the president are right that some of Trump’s critics have an inconsistent attitude about our NATO partners. Gratitude for the fight that the Kurds put up against ISIS is warranted. In fact, one could argue that our tactical alliance with the Kurds was driven by anti-war sentiment; they were the only fighting force on the ground who would sign on to the condition that they use U.S. weapons against only ISIS, not Assad. But some of the responses to Trump’s decision also lack perspective on our history and our current posture in the Middle East

“We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake. #TurkeyIsNotOurFriend,” tweeted former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. But of course Turkey is our ally, too. Turkey hosts American nuclear weapons. It has a huge number of armed military personnel and a real ability to project power. In 2012, then–secretary of state Hillary Clinton said that Americans were indebted to their Turkish allies and would not allow Syria to become a haven for Kurdish terrorists. If abandoning the Kurds is bad for American credibility among our allies today, why wasn’t our similar abandonment of 2012 promises to Turkey equally undermining? The PKK that fought alongside us against ISIS does not even represent all Kurds; it is opposed by many Turkish Kurds and has bad relations with Masoud Barzani, the most prominent Kurdish nationalist in Iraq.

But Trump’s upsetting of the hawks should not be taken as a victory for doves. Trump’s rhetoric about ending stupid and wasteful wars in the Middle East is not matched by the reality of policy. Trump expanded the already expanding use of drone warfare under Obama. He loosened rules of military engagement, meaning that the U.S. pace of killing people in unauthorized and unpopular conflicts has gone up under Trump. Under Trump, the rate of bombing in Afghanistan is dramatically increasing, as we pass into the 18th year of war in that country. Trump ditched the Iran deal and has given a green light to Saudi Arabia to continue its belligerent policy across the region.

In fact, the only consistent thing about his foreign policy is that Trump seems to think he’s being clever and currying favors by turning a blind eye to human-rights abuses or encouraging a foreign government to do something disgraceful. These governments tend to pocket U.S. concessions and give nothing in return. Trump flatters Kim Jong-un, but the Korean Peninsula has not denuclearized. Trump tells Chairman Xi that while the two countries conduct their trade war, he will not criticize the Chinese government for its human-rights abuses. Meanwhile, China spreads conspiracy theories that the Hong Kongers are a cat’s-paw for American subterfuge. Trump signals to Erdogan’s Turkey that he is fine with a major incursion into Syria. But what is the U.S. getting out of this foreign policy?

Those who hoped to see President Trump implement a more restrained foreign policy have little to be cheerful about as we head into election year. Trump promised last December to bring about America’s exit from the Syrian war, a complex conflict in which our allies are each other’s enemies, and our enemies are each other’s friends. He was stopped by his advisers. He’s feeding tweets to doves and other advocates of restraint. He declared victory over ISIS, but no American military personnel have come home. I suspect that many of the people cheering him this week know better, that on a revised foreign policy in the Middle East, Trump is all talk and no action.

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