Late last week, Donald Trump announced that some American troops would vacate a portion of Northern Syria. While doing so, and acknowledging that Turkey would likely move in to the vacuum, Trump warned, “[I]f 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!).”
It was bizarre. Naturally, Turkey has rolled in to Syria and tried to make fast work of the Kurdish PKK, who were crucially important as U.S. battlefield allies in the fight against ISIS. Much of the public commentary on this has been to utterly deplore Trump for his betrayal of the Kurds. Though, given our commitments to Turkey and the nature of the PKK, this was always going to be a fraught and unstable alliance.
Now Trump seems to be responding to the criticism and news reports of Turkish heavy-handedness. And he’s responding with… steel tariffs? Turkey does have a serious steel industry. And the U.S. imports some of it. But Turkey exports mainly to more local destinations like Italy.
It just feels random. Trump has been adverting that the United States was getting out of wasteful wars in the Middle East, but the mix of signals sent to Turkey — praise as a NATO ally, criticism as a power acting in Syria, and likely-ineffectual tariffs — seems to contain all the contradictions of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. In other words, I think what we’ve seen in the last week is Trump unleashed from his own advisors.