The Corner


‘Decline Is a Choice’

A Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighter is seen in Tal Abyad, Syria, October 13, 2019. (Khalil Ashawi / Reuters)

“America First” is Donald Trump’s slogan, or one of them. Lindbergh and the pre-war isolationists used it first. Pat Buchanan revived it in the 1990s. And Trump picked it up in 2016.

He tweeted it just yesterday, apparently in explanation of his decision in Syria. The entirety of the tweet read, “America First!” We will see. We will see whether Trump’s policies redound to the benefit of the United States or not.

In these past few days, I’ve been thinking of Charles Krauthammer, who said, “Decline is a choice,” and explained why. For America, decline is a choice, for sure. It is not inevitable. Left or Right or both together can choose it.

A headline from the Associated Press reads, “Russia moves to fill void left by US in northern Syria.” (To read the article, go here.)

The chief foreign-affairs correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov, retweeted a Russian video. He commented, “Russians have fun exploring the hastily abandoned American military base in Syria.” And he quoted a Russian on that base — the man who made the video: “Yesterday it was them and today it is us here. Let’s see how they lived and what they ate.”

Brett McGurk is an American ex-diplomat, who has been heavily involved in counter-terrorism. He now teaches at Stanford. (Years ago, he clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist.) Recently, he has been in the Gulf, “where the split screen of Trump’s shambolic withdrawal from Syria and Putin’s state visit here and across the Middle East is searing perceptions of a new balance of power in the world.”

I have quoted one of McGurk’s tweets, and you can follow him here.

Many Americans, I know, are pleased with the new state of affairs. “Let the Russkies and others get bogged down, not us,” they say. “Bring our boys home.” This is perfectly understandable. But, though you may withdraw from the world, the world does not necessarily withdraw from you. We have learned this lesson to our sorrow, over the generations. But the lesson never sticks, of course.

It has been painful, for some of us, to read about events in Syria, particularly given the American role in these events. A green light from Washington. A Turkish invasion. A U.S. retreat. The killing of our Kurdish allies (former allies). The freeing of ISIS prisoners — “caught after years of painstaking effort,” as McGurk says.

I think of David Pryce-Jones, a senior editor of this magazine. During my years as managing editor, I asked him to write many, many pieces and editorials, and he always did so, with alacrity. Only once did he demur: when I asked him to say something about Vietnam, after the American defeat and withdrawal. It was too horrible, he said.

Years ago, I heard people say, “It is dangerous — positively dangerous — to be an ally of the United States. It can be more dangerous to be an American ally than a foe.” Bernard Lewis, the late Middle East scholar, was one of the people who said this. I have thought of him, and that, in recent days.

I have also thought of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who liked to quote, “First, do no harm.” In foreign policy as in other fields, do no harm, above all.

What has Donald Trump done? I quote David French, who tweeted the following yesterday: “Ten days ago our nation enjoyed an alliance with the Kurds and a strained but longstanding alliance with the Turks. Now, the Kurds are fleeing to Assad, and our relationship with Turkey is at a terrible low. It’s actually hard to be that bad, that fast, but Trump did it.”

Yes. Trump is apparently trying to remedy some of this by imposing economic sanctions on Turkey. It reminds me a little of his policy on agriculture — our “Great Patriot Farmers”: Sock them with tariffs, then make up for it with subsidies. It is better not to blunder in the first place.

As he was turning his back on the Kurds, Trump said that “they didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us in Normandy.” My view is this: If you’re going to betray allies, just do it. You don’t have to be cute about it. You don’t have to add insult to injury, or death.

Trump is in grandiose rhetorical mode, with capital letters, all-caps, and exclamation points: “We have become a far greater Economic Power than ever before, and we are using that power for WORLD PEACE!” That was a tweet on Sunday. Isn’t that what beauty-pageant contestants say — “world peace”?

Claire Berlinski put it succinctly, and soberingly: “The alternative to American hegemony is not peace. It is war.”

Trump and Trump Nation always say that American primacy has hurt the United States while helping everyone else. This is the “America as Victim” claim. In truth, we Americans have been the chief beneficiaries of U.S. primacy, not least in economic terms. But American primacy has been a boon to the world, true.

Once, I mentioned to John Bolton that people in various countries were complaining about us Americans. He said, “They’ll miss us when we’re gone.” Truer words were never spoken. When China, Russia, the Jihad, and possibly others fill the void, people in every corner will holler for Uncle Sam.

Did you see this, from the New York Times? Visual proof of how Putin’s men targeted hospitals in Syria. (By the way, this was excellent work from the failing Fake News Enemy of the People.)

Last Thursday, Senator Rand Paul tweeted, “If we can save one American soldier from losing their life or limbs in another senseless middle eastern war, it is worthwhile. @realDonaldTrump knows this. Yet the bloodlust of the neocons knows no bounds.”

I will say a word about “bloodlust.” This was a constant charge, and lie, of the Left; now I hear it more from the Right. In the bad old days, when Donald Rumsfeld was serving his second tour as secretary of defense, I said to him, “What do you say to those who say that you like war?” He said that he and his wife, Joyce, made visits to Walter Reed Hospital, where our servicemen were being treated. Some of them had their faces seared off. No, he didn’t like war. But he had views on the American interest, and this is where the debate lies.

Let me end this too-long post with Michael Reagan — who yesterday said, “Trump walking away from the Kurds could cause conservatives to walk away from Trump in 2020.” No way. Or rather, I seriously doubt it. As people often tell me, “the definition of ‘conservative’ has changed.” Many on the right don’t think of Reagan and Thatcher; they think of Trump and Orbán (or worse).

Yesterday, Orbán met with Erdogan, who thanked him for Hungary’s support of him on the world stage. Of course.

To be continued . . .


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